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.