*****Warning! Spoiler alert!*****
It sure has been a busy year at Downton Abbey! We’ve seen old staff leave and new staff come, romances have blossomed and died, and the fate of Downton Abbey has been given to a strong, female character, who has more men falling in love with her than Maggie Smith has witty lines. But of course, it hasn’t all been fun and games. This was also the series where Julian Fellows crossed the line, where he introduced a dark, controversial storyline into this otherwise family-orientated show. Whether this was a mistake or not, only the ratings can tell, but Downton Abbey is certainly headed in a very different direction.
The main issue this series has had to deal with is the departure of fan-favourite Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who was a vital character. Luckily, his absence was plugged up with several new suitors: Lady Mary’s childhood friend, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), a reappearing suitor from series 1, Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks), and Napier’s aristocracy-hating boss, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden). With so many men in such a short time, it’s a wonder that Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) was ever worried about finding a husband. Personally, I will be rooting for Charles Blake. Him and Mary start the series disliking each other, but after a ludicrous situation including some pigs they seem to be getting on famously. Lord Gillingham may also have a chance, being the only one of the three to make his intentions known to Mary, and even calling off an engagement to wait for her. I don’t think Evelyn stands much of a chance, really, but it was nice to see him again in this series.
Another landmark that Downton Abbey has overcome this series is the introduction of the first black character, jazz singer Jack Ross (Gary Carr). His character is entertaining to watch, having the smooth talk and mannerisms that come with the jazz age. During the series, he embarks on a forbidden romance with Lady Rose (Lily James), which sadly ends with a broken engagement. This is a shame, as the issue of inter-marriage would have been an interesting topic for the show to tackle. But no. Julian Fellows would rather write about much darker things. Like rape.
And so he does. In a horrifying, distressing, out-of-nowhere climax, Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green (Nigel Harman), drags a screaming and struggling Anna (Joanne Froggatt) into a room and rapes her, while the rest of the characters sit happily listening to a song about love. The contrast was cruelly effective, and left viewers reeling in shock. It is understandable that Julian Fellows wants to tackle this topic, as female-servant rape was a large issue in the 1920’s, particularly in large manor houses. But to have this happen to poor, innocent Anna, who has never done anything wrong and has already been through enough issues, was just monstrous. If Fellows wanted to hurt us, mission accomplished. This plot was dragged throughout the series, getting resolved slowly and building up to what should have been an explosive climax in the last episode. It was not meant to be, however, as Mr. Green is mysteriously killed off-screen. As a viewer, I felt robbed of justice.
Another issue raised in this series is that of abortion. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) finally has herself a serious love interest in the form of Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards). She is happy with him, and intends to marry him after he has moved to Germany to divorce his insane wife. This set itself up to be a cute little plot, and a well deserved happy ending for poor Edith. However, it was not meant to be. By the end of the series, Michael has vanished and Edith is pregnant with his child. I’m sure he will turn up again in the next series, but Edith has to assume he’s gone. So it’s best for everyone if she gets the child aborted. Luckily she does not go through with it, but we do get a quick glance at a weeping woman who has just aborted her child. Instead, Edith plans to give the child away, which is just as heartbreaking for her.
These are the main plots that stood out to me this series, but of course there are many other happenings. We also get a little look at Carson’s (Jim Carter) past romance, and Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) shows up from time to time in various jobs. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) really impressed me this series, showing she is a strong, reliable character and putting truth to the phrase ‘if looks could kill’. On a negative note, I did not find Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) as funny and witty as she was in past series. Perhaps it was hard to find appropriate jokes with all the dark plots going on, but whatever it was I hope she’s back to her normal, wise-cracking self in the next series.
Hopefully the Christmas episode will solve a few more problems, and set up some issues for the next series. Of course, I say this with trepidation. Julian Fellows has shown us that Downton Abbey is not safe from disturbing issues. Who knows what else he’ll be shocking us with in the future?
Downton Abbey Season Four is available on DVD now. It will return on Christmas day for the Christmas special.