Sherlock and Downton Abbey could mean a new phase for Masterpiece, one
in which it can approach its classic subject matter in a fresh way. But
that transition relies on Masterpiece's ability to pick programming
that plays against type and steers clear of the plot developments we've
come to expect of both classic literature and Masterpiece itself.
Sherlock pulled it off by relocating a mystery staple to the digital
age, and after Sunday's finale it's become clear that Downton's
contribution to Masterpiece's transformation is the high quality of the
series' writing. And things are looking good. Here's how the finale
bodes well for a new kind of Masterpiece to come (Ed. Note: Spoilers
-Old people having sex almost save the day when the
Earl's wife, Cora, discovers she's pregnant (if it's a boy, the
family's future at Downton Abbey would be secure). This is a new twist
on the inheritance conflict, the resolution of which—in the Austen
tradition at least—is more commonly left to young, marriageable
characters over their asexualized elders.
also throws a much-needed wrench into the Matthew/Mary storyline,
which, after much pride and a rather hasty proposal, was in danger of
going the way of an Elizabeth-marries-Mr.-Darcy ending. Matthew wants
an answer to his proposal while Mary, the Earl's eldest daughter who is
actually kind of falling for him, wants to wait and see if Cora's
having a boy. If it is a boy, marrying Matthew would result in a
significant social demotion but if it's a girl, their marriage would
allow the noble Crawleys to stay at Downton. Needless to say, Mary's
hesitation pretty much dooms their chances—and complicates the classic
"marriage plot" that's a staple of so many Masterpiece programs.
Cora's vengeful and self-interested maid, O'Brien, proves that she may
actually have a heart. In a misunderstanding worthy of a soap opera,
O'Brien comes to believe that Cora is looking to replace her. She
spitefully leaves a bar of soap on the wet bathroom floor while Cora,
about four months pregnant, is in the bath. Cora slips, falls and loses
the baby—a boy—and O'Brien experiences a rare pang of conscience.
It was hard to sympathize with Oliver Twist's tormentors, but you feel
for O'Brien when she realizes Cora was never looking to replace her and
she's destroyed one of her and the family's only chances of staying at
-Finally, Sunday's finale solidified a sense that
Downton is really more dramatic timeline than period drama. With a
season that spans the years between the sinking of the Titanic and the
beginning of World War I, Downton grounds the changes of pre-World War
I England (the arrival of the telephone, servants leaving to become
secretaries) in a story that relies on historical perspective,
something that has long eluded even western literature's greatest
writers. Dickens covered poverty and social injustice, and Brontë
covered love and morality, but neither could have known what was ahead.
The writers of Downton Abbey do. They know that while modern audiences
may not relate to the strict social divisions of Edwardian England,
they can relate to a maid's desire to improve her situation by becoming
a secretary or a woman's desire to be free of the obligation of
marriage for survival.
It's a modern-day relevance I never saw
coming. Masterpiece has finally taken a wider-lens view to history and
I, for once, am eager to see what it comes up with next.