Because he wants to avoid writing about the romantic mundaneness of a contented couple, Julian Fellowes takes the viewer through unnecessary and illogical plot twists, tormenting the characters most deserving of mercy. When a character is well-rounded, and the details of his or her life filled in, the plot lines tend to write themselves. In an interview regarding Dan Steven’s, who played Matthew Crawley, departure from Downton Abbey, Fellowes stated, “nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness. When two people are happy, that’s it.”
So we’ve seen with Fellowes’ treatment of John and Anna Bates, the couple who won’t die and he won’t allow to be happy. As I read reviews and recaps of episodes this appears to be the chief complaint, along with Lady Mary’s ability to impeccably act out man’s inhumanity to man.
Fellows wrote Mr. and Mrs. Bates to be virtuous characters, full of good will, who have seen hard time and find in each other a blessed relief, a kindred spirit. They remind each other and call each other on in virtue. To see this couple continually beset upon invokes uproar among viewers because they deserve some relief. When we see the innocent suffer in real life, we get angry with God, though God is not guilt. When we see the Bates’ suffer in Downton Abbey, we get angry with Fellowes, and well we should.
Their troubles are unrealistic and out-of-sync with the characters that have been created for them. Mr. Bates married unwisely and so had to face terrible circumstances that came out of that. Upon his release, upon their reunion and move into a cottage, what would logically happen? They might have had children; they might have faced illness. They face difficulties the world throws at them; they face it together; they become stronger for it. When they do it with style and wit, the viewer is engaged, happy and entertained.
In the first three seasons it was simple to be carried along by the stories as they were engaging, beautifully styled and wonderfully acted. Upon the sentimental, orchestrated death of Matthew Crawley, who unwisely looked up at the sky in joy as he went on his way (he did not watch how the lead died in City of Angels, it seems), I became acutely aware of the puppet master, trying to make work Stevens’ professional decision to leave the show. When Anna was raped, I became frustrated. It was done for drama, because to just leave the Bates’ alone to be happy, would be too dull for J. Fellowes. What a shame.
I love the look of the show. As many others, I’m mad about the clothes and the setting. I keep going back despite deep dissatisfaction. It’s a missed opportunity. Fellowes had wonderful characters. We might possibly be witness to a softening of Thomas’ spirit through Baxter (who, like Molesley, like the Bates’, like Tom, deserve all the goodness that can come to them).
Speaking of missed opportunities, especially opportunities to create drama, whatever happened to Rose’s wild days? While Mary had to account again and again for her fall from virtue, Rose never seemed to have looked back. It seems a strange plot hole to me, but as Fellowes himself said, perhaps more about his perspective than his viewers, in Downton Abbey: Text Santa “nobody cares.”
I hope in the next series, Fellowes will lighten his hand and allow the mundane moments of one maid instructing another on how to fluff pillows without an attitude shine through. There are so many moments of inspiration in this show, and so much that can be done with the wonderful characters he has created. I just hope he will take the time to let them show through.