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Downton Abbey: The Roads Not Taken

Let's face it: one of the big reasons why Downton Abbey is a hit on both sides of the Atlantic is that it's an above-average example of comfort food TV. That's not meant to be disparaging, by the way. It's a challenge to make a series that, week in and week out, engages, toys with and then satisfies the audiences' emotions without talking down to them; hats off to series creator Julian Fellowes for regularly finding ways to upset the oversized apple cart that is Downton Abbey, while also concocting believable means of turning it right-side up again. That said, we came away from last night's two-hour installment (which aired as the Season 2 finale in England -- the PBS run will officially conclude next week with the Christmas episode) wishing that Fellowes had taken a few more creative risks. Sure, you can't exactly describe the episode's ending as happy -- what with Lavinia pushing up the daisies after her brush with Spanish flu and Bates arrested for the death of Mrs. Bates -- but there were other roads not taken that would potentially have shaken up the status quo in really interesting ways. Here are the five plotlines we would have sent in a different direction.

1. Lady Cora Dies Instead of Lavinia
Once it was revealed that the Spanish flu had come to Downton, we knew that at least one of the characters wasn't long for this world. The show marked three candidates for death -- stalwart butler Carson; the lady of the house, Cora; and Matthew's sweet, if wallflowerish fiancée, Lavinia. While Carson was the first to fall ill, Lady Cora was the one who seemed closest to death's door. But then Lavinia wound up stealing her thunder, dying just after absolving Matthew of his stolen kiss with Mary. Obviously, we're glad that the Crawley girls didn't lose their mother and since Lady Cora's survival paves the way for Shirley MacLaine's Season 3 appearance as her mother, that's a bonus. But think for a moment how much mileage could have been gained by keeping Lavinia alive instead. For one thing, she and Matthew would actually have to go through with their wedding, all the while knowing whom he really wants to be with. Meanwhile, the Earl would be left completely alone to oversee both Downton's affairs and the complicated lives of his three grown daughters without his wife's capable assistance. With all that responsibility thrust upon him, he just might go and do something crazy... like, say, sleeping with a housemaid. (See below.)

2. Lady Sybil and Tom Branson Actually Elope
As we said a few weeks ago, Tom knew that Sybil would one day run away with him -- it was only a question of when. Last night, "when" became "now" as the youngest Crawley daughter (perhaps basking in the glow of Matthew's miraculous recovery and announcement that he and Lavinia would get married after all) raced into the garage late one night after dinner and told the chauffeur, "I'm ready to travel and you're my ticket" before allowing him to plant a big wet one on her trembling lips. The two planned to steal away under the cover of darkness not long after, but Sybil couldn't resist leaving behind a note, a decision that ended up allowing her sisters to track her down at a roadside inn. Mary guilt tripped her into coming home, saying "It would be better to [announce your plans] in broad daylight, than to sneak off like a thief in the night." Better for Sybil's future prospects maybe, but not better from a dramatic standpoint. A clean getaway would have tested their fledgling romance in compelling ways and shown the Crawley clan in no uncertain terms that things really couldn't go back to the way they were before the war.

3. The Earl Gives In To Temptation
Really, show? You spend most of the season laying the groundwork for a passionate (if ill-advised) upstairs/downstairs fling between Robert and housemaid Jane and then don't even let them get beyond fully-clothed first base? Lame. In addition to the way a full-on affair would have eaten away at Robert's conscience while his wife was on her deathbed, it would also muddy the waters involving his objection to Sybil and Tom's romance... particularly if she actually caught them in the act as Bates almost did. Of course, unlike his daughter, Robert isn't interested in marrying a member of the staff, but at least they'd both have first-hand experience in how romantic passion can trump class barriers.

4. Sir Richard Hires Thomas to Run His Household
With the last of the hospital beds being moved out of Downton, Thomas' stint as an acting sergeant came to an end. For his next act, he planned to enter the lucrative black market, spending all his savings on a stockpile of hard-to-find goods. Unfortunately, it turned out that the schemer had been schemed -- the supplies were worthless and Thomas was left without money, a job and a place to live. He was sufficiently concerned enough about his prospects to ask for his old job back from Carson, who somehow managed to reject his application without gloating. What Thomas should have done at that point was find a way to approach Sir Richard Carlisle and volunteer his services for running Haxby, the neighboring estate where he and Mary will live after their wedding. Unlike Carson and Anna, Thomas would have no problem with spying on Mary or carrying out any other underhanded assignments his boss might have for him. And had Lady Cora died, he would have been able to bring along his partner-in-mischief O'Brien to Haxby; together, they would have had the full run of that joint, which would have promised some juicy inter-estate drama . Instead, Thomas surprisingly pursued a more selfless course of action, assuming Carson's duties (without pay) while his old boss was laid up with the Spanish flu. Thomas doing something nice for a fellow human being without material reward? Now we've seen everything.

5. Matthew Doesn't Get His Legs Back
Matthew suddenly regaining his ability to walk easily ranks as the most soap opera-ish thing this soap opera has ever done. Hooray for Downton's heir presumptive and everything, but the sequence of Matthew tentatively rising from his wheelchair followed by Dr. Clarkson's convoluted explanation of how he's able to walk again struck us as profoundly silly. It would have been far more interesting from a character standpoint had he remained in the chair for the rest of his life, but learned to come to terms with it. And speaking of Dr. Clarkson, between his confession about misdiagnosing Matthew (and declining to pass along the opinion of another doctor who made the correct diagnosis, spinal shock ) and his bizarre decision not to immediately quarantine all of Downton's residents following the outbreak of Spanish flu (arguably the deadliest pandemic since the Black Plague) how did this quack not immediately get his medical license revoked? We know that after the events of this episode, we'd never seek out his advice ever again.

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