So, who else was surprised that they ended up loving Downton Abbey this season? After a couple of years of disappointment and incredibly annoying male characters (I think Robert and Branson competed for “male character I hate the most” while Sybil was still around), Downton Abbey managed to once again find its sweet spot of soapiness and addictive drama without ever-repetitive plotlines and the diminishment of its female characters. The love square with Ivy, Daisy, Jimmy and Alfred was a bit annoying, but even that was perhaps worth it, when it concluded with a beautiful, tear-jerking scene between Daisy and Mrs Patmore.
And that, I think, sums up a lot of this season of Downton Abbey. Suitors abound, we have some enjoyable scenes with pig farming, and occasionally people fret over their missing or otherwise unpredictable loves… but really, it was all about the show’s women, and their relationships with one another.
Of course, Anna’s rape plot has caused a lot of controversy, and I wasn’t particularly happy with how it was handled either. Bates’ attitude to Anna was at times supportive, but his anger issues meant that much of the attention shifted to him and protecting him from the truth, and I can’t find his potentially murderous ways anything other than selfish (after all, he wants to kill Green for his own anger, not because of Anna or her wishes at all). But I was also surprised by how sensitive and well-thought-out the rest of Anna’s storyline was this season. Her scenes with Mrs Hughes, and later with Mary, both women who want to protect her, who want to help her, but also listen to her fears and wishes, were fantastic, as was the fact that Anna was given plenty of time to be traumatized, to explore her emotions by herself and with other women. The narrative did not treat it as a minor event that could be pushed under the rug, or a problem that immediately became Bates’ issue… even if he took too much prominence for my liking in later episodes. It’s a difficult issue, because it was a violent and emotionally raw plotline, and could be considered unnecessary violence against women just for the sake of narrative drama, but if they were going to explore this issue, I’d much rather they did it as they did, instead of making it softer and easier to swallow. Less Bates, and a proper warning before episode three (warning for “violence” just makes it sound like someone is going to get shot) to help people who might be triggered, and it could have been a fully worthwhile storyline exploring a serious issue.
Meanwhile, Isobel was deep in mourning for her son Matthew, and surprisingly, it was her greatest critic, Violet, who ends up helping her recover. By the end of the season, their relationship is still somewhat snarky and tensioned, but there’s also genuine concern there, and something very like friendship, after they have cared for, supported and challenged one another throughout the season.
The absence of Robert for several episodes was also no disappointment, although Thomas was missed. Robert’s role in the show these days seems to be the old-fashioned, too-conservative man whose ideas on everything from running an estate to the role of women will be criticized and torn apart by everyone else, but his disappearance meant that we got to see the women of Downton interact on important matters without that push and pull.
And then of course there’s Edith, who I wish had been given more screen time in her post-Gregson world. The show touched upon the difficulties of being an unwed mother in the 1920s, and made blatantly clear that keeping the baby without Gregson’s return was simply unthinkable. Our trip to a backstreet abortionist was interpreted by some viewers as a good portrayal of the dangers women faced, and by others as too soft on the medical side, making abortion itself and not its risky nature here the focus of Edith’s change of heart. I tend to agree more with the former, although the scene was somewhat ambiguous. Either way, Edith’s plotline has not only given the show more chance to explore women’s lives in the 1920s, but also created ample opportunity for Edith to interact and connect with other female characters — something she hasn’t really done before. Rosamond went from a background character popping up for London storylines to a valued mentor and support system for Edith, and Violet’s quick understanding and determination to get herself involved was a similar breath of narrative fresh air in the final episode. She may be the stern matriarch of the family, being dragged, eyebrow-raised in disapproval, into the 20th century, but she is also a grandmother and a caring person, and it’s wonderful to see that supportive side of her.
With all this combined, the idea of counting the Bechdel passes in the show this season is almost laughable. From petty bickerings to discussions of important political and health issues, the women communicated with one another, made decisions, and generally led the show. Not to the diminishment of the male characters, of course — Branson received plenty of screentime (and was far more enjoyable than before), as did Carson and Molesley, and, to my disappointment, Bates. But the women were not pushed aside for them. And these women don’t fit any particular archetypes or play any particular roles. They are cold and detached in grief, cruel to their sisters, emotionally withdrawn, emotionally intense, sarcastic, squabbling, insecure, acting to spite their mothers, blind to the real costs of their actions… and also passionate, caring, supportive, intelligent, dedicated, generous, and loving.
In short, they are real, struggling people. And after starting the season unsure whether I really wanted to watch it (and initially giving up once I heard about Anna’s plotline), I’m now dying for more.