In Episode 8, Season 1, of “Downton Abbey”, Bates is confronted with the accusation that he has stolen some bottles of wine. Bates says something like, “no one has ever seen me touch a drop since I came here”.
In the so-called science of “statement analysis”, this would be a dead giveaway: he doesn’t say he hasn’t touched a drop– only that no one has seen him touch a drop. Why does he not say he hasn’t touched a drop? Because he’s not sure of that; he’s only sure he hasn’t been caught yet. It’s as if, accused of murder, the suspect blurts out, “you couldn’t possibly have seen me do it”.
Except, in Downton Abbey, we know that Bates, who is turning into a bit of a sanctimonious character, is as innocent as the driven snow.
A lot of dramas want it both ways. Thomas and O’Brien are fun to watch, at first, but it’s no fun watching Thomas openly abuse William and everyone else in the house. In real life, he’d have been sacked very quickly, but then we wouldn’t have had the fun of watching him continue to needle William and try to frame Bates. Carson and Hughes are too stupefied to do anything about him?
It’s also a bit tedious to see Bates get away with saying that he can’t tell anyone why he was unjustly sentenced to two years for theft, just that he was, and if they don’t like it, they can fire him. This episode would have been dramatically improved if Lord Grantham had simply fired him like a plausible character would have. “Very well. I can’t help you if you don’t want me to or won’t take me into your confidence. I don’t have time for this: I’m afraid you’re sacked.”
Daisy, completely out of character, ruins the meals prepared by Mrs. Bird because Mrs. Patmore asked her to make sure the family misses her while she’s gone getting eye surgery. Daisy is cold-hearted enough to sabotage the meal, but not sneaky enough to lie about it when confronted? That might or might not be “possible” but it isn’t interesting: it’s a writer strong-arming his own characters into situations that provide titillating plot developments but undercut character.
I don’t mind Sybil considering a relationship with the chauffeur– I just don’t buy her behaving like a school girl, as if she has suddenly shucked off 18 years of upbringing and culture as if it were a hat. Remember — she did participate in her own “coming out” party, her “debut”. It would have expanded her character considerably if she had refused.
She has spent every day of her waking life dealing with servants who are expected to provide for her every need.
It also would have been far more interesting, as a story line, if Robert had had a chat with the chauffeur once he realized the Sybil has been lying to him about where she was going. Given his position and character, and given the obvious conundrum Sybil’s dishonesty would present Branson, he might have told the chauffeur that he was free to use force if necessary to prevent Sybil from attending one of those dangerous political rallies. That would have created a very interesting dynamic between the chauffeur, Tom Branson, and Sybil. Or he could have told Branson that he was not responsible if the lady decided to act recklessly. That too would have been interesting — Branson “not recommending” that her ladyship proceed and stating that he “won’t be responsible” if something goes wrong, and peevishly parking somewhere to wait for her. But Fellowes wanted the passing titillation of the argument between the two, Branson urging her to get back into the car, Sybil, without the slightest condescension, insisting on her own way. It’s a thoughtless, under-developed scene that could have been much more.
Is Downton Abbey now a soap opera?
It started out well. It started out as a period piece, like an extended “Age of Innocence”. Great acting, great filming, lovely sets and costumes. But then two or three things became clear. Firstly, that Fellowes wants to recycle certain themes and characters over and over again– like a sitcom, basically. Mary just can’t make up her mind about Matthew; Edith’s relationships, like Sir Anthony Strallan, get sabotaged by Mary– who seems bizarrely stricken by the idea of not confessing her role in the death of Mr. Pamuk. Mary? Who earlier mocked her own mother’s ideas of propriety and rules? Suddenly, she’s Karen Santorum?
Secondly, it appears that nobody connected with the show wants to spend the big bucks on a really remarkable scene like (we can only imagine) Sybil’s “coming out” party in London. We’re merely told about the affair. I recommend that you watch this episode carefully, stop your PVR or DVD player just before the scene in which they discuss the ball, and then pop “The Leopard” into your DVD player and watch the final ballroom scene from that movie instead. Then go back to Downton Abbey. (Dr. Zhivago has one or two great grand ballroom scenes; or try “Russian Ark”, a really extraordinary film that culminates with a fabulous ball.)
[January 30, 2012: there are scenes from the war, but they are rather chaste and extracted looking. Can’t blame them really– the budget just isn’t there, probably. But I can blame them for the ridiculous degree of reverence paid to all things military, especially the officers parading about, whining about how they don’t get to serve at the front. That’s not what this war was: it was precisely about officers like that ordering other people to the front to be maimed and gassed and slaughtered for reasons that have, as of yet, 100 years later, escaped most people. More appallingly, if you were not willing to blindly serve in a war with no purpose, they made you out to be unpatriotic or cowardly. ]