onsdag 5 mars 2014

Downtonathon: series four follow-up II (or, a plotter without a cause)

A virus is descending and putting a whole new meaning into "fevered imaginings". I'd better get cracking before I'm completely floored. But I just have to finish what I started: hopefully the subject matter will give me strength.

Here, then, are my remaining predictions for Downton Abbey series four and how they worked out:

Alfred leaves - but may possibly fall for Daisy first: YES. What took them so long, though? I never thought Alfred would last the whole series (excluding the Christmas special). To be fair, he was more bearable this time around than in series three, but I probably only think that because he got quite chummy with his old enemy Thomas (what would Auntie have said, after having given up her only friend for him?). His behaviour towards Daisy remained hard to stomach, and the crush on Ivy was just plain silly. It was highly satisfactory that, once his eyes were finally opened, Daisy turned him down, and in such a noble and forgiving way too that he couldn't possibly complain about it. You go, girl!

Talking of going girls: did anyone see the write-out of Ivy coming? I didn't. Maybe the actress got another part (though it must be hard to find a job better than Downton: ask Dan Stevens). It seems a bit of a cop-out otherwise. Newbies, as I've said before, need a bit of time to gain the amount of sympathy enjoyed by The Old Downton Guard, and it wasn't Ivy's fault that she was stranded in an uninvolving storyline of under-plotted romances. She might have done better had she stayed around for a while.

A housemaid and/or a nursery maid make their mark: NO. There was hardly a sight of one. A pretty nursery maid pushed the pram containing Sybbie when Thomas and Nanny West had their first dust-up, but she wisely chose to stay silent. After Nanny West left, her replacement was not endowed with a personality: instead, she faded into the group of Background Servants.

A confusing - but necessary - element of Downton is that the household contains more servants than the ones the story focuses on. I don't think this was the idea to begin with: judging from Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey, Fellowes originally pared down the staff so as to be able to focus on them all (in a house of Downton's size, eight would have been the usual amount of footmen, not two). This became untenable after a while, though, because the household is so huge. Hence hall boys to whom we haven't been formally introduced turning up in cricket teams and shadowy maids helping the unmarried girls out (the girl who plays Madge, sometimes talked about but seldom seen, must feel a little bitter). But now when Ivy has left - and will maybe be replaced by a Background Servant - might there be room for a housemaid to come to the forefront again?

Thomas and Miss O'Brien are reconciled and once again become the perfect double act: ALAS, NO. Oh, how I miss Miss O'Brien! Even when she was plotting against rather than with Thomas, she was a darned sight easier to have around than the duds who've followed her. I do see why Siobhan Finneran left - she got a plum part in another series - but her parting is much regretted, leastways by me.

It's true that by this time, Thomas has enough savoir faire to go it alone as a villain. He was hampered in this series, however, and not just by O'Brien's disappearance. Having had a strong, redemptive storyline at the end of series three, it was hard to get him back into bad guy mode convincingly. He can never be allowed to become as black a sheep as he was in series one: on the other hand, Downton needs a baddie, so like it or not he has to step up to the mark. His position is not made easier by the fact that he has fulfilled his goals in life, at least where his career's concerned. As an under-butler, he cannot rise higher in the Downton household (at least not until Carson retires): he's even placed a bit higher than Bates. What's there for him to plot about now?

As a result of these circumstances, Thomas did a great deal of water-treading in this series. His ousting of Nanny West was marvellous, and I also hugely enjoyed the Truth Game scene with the spiteful Edna. But otherwise, he's stuck in a long-drawn-out storyline - still not resolved - where he tries to get O'Brien's and Edna's replacement, Miss Baxter, to spy for him (to find out what exactly?). Miss Baxter had all the hallmarks of a defecting baddie sidekick from the word go. In spite of Thomas getting her the job, after she has been out in the cold for quite a while, she shows precious little sense of gratitude and addresses him in tones of barely-suppressed loathing. We're supposed to wonder whether she will spill the beans regarding what she's heard and guessed about the Bateses' situation to Thomas, but it is pretty clear that she never will.

Maybe in this case this is just as well for Thomas: there are some things it is better for an under-butler not to know and be tempted to rat about. Nevertheless, I'm not a great admirer of defecting baddie sidekicks - say Micawber or, even worse, Newman Noggs and I shudder - and in the role of potential Thomas ally I even preferred Edna to Miss Baxter. She may not have liked him, but at least she was prepared to keep her part of a deal. Baxter plainly isn't, and the "Tell me what you know - No, shan't" scenes between her and Thomas are getting wearying. (But I have to admit the Baxter-Molesley romance is sweet.) Another unrewarding plot-line for Thomas was his suddenly flaring resentment towards Branson - where did that come from? It's not unbelievable in itself that he should resent Branson, but if that were the case, surely we would have seen more of it before?

Not that there's not some mileage to be got even from weak Thomas plot-lines. His self-deprecating mud-slinging scenes are great, even when we don't really know why he's mud-slinging in the first place. He may do a lot of smirking in the background while more substantial drama goes on around him, but he does it very prettily. I do hope there's something better storywise lined up for him in series five, though.