Tom Branson played by Allen Leech on "Downton Abbey." (Matthew Lloyd / For The Times )
Where is a dead Turkish diplomat when you need one?
As we approach the midpoint of “Downton Abbey’s” third season, I am increasingly concerned the show has lost its ability to surprise. I find myself nostalgic for the long-ago days when you never knew who might slip on an errant bar of soap, die from ingesting rat poison, or carry on a same-sex affair with closeted members of the nobility.
What was so seductive about “Downton Abbey” the first time around was how it offered all the usual trappings of British costume drama, while also indulging the more prurient impulses of the contemporary viewer. It was like watching an unexpurgated version of Jane Austen, with all the usual gossip over marriage and money, plus actual sex. It was surprisingly juicy for a show about a bunch of toffee noses.
The war washed away some of the show’s giddy fun and somewhere before the Armistice “Downton Abbey” crossed the line from familiarity to predictability. Now the gloom lingers – just ask Ethel and Bates – and so far there are few surprises to be had.
Lord Grantham is shocked to learn of his son-in-law’s possible involvement in the destruction of a stately home belonging to a landed Anglo-Irish family, but can any of us honestly say we expected Branson to do anything but become a terrorist? Let’s not forget that a few short weeks ago he was making casual jokes about blowing up the entire Crawley family. Of all the caricatures on “Downton Abbey,” Branson is by far the broadest, a living, breathing pull-string doll who only ever seems to open his mouth to utter some nationalist pabulum or revolutionary cliché.
So when, seemingly out of nowhere, Lord Grantham began to mouth off about Catholics (a.k.a. “Johnny Foreigners”) to the visiting Anglican archbishop, we all knew Branson would come a-knockin’ on the door in no time and that trouble was on the horizon. Sure enough, he did and it was.
A stand-up guy if ever there was one, Branson has left Sybil (who by now must be about 18 months pregnant) behind in Dublin while he runs from the law. Thanks to Grantham, Branson will stay out of legal trouble, provided he never returns to Ireland. It’s a possibility that seems as remote as him getting a tattoo of the Union Jack on his butt. Although Branson’s hypocrisy is quite breathtaking – he flees from the smoldering ruins of one ancestral home then hides out at his wife’s family estate--what really blows my mind is Grantham allowing him to stay. He might as well give him a can of gasoline and a box of matches while he’s at it.
No less surprising is Edith’s half-accidental decision to become a suffragette, but at least after the beating she’s taken these last few seasons, she finally has something interesting to do. Miffed that she can’t eat breakfast in bed like her married sisters and not quite desperate enough to take up gardening, Edith decides to heed her grandmother’s tough-love advice (“You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do”) by writing a letter to the local paper. (In 1920, only landed women over the age of 30 could vote, as Edith explains with some clunky expository dialog.)
The Crawley sisters have a bit of a rebellious streak in them, so the question now is how far Edith will take her new-found activism. Is she going to be a rich dilettante -- a jazz-age version of Lindsay Fünke – or are hunger strikes in the offing?
Naturally, Grantham has a conniption fit when he sees the letter in the local paper. I’m beginning to think he might be the most inconsistent character on this show: His youngest daughter is married to an Irish radical and alleged arsonist, and yet what really gets him freaked is Edith’s polite public support for women’s suffrage? Has he always been this stupid, or is Julian Fellowes trying to make a point about the obliviousness of the aristocracy in the postwar era?
As we all surely knew it would, tension begins to emerge between Matthew and his Downton Abbey “co-owner.” Matthew now calls Lord Grantham “Robert,” a circumstance which reflects their equal status but nevertheless feels vaguely scandalous. Matthew is resistant to returning the house to prewar staffing levels, but Carson insists, mostly because he’s sick of doing the lowly work of a footman. In the world of “Downton Abbey,” it’s the servants, and not the aristocracy, who are the most vocal defenders of an outdated class system.