I haven’t updated this blog in a bit due to a lingering illness. But I am back this evening with some thoughts on the close on Season 3 of Downton Abbey. I won’t talk about the “shocking” ending when [SPOILER] ran off the road and [SPOILER]. Rather, I want to talk about the evolution of Tom Branson. Our Irish republican chauffeur now found himself in the uncomfortable position of being the only grandee left in the house while everyone else was up in Scotland getting serenaded by bagpipes while munching on haggis. A maid made goo-goo eyes at him. They flirted. He dined below stairs just as he had done before he married Lady Sybil. She walked in on him while he was changing. There was a promise of lunch. And then Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes asked her to leave. No, she had not done wrong, according to Mrs. Hughes; but there are rules to a life in service. And she had violated those rules.
Now, the maid, Edna, was clearly manipulating both Tom’s grief and guilt for her own purposes. But they were there for the manipulating. Nothing puzzling about the grief. The guilt, however, I find interesting. And I wonder how that is constructed. Here it is, given how the show has progressed, the Summer of 1921 (probably). The war for independence in Ireland is winding down. The war over the “Irish Free State” is about to erupt. Tom is a member of the family — Anglican, wealthy, noble — that is the very epitome of English rule in Ireland. Added to that Tom helps Matthew in his plan to rescue Downton through modernization. Now people are complicated, and so should fictional characters be too. Tom has daughter Sybil to care for. That is a responsibility he does not take lightly.
But I think Fellowes missed an opportunity here. Given how much in the crucible of history we are at this point in the series — particularly a history that is of paramount importance to Tom — I think he would have acted differently than in the almost saintly and bourgeoise way he did. (I think there is a reason for this tied to the spoiler-y thing I didn’t mention above). He has lost his wife. He is in a strange house with strange people with strange ways. He has been sidelined from a cause to which he is passionately committed. From where I sit, I think the more interesting choice — the one with the higher stakes for the character — would be to not be so “English” in responding to Edna’s advances. I think it would have served the character — and the show — better if Tom had an affair (a fully physical sexual affair) with Edna. It would have been a way to escape his grief, if only momentarily. It would be a way of satisfying a longing. It would have been an attempt to rekindle some of his more proletariat beliefs, to do something rebellious, something not proper. He would, of course, have been wrong to do so. But people do stupid things all the time, especially when emotionally distraught. There would have been, of course, scandal. But a very interesting scandal that would have cut across class lines and provided much fodder for future plot lines.
But instead of D. H. Lawrence we got a dose of good old fashioned Victorian repression. Fellowes has his characters in these tight little boxes. He needs to let them out of their cages and see what chaos and carnage will follow. It will make for stronger plotting.