No television show is ever perfect, no matter how we may remember it. For every Tony Soprano there’s a Tony Soprano dream sequence. For every fourth season of The Wire there’s a fifth season of The Wire. And for every The Cosby Show there’s an episode in which a pregnant Bill Cosby gives birth to a hoagie. Such fallibility is the nature of a very hungry beast; the crushing demands of a weekly schedule can dash even the most creative visions on the cruel rocks of budget-minded reality. Furthermore, TV, like yogurt, is a living culture. Unlike the ripping period dramas that Downton Abbey boss Julian Fellowes keeps stashed in his claret closet, serialized dramas develop and evolve over time, learning from what works and casting away what doesn’t. So it’s to be expected when a successful young series has growing pains. A savvy showrunner can always course-correct in midstream; a bump in the road needn’t lead to a total wreck.
These temporary wrong turns aren’t exactly jumping the shark moments; another name is needed. I’m partial to “Landry Murders” after the colossally stupid (and mercifully ignored and forgotten) twist in the second season of the otherwise unimpeachable Friday Night Lights when mild-mannered nerd Landry Clarke killed a dude. (In later seasons the character joined the football team, found love, and matriculated to Rice University where, one imagines, his fiery bloodlust was kept in check with a steady diet of Christian Rock concerts and cafeteria chicken fingers.) Now there’s another possible name for these potentially disastrous hiccups: Burn Face.
Is there a more charitable nickname for the Canadian imposter/Titanic survivor that preposterously popped up at Downton last night? Perhaps. But Burn Face, in all its mocking dismissiveness, seems appropriate for a character that fit in about as well as a dead mouse in Lady Sybil’s biscuit jar – and was equally welcome. (I can’t take credit for the nickname. That must go to TV vet Harley Peyton who warned me about the broiled brigand over Twitter.) The arrival of Patrick Gordon (né Crawley né Bullshit) was the worst kind of shock treatment because it added nothing to the plot and, unlike what happened to poor Carrie Mathison over on Homeland, you don’t get to forget about it afterwards. Perhaps it was the dissonant harshness of his non-Eton-elided verbiage (Can adults lose English accents so completely? Serious question. I know they can gain them) or his wounded face, wrapped with all the delicacy of an ADHD-addled temp at the mall during Christmas season, but nothing about Patrick struck me as legitimate from the moment he was introduced, mournfully sipping from a flask in the Great Hall of Ping-Pong. Perhaps things would have been better had he been taken more seriously by the show itself – the arrival of the presumed-dead heir, while gimmicky, could at least have had a ripple effect on the various prisoners of Downton. But, no: Lord Grantham spends more time stressing about the informality of a goddamn tuxedo than he does considering the scarred visage of his maybe-almost sort-of son. As for Cora and her new best frenemy, the Dowager-Countess, they’re too busy trying to rid the house of Cousin Isobel and her virulent strain of Samaritanism by dangling various charities in front of her like shoelaces in front of a self-important cat.
No, the only one who let Not Patrick get to her was poor Edith, the house kickball. Her credulous ardor was, I suppose, meant to make her more sympathetic. But how, exactly? We already know she’s capable of falling for the wrong guy – her stolen smooches with the Chaucerian dairy farmer demonstrated that well enough – and we know that her envy of Mary, who was initially engaged to the real Patrick Crawley, will lead her to do wild things. (It’d be hard to top leaking news of her sister’s murderous ladybits to the entire Turkish embassy.) Her whole relationship with Burn Face – call it the Neosporin Affair – only made Edith appear more desperate and silly than before and had the same effect on the show. Introducing the plot and dismissing it within a single hour suggested that Fellowes might have been as embarrassed about it as he should have been. It wasn’t even used to put season one’s dorky but captivating inheritance storyline back into play because Matthew, the character whose fortunes would have been most affected had Patrick been telling the truth (other than Bates, I guess, who would have been tasked with ordering some Goose Down jackets and explaining to Mrs. Patmore just what, exactly, goes into poutine), has become whinier than Mr. Carson’s well-considered cellar.
Truly, it’s been depressing to see what’s become of our favorite solicitor/war hero in the months since he’s lost the use of his legs. Stewing in self-pity and ditching fiancées like yesterday’s mince pies, he’s even beginning to wear on Mary. (It can’t have been a coincidence that the first words spoken in their second scene together were “It’s big.” Too cruel, Lady Mary! Too cruel by half!) Luckily, the show’s best character is mostly engaged in the show’s most interesting plot. Namely, her indecisive business partnership with the scheming Sir Richard Carlisle. With the Great War over it’s time for the self-made man to do his part and begin tearing down the old society in earnest, installing modern kitchens and shedding some electric light on the musty fustiness of the landed gentry. There’s something delicious about how breezily he explains to Mary the way they’ll fill their prospective McManor House with photos and art and all the other hoary bric-a-brac that makes a life, or at least an upper class one: “What does anyone do?” he crows “Buy it!” Carlisle, with his threateningly deep pockets and lack of tweedy decorum, is a welcome dash of anarchic appetite in what has become a worryingly static tableaux. (Plus, in a pinch he can teach you some conversational Dothraki.)
Burn Face may have fled back to Toronto with his gauze between his legs at the end of the episode, but his bad influence lingers. I’ve written before about how freeing it is for Julian Fellowes to be creating a novelistic story out of whole cloth with Downton, one not bound to the predetermined plot points of a preexisting book. But the flailing desperation of Burn Face suggests that Fellowes may have written himself into a corner of his own making. Nearly every major plot point has had a button on it since Archduke Ferdinand was breathing: Matthew will inherit Downton, Mary loves Matthew, Anna and Bates are soulmates despite not having gained access to one another’s larders in over six years, Sybil’s only suitor is a Bolshevik chauffeur and Mrs. Patmore’s new Geordi LaForge eyes are working wonderfully. Carlisle is fascinating, but clearly no match for the sort of love that can only spring up between cousins, while Lavinia, recently returned from a month of orgies on Carnaby Street, is a wet noodle unfit for even Mrs. Bird’s soup kitchen. It’s no wonder that Fellowes finds himself reaching for the silly spice rack with Burn Face and the soap operatics to come with Lord Grantham and his merry, unmarried maid Jane, not to mention the inevitable Trial of Mr. Bates.
But all is not lost. The gentle struggle of Mr. Carson as he’s pulled between two households is a reminder of the subtle excellence of Downton at its best. And if the show returns to its focus on class warfare in place of trench warfare, it’ll soon be up and moving again. (The same could also be said for Matthew who, in the closing moments of the episode, felt the same sort of thrill running up and down his leg that Chris Matthews experiences every time President Obama speaks.) “This is not the end of a long war but the dawn of a new age,” Grantham intones as the ceasefire begins. Let’s hope so.