TV Club

Downton Abbey review: Is anything really at stake?

What is actually at stake at Downton Abbey?

Bates is in jail
Bates is in jail, surrounded by criminals who hate him, and his big problem is … interrupted mail service

Photograph courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece.

There’s a certain strand of TV criticism that is obsessed with stakes—what’s on the line at each turn of the plot, what outcomes are viewers rooting for and against. Consequences, in other words. Judging from the conversations on the great Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, the people who create American TV shows also spend a lot of time thinking about stakes.

This week, Downton Abbey proved time and again that it is perversely determined to reduce its dramatic stakes to the lowest possible setting.

Let’s review this week’s plot developments: Bates is in jail, surrounded by criminals who hate him, and his big problem is … interrupted mail service. Ethel is a common prostitute, and her darling boy … is safe with his posh paternal grandparents. (It’s very sad, but she already has a powerful ally in Isobel Crawley.) Matthew discovers that the Downton estate, into which he has invested his recent windfall, is being mismanaged by his father-in-law, but there’s no attempt to describe the existential threat to the Crawleys’ way of life; instead Matthew’s biggest worry seems to be avoiding “putting people’s noses out of joint.”

Even the story line with the biggest real-world resonance—the Irish people’s struggle to establish an independent state—was reduced to a question of manners. It needn’t have been. Tom Branson’s hasty departure from Dublin left pregnant Sybil alone in a hostile environment, and Tom’s political activities put the police on his trail—I could almost see him joining Bates on York Prison’s mailbag assembly line. But just as soon as Julian Fellowes set up these legitimately terrifying possibilities, he resolved them swiftly off-stage: Sybil hopped a ferry to England and made it to Downton unharmed, and Lord Grantham saved Tom’s behind with a word to a friend in London. Sure, Sybil and Tom’s lives have been disrupted, but they’re out of danger. Now they’re living in a vast country home far from the Irish conflict, cosseted by servants, arguing about where their child will go to school and whether it was bad form of Tom to burn down a castle that belonged to someone who was presented at court the same year as Mary.

(By the way, Lord Grantham accidentally revealed himself to be a closet Irish republican. When he told Branson: “Good God almighty! You abandon a pregnant woman in a land that’s not her own?” he implicitly indicated that Sybil’s “land” and Ireland are not one and the same, which is exactly the cause that Branson and his comrades were fighting for.)

Salon’s Willa Paskin wrote that this week’s episode “revealed how deeply Downton has become not just a soap, but only a soap, which is to say a drama that is interesting only when big-time melodramatic events—like a wedding or an interrupted wedding—happen.” She’s right, I think. The strange thing is that British soaps consistently manage to turn everyday events, like infidelity and workplace intrigue, into high-stakes affairs. Last week, Hulu added Coronation Street, a British prime-time soap that is consistently the second-highest-rated show on U.K. television, to its lineup, and like a true addict, I inhaled 15 episodes over the course of a few days. Corrie is stuffed with silly, absurdly low-stakes plot lines—an epic feud between a taxi driver and a school crossing guard stretched out far longer than I ever imagined possible—but its classic soapy stories about extramarital affairs and meddling ex-lovers consistently carry serious consequences: lost paternity rights, homelessness, unemployment, and even death.

This makes me wonder if perhaps Julian Fellowes chooses to minimize the potential impact of Downton Abbey’s plot twists to distinguish his classy series from ongoing working-class soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders. If so, I think he’s making a terrible mistake. I can’t stop watching those shows. If stakes don’t get higher at Downton, why wouldn’t I stop watching this one?