The PBS aristocracy drama made courtship fascinating, but the committed relationships that resulted have been deathly dull. It didn't have to be this way, though.
The post contains spoilers for the most recent two episodes of Downton Abbey to air in America.
"People like us are never unhappily married." Such was the Dowager Countess's typically pragmatic advice on this week's Downton Abbey as Lord and Lady Grantham struggled in the wake of their youngest daughter's death. But while the dwellers of the estate may not be unhappily married, this season has proven that they can certainly be boringly married. With each passing episode, the unpleasant truth about Downton Abbey becomes clearer: This show is terrible at romance. Or at least at sustaining it once the lovers in question have walked down the aisle.
Take what's arguably the most shocking plot twist to date, Lady Sybil's death following childbirth. Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur she ran off with last season, stood by her side, but his reaction and the tragic end of their upstairs-downstairs romance barely registered. The truly heartbreaking moments came from other members of the Downton crew: mother Cora sitting vigil by the bed, the tearful reaction of the staff below to the death of everyone's favorite upstairs resident, and the image of the indomitable Dowager Countess slumped and saddened in her mourning black.
My interest in the Sybil/Branson pairing had waned long before her death. Likewise, the great romance between imperious Lady Mary and heir to the estate Matthew Crawley—one of the central pleasures of the show in the first two seasons—has been reduced to endless marital squabbling about money and redecorating (although it was gratifying to witness a rare moment of tenderness between the two in Sunday's installment.) Meanwhile, sweet maid Anna was finally successful in her quest to clear valet husband Bates of the murder of his ex-wife, but the only relief I felt was in being released from this excruciatingly dull storyline.
The problem is that we almost never see these couples interacting outside the confines of their designated post-marital storylines: Branson's revolutionary zeal, Matthew and Mary's differing opinions on how to run Downton, Anna and Bates vs. the evil murder-framing ex-wife. Whatever chemistry once brewed between the pairs has been squelched by the demands of their plot contrivances.
You could argue, as show creator Julian Fellowes does in spoiler-filled article that I will not link to (OK, fine, illegal downloaders, here you go), that the characters are made to suffer and to pine, and we would soon tire of watching them wallow in domestic bliss. But that is a feeble excuse. At its best, Downton Abbey is a wildly entertaining study of traditions and social mores and the fabulously costumed people who stand against the tides of change. Although the series has abandoned any hint of its early nuance in favor of operatic drama, my favorite Downton moments have always been the small ones—like Sybil showing up to dinner in a pair of harem pants, or the Dowager Countess doing battle with a swivel chair.
It was the quiet scenes of kindness and shared understanding that made Anna and Bates so easy to root for before they descended into dull martyrdom. Likewise, Mary and Matthew's spirited wit and mutual admiration didn't have to die once they were married. The PBS Masterpiece Classic crowd is accustomed to period dramas and literary adaptations that end with weddings (Jane Austen may have been on to something by never giving us a scene of Elizabeth and Darcy bickering over a new color scheme for the drawing room), but Downton has an intriguing opportunity to reveal the inner lives, fears and desires of these couples once the formalities of courtship have been dropped. Instead, the show has opted to continue wringing out the same tired storylines.
Nowhere is the dearth of passion of more evident than in the characters' sex lives. I cringe thinking back to Anna and Bates's stilted pillow talk the morning after their wedding: "Well Mrs. Bates, you've had your way with me." (Blech.) Or when Lord Grantham inquired about the honeymoon and Matthew creepily intoned, "My eyes have been opened."
As poorly as Downton does marriage, it excels at courtship and intrigue—such as the case of the dashing foreign visitor, Mr. Pamuk, who in Season One paid a clandestine visit to Lady Mary's bedchamber. None of the awkward encounters between the partners have managed to match the heat between Mary and the doomed Pamuk, and that interlude resulted in a corpse. Somehow, the mantle of most interesting will-they-or-won't-they couple has been picked up this season by kindly housekeeper Mrs. Hughes and upright butler Carson. At this point I'm much more interested in watching the sparks (sedately) fly as they make toast together than I am in witnessing any of the established couples in action.
I'm also tempted to make old maidish middle sister Edith my new Downton Abbey heroine, particularly as she is in the process of transforming herself into an opinionated lady writer for the Downton Town Crier, or some such publication. Acquitting herself admirably after being jilted at the altar, Edith may have had the line of the season when she declared, "Spinsters get up for breakfast."
Given the alternatives presented, a girl could do a lot worse.