The coming of age of a television drama

Thomas and O'Brien being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Since marathoning the first six episodes of season three of Downton Abbey, I was rather disappointed at the show’s increasingly slow, melodramatic nature. While season one was absolutely terrific–a Gossip Girl for the matronly and the pretentious–season two sort of prodded along, alternating between somewhat inspired, to somewhat dull, to moderately entertaining, with World War I as the backdrop of the excruciatingly ill-fated Matthew, Mary, and Lavinia love triangle.

After a hiatus from the show, I knew I had to finish season three someday, so I took the official beginning of my summer vacation to marathon the last few episodes. I dreaded the Bates and Anna scenes, but thank God–Bates finally got released from prison and we would never to deal with their boring angst ever again. And, well, the last few episodes were helluva more rewarding than I ever expected them to be. Sure, it wasn’t as fun as the first season, but the show demonstrated its undeniable age. And good shows, such as Downton, can age like fine wine.

The women in Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

The women in Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

I first had this thought about the coming of age of a television drama when I was marathoning the recent sixth season of Mad Men earlier this summer. I was initially skeptical about season six, mainly because there has been sort of a weird critical and audience negativity surrounding it (namely from The Washington Post). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. The show capitalized on its period backdrop; it expertly used that tumultuous time in American history (the late ’60s) to be a catalyst for the show’s escalating drama. It is by far my favorite season of the show because it is the season that avidly proves the show’s novelistic worth.

There are so many things that were done in season six that simply could not have been done if the show was a relatively young show. And if those things were done when the show was relatively young, it would not have been as nowhere as dramatically effective and emotionally satisfying. No one would savor it because no one would appreciate it.

I’m thinking about that great scene when Don eavesdrops on Peggy’s Heinz pitch. Or that scene when Don and Betty reconnect. Or when Don breaks down during the Hershey’s meeting. Or that last scene of the finale–that heartbreaking, moving look between Don and Sally, set to Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now.” None of these things would work if we didn’t know these characters, didn’t know what they have been through together, didn’t know their history together.

One of the great things about committing to a great television series–as a fan or as a writer–is that you really get to see the characters grow. And I suppose, as a writer, you get to a point where you have so much freedom to do so much with your characters because character dynamics are already so well-established and the viewers are already so familiar with this world you have created that you have the ability to capitalize on that. You can explore more and more possibilities as the show ages and the characters grow. That’s the advantage that a long, long story has over a 120-minute film: it has the capability to boast that it’s art that imitates life. Though, truth be told, it’s not necessarily better.

I understand that not all television series have the opportunity to flourish as much as  Mad Men and Downton have been so lucky to do so, but as a viewer, I feel like it’s such a rewarding experience when the writers know that their show has come of age.

So back to Downton.

While there were several shocking moments–Edith being left at the altar and Sybil’s death–I was never quite intrigued, if that is the best way to put it. Those were horrifying scenes, but in context, they weren’t fulfilling. However, for most of season three, I found myself strangely drawn to the Thomas and O’Brien relationship more than I ever did in previous seasons. Or, the development Thomas’ character, in particular. Upon the arrival for O’Brien’s nephew, Alfred, and Thomas’ unwillingness to help him out, the former smoking buddies have become antagonistic toward each other–and it’s one of the more interesting story lines in the eerily bland first half of season three. And, as Thomas’ attraction to the pretty boy footman James attraction escalates–you know O’Brien is going to exploit the hell out of it.

However, in the last few episodes, the drama escalates to a point where Thomas, creepily sneaks into James’ bedroom, while James is sleeping, to give him a kiss, based on O’Brien’s false tip about James’ supposed feelings for him. Alfred sees the entire scene and James begins screaming at Thomas. The dominoes fall as they do, and Thomas ends up in a position where he may have to leave Downton, after 10 years of service, without a reference, and perhaps with a prison sentence.

Thomas has always been difficult to sympathize with, but I certainly always have. I love to hate him, but I also hate to love him, and sometimes the latter certainly triumphs. Because I know that deep down, there are redemptive qualities about him. Not to say what he did wasn’t sort of creepy–for a lack of a better word–but for once, he seemed truly apologetic because he truly meant no harm. And I think that’s the sentiment that most of the other characters share, as everyone–all those former enemies turned allies–rallies behind Thomas to protect him. Because behind all the ambition and deceit, there is a character who just wants to be successful and happy, who just wants to be better than who he is, and find a place that is better than where he is. If he needs to worm his way into those places, you can’t really blame him for any of that. Like Thomas told Carson, it isn’t against the law to hope. And damn right it isn’t.

When James thanks the beaten-up Thomas for defending him when he was drunk at the town fair and even goes as far to call him brave (made more meaningful by the audience knowing how Thomas wanted out from WWI), James inquires why Thomas was even following him. Thomas responds honestly–“you know.” James mans up and tells Thomas that he can never reciprocate, but he’s willing to be friends. And perhaps, there is some hope for Thomas after all.

The writers couldn’t have possibly pulled the Thomas story line off without the show being well into its third season. Or without the supremely well-constructed performance of Rob James-Collier. Thomas’ villainy, on paper, defined who he was, but the show is starting to say it doesn’t have to be that way.

While there are a plethora of other things in the most recent season that can elicit feelings from long-time viewers of Downton (like the final scene of the Christmas special), the transformation of Thomas Barrow has been, personally, the most enthralling and rewarding story line in the dawn of the drama’s coming of age.

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