recently aired its season finale on PBS, bringing a flawed and sometimes infuriating fourth season to a close. The finale was gauzy and jam-packed with stories, and it eventually went nowhere like most of the season.
After the premature departure of Dan Stevens and his leading man Matthew Crawley, the show was dealt a heavy blow. Downton Abbey got back to its feet this season, but just barely.
Yet I don't think we can lay all the problems of season 4 at Stevens' feet, or even most of them. Instead, we should look to creator and showrunner Julian Fellowes for answers on some of the most inexplicable and inexcusable plotlines.
In no particular order, here are some of the things which made season 4 the worst visit to Downton Abbey yet:
A controversial story for the sake of being controversial, Anna's rape added nothing to an already overstuffed season. Instead of using the opportunity to delve into the realities of sexual assault during the time period, the rape was used instead to deplorably spice up the drama.
This could have been a good moment to show how sexual assault was viewed at the time, to point out victim blaming, to deal with the mental and emotional repercussions for Anna, and to show how far we've come and how far we have to go. Instead, it was mostly used as a wedge between Anna and Bates.
Actress Joanne Froggatt gave some top-notch performances in a storyline ostentatiously about her character, but actually not about her character at all. Instead, the rape storyline only furthered the darkening of Mr. Bates, giving him something new to glower about. Instead of exploring her emotional well-being or getting insight into her feelings, Anna's reaction was mostly just to worry about Bates being driven to murder.
Rape is a terrible thing, and if you're going to include it as a story element, you should be sure it will be treated with respect. Fellowes failed in a major way here.
Mary's Many Love Interests
This season, Mary was hounded by not one, not even two, but three separate love interests. Evelyn Napier, Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake were all after Mary's hand in marriage. The season left us off on a cliffhanger about which beau Mary will choose, but honestly, are any of these guys interesting enough to invest in as a character? They're plot devices, not human beings, and therefore it's hard to care about who she chooses.
Matthew Crawley was a three-dimensional character who had a place on the show and even often existed outside of his courtship with Mary. Could the same be said about any of Mary's new love interests?
Instead of throwing a million men at Mary to see what would stick, the show would have been better served by investing time and effort into introducing a single love interest and working to make him an interesting and multi-dimensional character.
If I was Rob James-Collier, I would be calling my agent right about now. After a lovely turn last season full of fine work during Thomas' homosexuality storyline, the character was easily slotted back into his villain role with no explanation.
His character arc is one of unexplained regression, making it hard to understand why he's being such a jerk face all the time or to even care about it. And that's when Thomas even shows up at all. He spent most of the fourth season shoved to the side twirling his mustache, so the audience really had no idea what was even going on with him. Last season proved that the actor and the character deserve more than this shoddy storytelling.
Too Many New Characters
Tying into Mary's many suitors, the season in general suffered from shoving too many new characters at the audience without any reason we should care about any of them. Personally, I still hadn't warmed to Ivy or Alfred and now you're asking me to care about Rose, Jack Ross, all of Mary's suitors, Edna Braithwaite, Isobel's new squeeze, Carson's old friend and Sarah Bunting?
By packing the season full of new characters and new faces, we're never given time to get to know any of these people. Jack Ross was the chance to introduce an exciting and interesting kind of character, someone with a completely different background and different experiences from the stuffy drawing room crowd. Unfortunately, Jack Ross didn't feel very different at all. He was just another in a long line of besotted suitors who fell by the wayside. We had no time to explore his background, to delve into his world or to get to know him as a character.
Like Anna's rape, Downton Abbey's first black character was merely a gimmick. That's a shame, because exploring the experiences of people outside the white upper class could have been a valuable and interesting use of the show's time. At the very least, it would have broken up the repetition, since Downton loves to recycle storylines.
The only exception to the new character rule was Baxter, the new and mysterious ladies maid. Perhaps it's because her background still remains shrouded in mystery or because the season (probably more by necessity than design) played a slow burn with her character. By the end of the season, Baxter felt more like a fully-realized character than "flapper" Rose.
The Stories Went Nowhere
In my recap of the season 4 finale
, I equated this season of Downton Abbey
to empty calories. They might be sweet and tasty going down, but they're ultimately unfulfilling. Season 4 opened up more storytelling avenues than it could possibly service and then dispersed with them in a seemingly random fashion.
By the end of the season, almost nothing felt like it had been resolved. What of substance happened in Downton Abbey this season? What moved the story forward? Where is the story going? After nine (or eight, if you count by the PBS order) episodes, I couldn't answer any of those questions.
Leave Edith Alone
Dear lord Julian Fellowes, Edith is down. Please stop kicking.
Where's the History?
Downton Abbey is a historical drama, but this season there was precious little history. In the first season, we had the sinking of the Titanic, the women's movement and the beginning of World War I, just to name a few.
As the show has plugged along, it's grown more insular and less interested in relating the characters to the larger outside time period. There are small nods to the period and mentions of events happening at the time, but they're barely more than dropped references.
Last season was all about the frightening prospect of change after the war, and yet very little has changed at Downton. We've visited a few jazz clubs, but have seen very little of the flapper culture. Rose was supposed to take us into the 1920s youth culture, but she never seemed to embody the individualism and rebelliousness of flappers.
The time period is so rich with interesting details and yet Fellowes isn't painting with all the colors available. Instead, we spend too much time in the hallowed halls of Downton, watching the same family drama unfold in different configurations.
What do you think? Am I crazy or crazy correct? Did you enjoy this season? What were your issues with it? Sound off in the comments!