onsdag 9 mars 2016

It's the final Downton 1: General reflections (mainly underbutler-related) on series 6

Blimey, as the man himself might have said. Talk about a hard-won victory.

Yes, they've finally shown the whole of series - or season - six of Downton Abbey in the US, and I'm off the leash. Bear with me while I devote a couple of posts to the final lap of my favourite series of the 2010s: this could be the last time I have the chance to wallow in all things Downton. Maybe the last time. I don't know.

The hard-won victory is, of course, that of Thomas. I have the perfect excuse to make my comments on the Thomasy side, because so, in fact, was this series. Not all Downton characters can carry equal weight in every series, and this time around the meatiest storylines belonged to the two remaining Crawley daughters, in search of love, and to Thomas, in search of - well, a reason to live, basically. Other Downton regulars are as often as not caught up in auxiliary functions in these storylines, or waste time on the Hospital Plot, which had viewers all over the world rolling their eyes with boredom. Tom Branson turns up again with Sybbie in tow, which is a good thing in itself - Allen Leech has a knack of making this potentially irritating character endearing - but he spends most of his time matchmaking for Mary and generally being a sort of Jiminy Cricket for the girls. Thomas at least has something substantial to do. That's the good news.

Strewth, though, it was gruelling. Time was, when something bad happened to a favourite Downton character, you could comfort yourself with the thought that it would all be over in an episode or two. From series four onwards, however, the plot lines became more and more stretched out over time. Which is fine when it is a dramatically rewarding story being told, worse if it's not (the whole "who killed Mr Green" plot should really have been wrapped up in the series four Christmas special). Thomas's sufferings are dramatically rewarding - but did he really have to be put through the wringer during the whole series, until the light at the end of the tunnel appears in the very last episode?

There were two good reasons for making such a meal of Thomas's trials. The first was to make it believable that his despair should reach suicidal dimensions, even though objectively speaking he has been through worse things before without a thought of slitting his wrists - such as being spurned and hated by the man he loved and about to be dismissed without a character at the end of series three. Then, he talked of finding a job through a cousin in Bombay. Whatever happened to the cousin-in-Bombay plan this time around, one wonders?

The second reason (an excellent one, this) was to make viewers not already on Team Barrow accept that the new butler of Downton after Carson will be none other than wine-pinching, William-harassing, snuffbox-hiding, dog-napping Thomas. For this to happen, there had to be suffering followed by redemption, and judging by comments online - and some from the TV sofa - the strategy worked a treat. Those like me, who were quite ready to see Thomas end up in the top job long before the Earl first uttered "who needs an under-butler these days?", simply had to put up with it in a worthy cause. And it's not as if I mind a bit of road-to-redemptioning - just not so much of it. The upside was a sizeable number of Vulnerable Thomas scenes, and, it has to be said, it's quite nice not to be the only one going "Awww" when they appear.

The "longest underbutler-sacking in history" plot was a little hard on the characters put on Thomas-torturing duty. Take Lord Grantham. When it comes to Downton, you sometimes have to swallow a wobbly premise for the sake of its dramatic rewards, and the Earl's new-found enthusiasm for domestic economy was wobblier than most. Not only do we see the amiable gent who once upbraided Matthew for making Molesley feel useless ready to lay of staff even before it becomes economically necessary. I couldn't help wondering whether it was even within his remit to make these economies. Shouldn't household matters be left to the lady of the house? Did the Earl even discuss his staff-rationalising ideas with Cora? When she gushes to Thomas in the Christmas special "We'll always be grateful to you for saving Lady Edith from the fire", has she any idea how silly that sounds?

The manner the Earl goes about his economising is pure Grantham style, though, and one of several indications in this series that paternalism may not be all it's cracked up to be. (Remember Lord Darnley complaining about his family's "poky London house" while Mr Mason's about to lose the roof over his head - can you blame Daisy for being furious?) Of course, the Earl must have thought it was terribly nice of him to give a servant he was about to sack time to find another job - without reflecting on how impossible said servant's position would become if no other job was forthcoming. Furthermore, it's not just niceness that makes the Earl and Carson nudge Thomas out by degrees rather than just dismiss him with a good character: it's the wish to avoid "unpleasantness". The gradual sacking leaves them free to act as if it's not happening: Carson remarks in episode three that Thomas seems "disenchanted", as if he had no idea why; not long afterwards, the Earl has the barefaced cheek to read Thomas a moral lecture - twice - for landing Gwen in the soup (not to criticise Gwen, but wouldn't you?) and huffing over his "lack of generosity" - what, like getting rid of the man who saved your daughter's life when your finances don't even require it, you mean? Carson takes the biscuit with the comment "it's not quite fair on his Lordship to string it out" - not fair on his Lordship?

At least the Earl has some touching moments throughout the series, even if he doesn't cover himself in glory in the Thomas business. He sees off Mary's blackmailer, has a sweet encounter with a forward village boy ("more a philosopher than a thief") during the day the castle is open to the public and shows love and a growing respect for his problem child Edith. Poor Carson is less lucky. He has some marvellous scenes in the first episode, declaring his love for Mrs Hughes to Mrs Patmore. But then it's downhill all the way. Not only does his usual Disapproving Dad Act towards Thomas (not wildly helpful in the circs but at least understandable) harden to downright nastiness ("Then when do you need me, Mr Carson?" "When indeed?"). He also makes the audience-alienating mistake of opposing the wishes of his future wife when it comes to the wedding reception, then criticising her cooking and housekeeping (!) once they're married, and tops it up by being on the wrong side of every argument - even trying to stop the family aiding Mrs Patmore in her hour of need, after she has done so much one way or another to promote his marital happiness. None of this is out of character. Of course, a crusty old bachelor takes some domesticating before he can make a perfect husband, and you can see why Fellowes couldn't have the Carsons cooing happily for the rest of the series once they'd been hitched - there's not much drama to be got out of that. But Carson does have a more teddybear-like side to him which we saw precious little of in the final series. If this is so we'd mind less about his shaking hands in the final episode, it's pretty callous - but rather effective.

Right. Next time: a follow-up of my predictions for series six, and with it reflections on Mary and Edith and their romances. Just don't think I'm quite done with Thomas yet.