Just for fun, I’m going to do a number on Downton Abbey. Devoted fans may see no reason for tampering with that fabulously popular tour de force of an ensemble period piece, but after five seasons, even some of the faithful must be getting restless.
For me the key to making things more interesting is to reinvigorate Lady Mary, played to chilly perfection up to this point by Michelle Dockery, who is clearly giving the show’s creator Julian Fellowes exactly what he wants. In spite of attempts to add nuances and dimensions to her character (the dead Turk in her bed, star-crossed romance with Matthew Crawley, widow and motherhood, taking responsibility for the estate, primal birth-control devices, exploratory sex with creepy suitors, etc), she remains essentially bound by what Fellowes says of her in an interview on the Huffington Post: “The thing about people like Mary is that they just want to be in charge. They want to be at the top table.” When the interviewer presses him (“She’s difficult, even in love. And a cold mother?”), all he can say is “She wants more control. I think that whole generation were fairly cold!” More revealing is his non-answer when asked if he loves his characters: “I think what we got right is that we don’t give either side any more weight than the other.” That’s in case you ever doubted that the ensemble takes precedence over the individuals.
A Cult Favorite
There’s a 32-year-old British actress (a year younger than Dockery) who could make Mary scarily exciting and sexy simply by stepping into her shoes. Her name is Ruth Wilson and she just received a Golden Globe for her role in Showtime’s The Affair; at the moment she’s finishing an Off-Broadway run with Jake Gyllenhaal in Nick Payne’s two-person play, Constellations. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Jane Eyre in the 2006 BBC-TV production, and has won two Oliviers (for Stella in Streetcar Named Desire and as Anna in Anna Christie), but what made her, in the words of Mike Hale’s New York Times profile, “a cult favorite” was her role as “the murderous Alice Morgan” in the BBC series Luther. Hale offers a first-hand description of some of the physical force Wilson would bring to Mary, her “offhand intensity and overscale features — dramatically wide lips, piercing blue-gray eyes, architectural eyebrows.” But he doesn’t really do justice to her mouth, who could? There’s something seductively cunning and frankly feral in the beautiful deadly curl of her lower lip, as if she’s forever savoring some unimaginably sexy species of evil. She could do wonders for Mary given what she does for Alice, who enters Oxford at 13, earns a PhD in astrophysics at 18 for her study of dark matter distribution in disc galaxies, murders her parents, and then stalks the person investigating the crime, the troubled, ever-embattled black genius detective John Luther (Idris Elba of The Wire) on the way to becoming his ally, a demonic angel protector twice saving his life, and twice killing for him.
Far be it from me to suggest that Julian Fellowes release Lady Mary’s inner sociopath; still, Downton is only an Agatha Christie heartbeat away from a plot possibility that has Mary discreetly terminating her hated sister, Lady Edith. Now think how it would be if Mary were inhabited by an actress who, like Richard the Third, “smiles and murders as she smiles.” Mary’s darker possibilities are implicit in her fatal tryst with the Turk, but add a deadly measure of fierce Alice to her character, and Mary could be slowly destroying Edith simply through the toxic power of her presence. On the other hand, a Mary as fearless as Alice, who has access to supernatural forces, would have found a way to protect her maid and confidant Anna from Lord Gillingham’s rapist valet. Trust me, the loathed Green would not have got out of Downton alive if there’d been something of Alice in Mary. Of course that would have foiled the true perpetrator of the needlessly prolonged violation, Julian Fellowes, who inflicted it to continue the profitable exploitation of his favorite victims Bates and Anna.
Though she declares herself an enemy of love (as Mary appears to be during the epic mating dance with Matthew), Wilson’s Alice has a life-or-death crush on Luther. While Mary is chilly, Alice is beyond hot; well, she’s infernal and appealingly so. Lovely, sinister, and charming. It takes a very special talent to deliver a combination like that. Alice’s dangerous flirtation with Luther may be rekindled when Luther goes into production again later this year after a two-year hiatus. As Wilson tells Mike Hale, she was already an admirer of Elba, and so not about to miss the chance of playing the deadly Alice, though she “wasn’t sure, necessarily,” until she realized she “could have a lot of fun with this character …. It was written like Hannibal Lecter, and I thought: ‘This is amazing. What woman gets to play Hannibal Lecter?’ ”
The Turk in Mary’s Bed
One thing that sets violently compelling shows like Luther, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Orphan Black, and numerous others apart from Downton Abbey is that they have the courage of their outrageous convictions. That said, it was with an act of shameless outrage in the third episode of the first season, a single sensational violation of probability and Downton decorum, that Julian Fellowes fired his series like a comet over the pop culture landscape. No one but no one expected the Turkish diplomat to get into Lady Mary’s bed, let alone die in it. In the years since, I’ve been mistakenly visualizing Pamuk as a heavier, older type, when of course he was a ravishing, princely young blade, exactly the sort likely to have inspired and rebuffed a pass from Thomas, the gay valet, which in turn gives Pamuk the leverage to blackmail Thomas into showing him to Mary’s room. Most readings of the scene that follows see Mary as the victim. She’d flirted with Pamuk, to be sure, and then put him off when he kissed her earlier that evening. While it’s true that the Turk forces himself on Mary, she lets go at the moment of truth, submits, stifles a scream, and next thing we know a seemingly healthy, thriving young man is lying dead beside her. Whatever the cause, the impression is that Pamuk’s passion for the ice princess killed him. Put Ruth Wilson in that scene and the roles would be implicitly reversed: Mary no longer the ambiguously passive victim but the smiling instigator of his doom.
Another way to deal with the Mary issue — no need to go the dark route — would be to find an actress the viewer could easily admire, love, and pull for, someone so strong and centered and charming that you would still be on her side at the end of Season Five. From what I’ve seen of the Danish political series, Borgen, the most likely candidate (setting aside the language barrier) would be Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays prime minister Birgitte Nyborg with great charm and integrity. Almost from the moment she appears, Nyborg makes you care about her. A wife and mother, she’s strong, smart, pretty, vulnerable, human; she has great warmth, can be playful, sexy, funny, and altogether lovable without straining. If Hillary Clinton had half her charm, she’d sweep through the primaries and the general election in 2016.
“Butter Side Down”
After speculating on who among the characters in Downton Abbey might actually be writing the story, my choice is Lord Grantham’s perennially embattled valet Bates. He’s the only person on the premises who seems capable of it. I like to imagine him doing a Frankenstein and turning on Fellowes, his sadistic creator. He has good reason to feel abused. It’s hard to think of two more ill-fated beings than Bates and Anna, and all Fellowes can say when asked about the sufferings he imposes on them is “I think in life there are people who are unlucky — the bread always falls with the butter side down.”
That Fellowes resorts to that dinner table phrase in defense of his plotting says something about what keeps Downton Abbey from true greatness. Imagine Charlotte Brontë descending to the Fellowes rationale to justify the plight of Jane Eyre and Rochester. Still, the faithful were most likely happy with the Christmas finale of Season Five wherein the series celebrates itself; if you love it, you’re right there caroling along with the richly diverse ensemble, upstairs and downstairs. Even if you’ve been feeling estranged after the loss of characters like Lady Sibyl and Matthew Crawley and Cora’s maid from hell O’Brien, you have to admire the way Julian Fellowes keeps the many human marionettes of his Vanity Fair in play.