In honor of tomorrow’s premiere, we are delighted to feature a sampling of artwork from Molesley, a Kevin Doyle Fan Page. To see dozens of other images of Downton’s cricket master, we encourage you to like their Facebook page.
Note: I have seen all of series five of Downton Abbey, which has two more episodes to go in America. This article does not contain spoilers for those episodes. I recommend reading my article on the implications of Matthew’s death as there’s some overlap in subject matter.
At its core, Downton Abbey has always been about change. Lord Grantham, Lady Violet, and Mr. Carson fight this at nearly every corner, while many of the show’s other characters welcome it. As we’ve seen from five series that cover a twelve year time span, even the British aristocracy cannot escape change. For the most part, that’s a good thing.
The natural progression of this change is a shrinking servant staff as Earls learn to dress themselves and pour their own tea. Nearly every servant, young and old have explored this change in mentality as they ponder their places in the ever changing dynamic. Despite this, we saw the cast expand in series three with the arrivals of Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy.
Seeing fresh faces at Downton coupled with the new aged business practices of Matthew and Tom breathed new life into the dynamic and suggested that Downton might be able to survive without sacrificing too much of the old world. Downton was hiring, not cutting back. Lord Grantham even created a new position for Thomas Barrow, creating the underbutler position to ensure that he could continue to be the man everyone loves to hate.
The youth movement was short lived. By the end of episode one of series five, Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy were all gone. No new footmen were hired as Molesley was left to endure the wrath of Carson alone. The kitchen features the occasional character helping out, but Ivy was certainly not replaced from a storyline perspective.
This kind of makes sense. Alfred left to become a chef, aware that there wasn’t much of a future in the service industry for a footman. Seeing Molesley struggle to find work despite having experience as both a butler and a valet must have reinforced that. Ivy similarly jumped ship for a new adventure, traveling to America to serve Cora’s brother Harold. Jimmy was the only one whose departure wasn’t linked to the changing times, having been dismissed after being caught in bed with Lady Anstruther.
Alfred’s departure can be easily explained. He needed to go in order to make room for Molesley, who was without a position at Downton. Linking his leaving to the changing times was an added bonus. Ivy wasn’t exactly in a position where she needed to go, but it’s pretty clear that her character was expendable and likely a waste of screen time. She was boring.
The only departure that didn’t really have an obvious motive belongs to Jimmy. That’s not to say that there wasn’t one. Ivy and Alfred were the two characters he interacted with the most, but there was still Barrow, Daisy, and to a lesser extent Rose. Problem is, there isn’t a lot that could have been done with them from a storyline perspective.
I suppose Jimmy could have had a relationship with Daisy, but that wouldn’t have made much sense. A relationship with Rose would’ve been too similar to Sybil/Tom (not that Fellowes is against repetitive storylines). There are limitations for how much Jimmy could do with Barrow as well. It’s not really hard to see why he was viewed as expendable.
The implications of their departures seem to matter more than the loss of them as characters. Not hiring a new second footman means that Downton has cast aside formality for practicality. They didn’t need two footmen, but does that mean there shouldn’t be two footmen?
A side effect of their departure was that it removed Downton as a future centerpiece of prosperity. The young people moved on and the old people need to make arrangements for retirement. Daisy’s storyline has been all about this, undoubtedly provoked by the departures of her peers.
This is where I think getting rid of Jimmy was a mistake. Even if there wasn’t a clear storyline for him, he was still worth keeping around for the sake of appearances. He made Downton look like less of a retirement community.
Fellowes has had no trouble going long periods of time without giving characters like Patmore and the Bates anything to do. Instead of doing that with Ivy and Jimmy, he sent them away. In doing so, he cast a rather premature spotlight on the inevitable direction Downton is headed toward. We know what’s coming. We just didn’t need to see it this early.
Series 6 is widely considered to be the last for Downton Abbey. My next DA themed article will talk about why that’s a good idea, but it’s important to understand why losing Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy made series 7 such an improbability. Killing the youth movement sped everything else up, a problem that will be further exacerbated by Rose’s presumed departure as the actress is filming Cinderella. There isn’t much else left to do but wrap things up. I’m not convinced that had to be the case all along.
Note, while I dislike spoiler notes immensely, as Downton Abbey is currently airing in America, I thought it was polite to note that this article contains minor spoilers through season five as it’s completed its run in England already.
It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since the abrupt car accident took Matthew Crawley away from Downton Abbey at the tail end of the season three Christmas Special. Perhaps it feels longer because of the drop in quality since the heir to Downton left the show. The excellent season five Christmas special shows that DA does have some life left, making now an appropriate time to take a look at how Matthew’s death changed the show.
Downton Abbey, being an ensemble drama, means that it’s hard to argue that Matthew’s death changed the storylines for every single character on the show, even though he was a main character. Matthew didn’t frequently interact with everybody on the show, making it hard to really say that his death impacted everyone equally. You could argue that he might have played a part in Mrs. Patmore’s dead nephew storyline, but you wouldn’t really say that his death altered her arc in any substantial way.
I’ve organized the impact of Matthews’s death on the cast by five tiers. I’m going to exclude Lord Gillingham, Charles Blake, and the rest of Mary’s suitors who were introduced post season three as it’s unlikely they would have been even introduced had Matthew stayed on the show.
Tier 1 (Major): Mary, Molesley
Tier 2 (Secondary): Lord Grantham, Isobel Crawley
Tier 3 (Unknown): Lady Rose, Tom Branson, John Bates, Anna Bates
Tier 4: Everyone else.
Tier 1 is fairly straightforward. Mary’s entire storyline was completely altered because of her husband’s death. No Matthew means no suitors. It’s possible that either Lord Gillingham or Charles Blake could have been introduced in a similar fashion to Simon Bricker, but most of her storylines would be in conjunction with Matthew’s. Maybe she would be a better mother.
Molesley is the other one whose entire storyline was impacted by Matthew’s absence. Matthew’s death caused Molesley’s complete fall from grace, going from valet to second footman. This might have been for the best from a screen time perspective, but he was already comic relief. He might have been in a better positon to court Miss Baxter, but Fellowes has always found ways to screw Molesley. Matthew’s death took much of his dignity, but perhaps it made him more endearing to the audience.
Tier 2 might be a point of debate for some, especially considering that Isobel is Matthew’s mother. But his move to Downton set up Isobel’s relationship with Violet quite nicely and I think that would have happened regardless of whether or not Matthew died. Obviously there were grief moments that wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think her storyline took the drastic turn that Mary and Molesley experienced.
Lord Grantham fits largely under the same category. Aside from the will stuff, Robert’s storylines would have happened anyway. Matthew would have been involved with the business matters, but you can mostly swap Mary out with him to see what would have happened there. I don’t think Matthew’s death necessarily precluded him from any particular storyline.
We can split up the Tier 3 Unknowns into two categories. Lady Rose and Tom likely experienced slightly larger roles due to Matthew’s death. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that Matthew’s presence would lead to any major changes for either one. Rose could have still come to Downton to represent the younger side of the aristocracy. There was the role of Sybil to be replaced as well, though she was hardly a major character in season three.
Tom is a bit trickier. There’s no denying that he filled some of Matthew’s role, both in Lord Grantham’s eyes and the viewer’s. But would Matthew’s presence prevent his relationship with Miss Bunting or interfere with his desire to move to America? I don’t think so. Matthew meant a great deal to Tom, but his path wasn’t blocked by having a friend and similar (relative) outsider.
As for the Mr. and Mrs. Bates, they seem like an interesting choice to put in the mix considering neither shared much screen time with Matthew. But Matthew’s death lead to Lord Gillingham, which led to Mr. Greene and Anna’s subsequent rape. If Greene hadn’t done it, there’s certainly the possibility that someone else could have. But Matthew’s presence and the need to give him something to do might have cancelled that one out entirely. We don’t know. Hence the unknown.
Which is sort of the same for the rest of the cast. You could say that Matthew might have developed a rapport with Carson, but that’s pure speculation that isn’t really rooted in anything. He could have gotten caught up in a Barrow plot or maybe not.
One element worth speculating on is whether or not Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy would have left if Matthew hadn’t died. While Matthew didn’t really have anything to do with those three, he was at the forefront of Downton’s “youth movement” in season three, as he and Tom worked with Lord Grantham to modernize things from a business perspective. Entering season six, that youth moment is largely gone, though there’s a new footman in Andy who could bring down the servant’s average age by quite a bit.
One could point to Matthew’s death as indirectly causing Alfred’s departure as Molesley took his place as footman. I wouldn’t say that necessarily needed to be the case and the subsequent departures of Ivy and Jimmy suggest that if that hadn’t have happened, something else might have. Unless you want to make the argument that Matthew’s death elevated the importance of Molesley as a character, rendering some of the servants redundant since there’s only so much screen time to go around.
Which isn’t an unfair point. Matthew’s death took much of the “let’s bring Downton into the modern times” away and instead created a sort of holding pattern that did the show no favors in its lackluster forth season. It’s fair to suggest that the show would have been more business related if for any other reason than it would’ve needed something to take the place of all the grieving over Matthew’s death.
Matthew’s death may not have created much of a visible “void” considering Downton’s large cast, but it had a tremendous impact. Shows like DA tend not to get better with age, but much of the complaints over the past two years fall on Mary’s storylines and the stunting of the plot that was forced by his death. That was avoidable, but it still happened because Dan Stevens wanted off the show before Fellowes could figure out how to adjust properly.
Change has always had a consistent presence on Downton Abbey. Being a period drama, we have a fairly good idea of where the show is going to go as it creeps closer to its inevitable finale. Despite this, the show has done a remarkable job in breathing new life into the old house and decaying aristocratic society.
We saw this particularly in season three with the arrivals of Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy, which gave the show’s dynamic a breath of fresh air. The youth movement did wonders to negate the feeling that from here on out, life at Downton would veer from the extravagant to the simplistic. With Alfred’s departure in series four, Ivy’s after the Christmas Special, and Jimmy’s after the first episode of series five, that youthful energy is all but gone, leaving Daisy in a similar holding pattern she was in at the start of the show.
The absence of the three of these characters isn’t a big loss from a story perspective. Eight episodes is hardly enough time to adequately address the show’s ensemble cast anyway. Their departures address something that we’d all rather avoid. Things are winding down and now it’s starting to show.
The future was a predominant theme is season five. Carson, Hughes, Patmore, and the Bates all made arrangements for their retirements while Tom continued to grapple with his desire to leave for America while taking Sybbie’s best interests into consideration. Lord Grantham continued to weigh the interests of the village against his obligation to preserve the way of life that can be threatened by those whose interest lie solely in monetary game. Mrs. Crawley debates a marriage proposal to the disdain of Lady Violet, who fears losing her treasured companion as selfish as that may be.
Problem is, this is all familiar territory. Edith and Tom’s storylines are merely continuations of plots from last season that could, and probably should have been wrapped up. Lady Rose’s late season courtship with Atticus is just about the only fresh plotline to be had other than Mrs. Crawley, who unexpectedly found herself in possession of one of the show’s better stories.
The Bates remain the biggest thorn in Julian Fellows’ paw. He has never really known what to do with them. Sadly, this has resulted in yet another murder plotline that’s even more droll and tedious as the first. It’s hard to imagine that #freebates was ever a legitimate fan rally as the couple hasn’t had a positive moment in years.
Fan sentiment also provides a roadblock for Lady Edith and her illegitimate child. It’s sad story. It isn’t a particularly interesting one and Edith’s years of being an annoying/whiney character didn’t do the plot any favors. After five seasons of watching her mope around, it’s hard to care.
This season had a few shining moments worth remembering. Miss Bunting quickly became of the most hated characters in the show’s history and Fellow’s timed her depature perfectly as to not allow her to overstay her welcome (or rather unwelcome). Thomas received redemption of sorts from Dr. Clarkson in one of the season’s most touching moments. Molesley was Molesley and as such, got his own article.
I watched an old season two episode in between episodes to see the contrast between then and now. It’s to be expected that shows drop off a bit as they get older. Even a worldwide phenomenon like Downton.
The problem is that Downton has an identity crisis, a problem that’s existed since the World War I storyline ended but was exacerbated by Matthew’s death. The show knows where it’s going, but it doesn’t know what to do with itself in the meantime. It seems to be a fairly safe assumption that next season will be the final one, which may not be such a bad idea.
Downton Abbey is certainly more entertaining the most of what’s on TV, but it’s also clear that the show is well past its prime. Fellows overindulged in repetitive storylines and drew out others unnecessarily. It’s hard to call season five bad, but when the bar was raised so high from previous years, the drop in quality is a tad unfortunate. The Dowager would certainly not be impressed.