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Downton Abbey Season 3 Finale

The final episode of third season of Downton Abbey felt, in many ways, unresolved. With the exceptions of Thomas and Ethel, the stories felt like another step in the season arc, rather than the definitive end of a season of television. After eight episodes, Sibyl is dead and Bates has been released from prison, but nothing else feels particularly different.

However, after three seasons discussing the conflict between the old and the new, I felt that this episode finally pulled them together, creating alliances that will allow the household to move into the future. Branson has accepted that he too may need to make some concessions in his relationship with the Crawleys. Robert has accepted that they may need to experiment with the estate to keep it afloat. And we see everyone’s reactions to Thomas’s homosexuality.

Of course, no one called the men out on their treatment of the women or forced that to become more progressive, but… well. Baby steps.

This episode seemed to be all about the rivalry between the traditional and the progressive, and the appearance of progressiveness in many surprising places. Since I’ve settled quite comfortably into my complete dislike of Robert, it was surprising to see him not only willing to support Thomas against his accusations, but promote him to under-butler. For a man who is often stuck in his ways regarding the women in his family and his estate, to the point of seeming out of place and even unnecessary in the 20th century, his Eton background has left him surprisingly liberal in regards to homosexuality. Even Bates, who I openly despise, did a good turn for Thomas here.

In fact, the figure who represented unwavering traditionalism was Carson, and his conversation with Thomas, where the resigning valet listens to his dismissal and abuse and insists that he “isn’t foul,” was one of the most well-done and moving of the season. Over 90 years after Downton Abbey is set, I feel like we shouldn’t need this message any more. That it should be a relic of a bygone era. But that isn’t the case, and the more extreme persecution seen in history (but not often discussed in popular texts from that time itself) can help dramatize discrimination and views that are still in place today and allow us to challenge them. Downton Abbey pulled off a masterstroke by taking a character who (at least to me) was initially rather loathsome, and pulling us around to not only sympathize for his plight as a gay man in 1920s England but also even root for him and be pleased at his eventually safety and success. Far from being some kind of martyr figure, pure and kind and wonderful, Thomas is a very flawed, very human character with many horrid qualities, giving his story even more emotional punch when we finally come to sympathize with him.

Unfortunately, the women didn’t get much of a look-in this week. Edith has had a similar journey to Thomas, starting out as a petty, vindictive character and growing into an articulate, confident newspaper columnist. Edith began as an unlikeable figure because no-one ever gave her chance or reason to be likeable… she is the second daughter, who never had a chance at inheritance, who is more than a little ignored, and who has nothing to fill her life. As soon as she starts being, as she describes it, “useful,” developing skills and expressing her opinions, she grows into a more confident, assertive and sympathetic character, and her story is probably the one I’m most invested in. Again, the progressive triumphs over the traditional, as she expresses her views, not on “women’s things” (as female columnists are often restricted to, even today), but on any important political or social issue that strikes her. Unfortunately, her story was marred a little this week by that strange Jane Eyre-esque flirting editor, insane wife tale, which was explained without offering any resolution, and took Edith out of her confident, in-control writing persona and seemed to set her up as a woman doomed to be defined by her lack of luck in love once again. I love that Edith basically Facebook stalked her editor after he flirted with her, and that she was assertive in her response to him, but I would much prefer a future plotline of Edith coping with her growing career as a journalist, rather than another hopeless romance. Downton has offered us the traditional, long-term romance, and the rebellious daughter running off with the chauffeur. Even though it’s set in 1920, I would be excited to see something different. After all, not every woman marked her place in the world through marriage then either.

It’s sadly disappointing, however, that most of the male characters only manage to be compelling and likeable when women are taken out of the equation. Although homosexuality is certainly a contentious issue, Robert seemed more than willing to view it in a progressive way, while even the idea of his daughter writing a column is met with shock and distaste. As Matthew’s ally and a lower-class individual struggling to make things work with his new family, Branson is an interesting character. As the controlling, disapproving husband of Sibyl, he was kind of a jerk. And so on we go.

Downton Abbey is clearly a very liberal show, using the early 20th century backdrop to push for progressive ideas. Now if only the male characters could drop their blustering and admit mistakes in their attitudes to the female characters, I could like them a little more.


Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

6 thoughts on “Downton Abbey Season 3 Finale

  1. I’ll begin by saying that I am still a couple of episodes behind, so I haven’t watched the final yet (and I’m totally cool with spoilers). However, I agree with you when you point out that the men are only likeable when they are not linked with the women. I think this is so true for Downton in general (just see Branson, Robert, and even sometimes Matthew -urgh, the way he used Lavinia as an excuse for the million times and let himself hold the moral high-ground, trying to make Mary the bad guy, leaving the hard decisions to her), and I find it highly frustrating. I’m not really sure this is entirely due to Fellowes’ intentions. I think that to some point, the men have it easy (well, not exactly, but I’ll elaborate), at least those from upstairs. So I’ll qualify the statement that DA is a very liberal show. It is liberal, in many respects. The show does point out how ridiculous the society of the 1920s (and ours, through this lens) is, how its values are unfair. The women are clearly the best characters of Downton.
    But I’m still ill-at-ease with some aspects, and while the show contains some brilliant criticisms, I think it can be also somewhat restrained. Especially concerning Robert (and Matthew, a bit). Now, we have all seen Robert being criticized more than ever in this season, both directly (the scenes with Cora, the lunch at Mrs Crawley’s), but I still find him very privileged from a metatextual point of view. And it bothers me. His reaction to Mary’s rape starkly contrasts with that of Cora (due to the time gap); his adulterous behavior toned down by Cora’s comment (“I should not have neglected you”, blabla. Even if Robert didn’t put the blame on her -but could we possibly imagine ANYONE answer “Oh yes my dear, indeed”, I think it was a really lame move from the writers. It implicitly puts the blame on Cora). We are shown how paternalistic he is with his sister, something we should reject -and we do-. Yet he turns out to be right concerning Rosamund’s suitor. He did mismanage the estate, and it is stressed, but Matthew’s shitty move (like, as Mary said, it’s not as if they had just lost Sybil) does divert our attention on him and less on Robert. And the scene with Dr Clarkson assuring them afterwards that Sybil would have probably died… I was so pissed. It was underlined that he did not really lie, and I think it toned down a bit what was in my opinion one of the most powerful moment of the series: Cora holding Robert responsible for their daughter’s death. It sends such a powerful message, especially in today’s context. I don’t think this scene with Clarkson was necessary at all (even though the acting from Bonneville and especially McGovern was superb); as Sybil was dying, he did repeat as the other doctor sir Something pushed him that the risks were very high.
    Now, Robert’s behavior was denounced several times, but to me, he’s handled very differently compared to his downstair “alter ego” (for lack of a better term): Carson, the other conservative of the show. For the two characters are very alike in the values they share, I think. And I don’t find that there are many elements, metatextual or not, that excuse Carson’s actions. This is why I was afraid of how the story of Thomas would be handled – more specifically, how Carson and Robert would react to it; and I was right: a lot more is made to make Robert more likeable, whereas if you compare the ideas, the values they share, they are quite similar (even if I am aware they are two different characters). I SO saw this twist (I mean, Robert’s reaction) coming. But I don’t see why Carson wouldn’t have moments of kindness highlighted like that. His worries concerning Mrs Hughes were sweet, but he was portrayed in a harsher light this season overrall, and I spent a lot of my times being angry at him. I would be satisfied if it was the same for Robert, but somehow, he’s more metatextually privileged. I find the contrast between the treatment of Robert and that of Carson quite striking.
    So, even though classist ideas are denounced (through Thomas and Ethel for instant), as well as homophobic or sexist prejudices, the writers’ fascination with Robert bothers me. It had already bothered me when of the five characters fighting (or or supposed to fight) the war (William, Thomas, Matthew, Molesley and that other servant), it’s the one from the upper class that shows his bravery (Molesley turns out to be a coward, Thomas harms himself -a touching scene which does not put the blame on Thomas. But then again, we can compare with another character: Matthew, and that makes it unsettling) and comes out of it intact. One out of five, and the four come from lower backgrounds? C’mon. And it’s hard to root for Branson’s ideals when he burns down houses… So I think there still is a prejudiced fascination with the aristocracy in DA.

    Phew, this was long. I apologize if it’s a bit confused, but it’s an aspect of the show that has been bugging for a while, and even more so during this season. But I’d like to hear your opinion on that – am I alone on that one?

    (on a sidenote – I think it is the first time I ever commented on your blog, but I really like it. I find it insightful, pleasant and well-written)

    1. I hadn’t thought about the difference between Carson and Robert in that way before, but I think you’re right. Before this season, I feel like Carson was the friendly face for the traditional viewpoint — he had a no-nonsense attitude, but he was clearly an affectionate, caring person. This year, he’s become more of a tyrant when it comes to his old-fashioned perspective, and constantly challenged by others, while Robert is always let off the hook for his mistakes. I even felt like his resistance to the reform of Downton was twisted into a positive light recently, when it became less “poor me, my power is being taken away from me” and more “think of the people who rely on us!”

      And god, that Cora stuff in S2 made my blood boil.

      I’m wondering about Branson as well… when paired with Sibyl in the first season, the two of them seemed to have a very sympathetic approach to radicalism. But now he’s burning down houses and responding to the death of the Tsar and his family with “sacrifices have to be made”… it’s almost as if the show intended to make him an unlikeable jerk so that he could be “redeemed” when he adopted a more upper-class approach and came back in line with the Crawleys.

      Thanks so much for commenting! You’ve given me a lot to think about.

      1. Well, thanks! It’s been bothering me for so long, yet I have not seen this issue addressed a lot (granted, I enjoy the show but only read very few reviews). I’m glad I’m not alone.

        It’s amazing how the women on the show are so-well written (with the exception of Sybil. I hated how she became a non-entity and a foil for, well, everyone?) and how the men either bore me or infuriate me.

        I find the contrast between Carson and Robert all the more striking as the criticism of their values is stronger than ever in this season, and that’s why I’m extremely uncomfortable with this aspect of the show. The thing is, even though Carson&Robert have got some really shitty ideas, it was emphasized very early on in the show how they are both good people, and I think they are, but somehow the show doesn’t make excuses for Carson like it does for Robert, and I cannot come up with a reason for that, other than Robert is an aristocrat. It’s something I pay really close attention to, because one of my classmate was from old noble descendants (I’m French and have always lived in France), and it was amazing how somehow a lot of people, including clever ones, were completely under his spell. His manners may have been pristine, the packaging was pretty (and he was brilliant, so he knew how to play with that), but he was one of the most disgusting individual I have ever known. Yet people would most readily excuse his behaviour because of this twisted fascination, and to me, it’s the same thing at work in DA. It’s incredibly classist. That makes me hate Robert so much! I truly despise the scene Clarkson told Robert and Cora Sybil would have surely died. It was so unnecessary (I quite liked that, when Sybil was dying, it was stressed that the operation had little chance to succeed, so why that other scene…).
        The writing for Carson is very, very lazy this season; for Robert, much less so. It’s quite cliché to me how they used the discrepancy between the compassionate Mrs Hughes (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE her, and I find her evolution in S2 and 3 very subtle and interesting, but somehow I find her scenes of disagreement with Carson too simplistic), the progressive, sympathetic and understanding Woman and Carson, the much more traditionalist, stuffy Man without empathy. It’s too easy. Not to mention that Carson also sees his world changing completely (or should have, like Robert): after the war, a lot of these big British estates had great financial difficulty (the war was a terrible blow for the aristocratic system), I was actually surprised they did not have problems earlier. But that also means that a lot fewer domestics were employed after the war; it was a very hard time for domestics, and it was a turning point for them; their numbers decreased a lot during the war and after (William’s fathers remarks to Daisy are the only hints I noticed concerning that). Surely the staff of Downton would notice that, even if they still had their own jobs. Carson would have also a lot of reason to feel alone.

        I think your remarks about Branson was very on point. I was never keen on him, even before he treated Sybil that way (I’m personnally not big on communism). Historically (I’ve studied it a bit in my History class, but I’m not an expert), his black-and-white attitude is quite an accurate depiction, but still, without other progressive characters, his evolution is problematic. I think a bit of this fascination with the upper class has been transferred to Matthew, who can now teach Branson how to be properly progressive.

        It was really the way they showed the characters reactions to the war that prompted me to examine this dimension, because I have studied and still study it too, even though I’m more knowledgeable for the French side. The soldiers did show their soldirarity in the trench regardless of class, the social barriers collapsed a lot during the war. But Matthew is the one to highlight that, he is the one who shows an honourable, dignified behaviour (not in the subtler way either). And if I remember correctly, it’s right after that that Thomas has his hand wounded.
        I find Matthew still too goody-goody this season, but also in a self-righteous way. He bores me, even though I do not want to smash his head on the wall like Robert’s.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful analysis, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it!
    I was very disappointed that the crisis between Cora and Robert following Sybil’s death was resolved so quickly, it could have been an interesting arc.
    Just out of curiosity: would you mind explaining why you despise Bates? I’m sorry if this has already been addressed in one of your blog posts, I can’t seem to remember. He’s a character I have a very hard time making my mind up about.
    Like Anne this was my first time commenting here but I read your blog (which I came across because of your A Song of Ice and Fire – posts) regularly and enjoy it a great deal, so thank you very much for all your time and good work!

    1. Thanks! I must admit, my dislike of Bates isn’t based on anything particularly logical! I just can’t stand the martyr complex that he has, and find his “I am so hard-done by” persona to be grating. I actually really wanted it to be revealed that he did murder his wife, just so that we could get some more depth to him. Otherwise, he’s just a pure hero type, without actually doing anything particularly creditable or heroic.

  3. Thomas’ security about himself is very admirable to me. If everyone thinks of you as a monster, it’s not hard to internalize it and hate yourself, as many gays do even today, but not him.

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