Downton Abbey’s Silliest Plotlines

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With the Downton Abbey movie almost here, we revisit the show's strangest moments so far. Bring on the pigs!

This article was originally published on Den of Geek UK.

Downton Abbey is coming to cinema screens soon, and fans are anxiously waiting to see whether this will be a rare example of a TV show successfully transitioning to the big screen. The series is an addictive classic, its combination of super old fashioned British aristocracy with a few more contemporary plots and a heap of warmth and humour have made it one of ITV’s biggest scripted dramas this century.

It has to be admitted, though, that some of the storylines on Downton could be a bit… out there. Some were Silly-ha-ha – stories about things no one but Julian Fellowes could have built a whole television sub-plot from. Some were more Silly-WHAT? – ostensibly serious plots treated with all the weight of serious drama but including plot developments that range from the unlikely to the completely ludicrous.

read more: 12 Geeky Things You Might Not Know About Downton Abbey

But of course, these stories are part of why the show is so loved. Downton was one of those treasured recent examples of water-cooler television – a series that makes people say, “Did you see Downton last night? Can you believe they did that?!” These storylines may have been a bit daft, but they certainly achieved that effect.

Carson steals food from the kitchen to cover up his past as one half of a music hall act called ‘The Cheerful Charlies’

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Silly-ha-ha, just like Carson’s dark past.

How silly? This was a very early one, and an indication of just how seriously Downton could take the fluffiest of subjects. As Carson’s old friend Charlie hangs around the front rooms determined to see the Earl, the music swells like something terribly dramatic is happening, and Lady Sybil stays in the room with Bates ‘in case explanations are needed’. And then it turns out all Carson was trying to hide was that he used to be in musical theatre. Luckily for him the Crawleys are remarkably forgiving about people stealing food from them, something that happens a lot. Sybil does end up smiling behind a piece of paper, though whether that’s the character or the actress is hard to say.

Silly speeches: Lord Grantham: “Really Carson, there’s no need to be quite so melodramatic, you’re not playing Sidney Carton!”

Mrs Crawley guilts Lady Grantham into handing over Best Bloom in the Village to Mr Molesley’s father

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Silly-ha-ha

How silly? Very, very silly. This is an entire sub-plot throughout episode five of season one of Downton Abbey. All of the sub-plots in this episode are varying degrees of mildly daft – Lady Sybil helps one of the housemaids to a job interview, Mary gives Matthew the brush-off just to score points against Edith, Thomas tries to frame Bates for stealing, and O’Brien spreads malicious gossip about Lady Mary for no apparent reason. But none of these compare in sheer superficial nothingness to Isobel Crawley making so much noise about how Mr Molesley’s father should win Best Bloom that the Dowager gives in and hands it to him. Of course, the daftest part of the whole thing is the Dowager’s repeated insistence that she wins the flower show every single year on merit, though Lord Grantham loudly and publicly rooting for Mr Molesley is very funny.

Silly speeches: The Dowager: “I’ve never seen such reforming zeal.” Isobel: “I take that as a compliment.” The Dowager: “I must have said it wrong.”

Sybil’s trousers

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Definitely Silly-ha-ha, though to be fair it does kick-start one of the series’ major romantic dramas, the relationship between Lady Sybil and Tom Branson.

How silly? It’s a small sub-plot and it’s mostly used to show Sybil making a connection with the new chauffeur, but very early on Downton devoted an entire, episode-closing story-line to Lady Sybil getting panataloons made for dinner instead of a dress. She still wears them with a corset, though, despite complaining about corsets earlier in the episode.

Silly speeches: None. A woman wearing loose trousers is so shocking, everyone is completely dumbstruck.

Lady Mary loses her virginity to a fit and healthy young man, who promptly dies in her bed

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Definitely Silly-WHAT?, though it is also a rich source of black comedy.

How silly? This was Downton’s first rather mad plotline (of several). The scandal of Mary having lost her virginity to a visitor by itself makes sense enough, though the way he goes about it is deeply unpleasant and close to harassing her. Indeed, the only reason it gets so far is that Thomas made the ridiculously stupid decision to sexually harass Pamuk himself, on the basis of very little encouragement, and then got blackmailed into taking him to Mary’s room. But things really get ridiculous when Pamuk promptly drops dead in Mary’s bed, kicking off two seasons’ worth of plot developments in the process. The whole thing was apparently inspired by a real event, but possibly one involving a less young and fit diplomat.

Silly speeches: Lord Grantham (blissfully unaware his wife and daughter spent the night carrying a corpse around the house): “We must have a care for feminine sensibilities. They are finer and more fragile than our own.”

Mary: “I took a lover with no thought of marriage!”

The Dowager: “Of course it would happen to a foreigner. It’s typical. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house – especially somebody they didn’t even know.”

Branson plots to spill slop on a visiting General, and everyone thinks he’s planning to assassinate him

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Starts out Silly-WHAT, then turns in to Silly-ha-ha.

How silly? This looks like something very serious at first. Branson lost a cousin in the Easter Rising and has been denied his chance to be thrown in prison for protesting against the British military. Granted, if he had been planning to assassinate a General in the middle of dinner at Downton right in front of his not-quite-girlfriend, that would have been fairly over the top in itself, but considering the note he left asking Sybil to forgive him, not impossible. But the reveal of the truth, while rescuing Branson’s character (pre-house-burning incident) is really deeply silly. Somehow, he’s managed to get oil, ink and manure into one of Downton’s soup bowls and he was planning to spill it all over the General, presumably putting everyone including Sybil thoroughly off their food. As ridiculous plotlines go, it’s not the daftest Downton ever produced, but it’s not the most sane or plausible either.

Silly speeches: Branson: “He’d have needed a bath right enough, but not a coffin.”

Matthew’s temporary paralysis

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Silly-WHAT?

How silly? It’s not that we weren’t all very glad that Matthew’s paralysis turned out not to be permanent after all. And it’s not that Dr Clarkson is always the most reliable source of medical information – though he was sadly right about Sybil later. His explanation even almost makes sense (that he didn’t agree with the alternative, more positive diagnosis and didn’t want to get Matthew’s hopes up). But really, declaring that Matthew is permanently paralysed and can’t have children only to reverse it all barely two episodes later is… well it’s just a bit silly.

Silly speeches: Matthew: “My God!… Nothing. It doesn’t matter. Not until I feel it again.”

The fake Cousin Patrick

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Silly-WHAT?

How silly? This one wins the prize for the most ridiculous plotline Downton ever produced, by quite some way. The series was always a polished, high budget soap opera, but only in this season two episode did it venture into American soap opera territory. A character who has been the victim of horrific burns during wartime should be taken seriously, but with his bizarre amnesia story, his exaggerated mannerisms intended to mimic a character we never met on screen in the first place, his bandages that call to mind the Mummy or the Phantom of the Opera, and his not-very-Canadian Canadian accent, the whole thing becomes a farce. Only poor Edith is really taken in, and that’s because she’s grasping at another desperate chance to find love. Besides, like Cora’s poor doomed unborn baby in season one, we all know that no one is going to turn up to disinherit Matthew or the whole driving force of the series disappears.

Silly speeches: Edith: “Do you know, I do recognise you now.”

Sybil: “P for Patrick, or P for Peter?”

Matthew’s dead fiancée contacts a couple of the servants through a Ouija board to tell them it’s OK for Matthew and Mary to get together

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Definitely a bit of both. It’s part of the build-up to the grandest romantic moment in all Downton Abbey’s history, but – well, just read the description of what happens again.

How silly? Downton wasn’t immune to the touch of an occasional sprinkle of fantasy. For the most part, this was kept to a low level, like when Daisy shivers and Mary drops a tea cup when William and Matthew are injured in France. But the first Christmas special took it somewhat further when Lavinia’s ghost appears to communicate to Anna and Daisy her desire for Matthew and Mary to get together.

This is ridiculous on so many levels. Even if you want to accept the efficacy of the Ouija board and the liveliness of the late Lavinia’s spirit, why is she communicating with the servants about Matthew and Mary’s love life? The message certainly never gets to either of the people concerned. Granted, the servants are the ones messing about with a Ouija board, but perhaps if she felt that strongly about it she could have found another way to say so, or let another spirit use the board. Even the message itself is obscure, because apparently the ghost couldn’t be bothered to communicate clearly.

Silly speeches: Anna: “I suppose a spirit wants some couple to be happy.”

Bates is suspected of murder… twice… and then Anna is suspected

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Sort of a slow Silly-WHAT?

How silly? None of these plotlines in themselves are too ridiculous, though the first suspected murder is pretty far-fetched, Mrs Bates having apparently been so desperate to get one over on Mr Bates that she was willing to turn it into a kamikaze mission. What brings the silliness here is more the effect of piling three – that’s three – different stories of an innocent accused of murder on one couple. The internet fan theory that Bates was actually a serial killer was starting to seem more plausible by the end of it.

Silly speeches: Bates: “I only wish she was the former – or better still, the late.”

Mary and one of her suitors get down and dirty with the pigs

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Silly-ha-ha.

How silly? Season three brought more melodrama but little silliness to Downton Abbey, and much of season four was rather sombre. However, the mood was lightened by Mary’s misadventure with Charles Blake (one of her several suitors), who somewhat unexpectedly turns out to be able to tell a pig is dehydrated by sight. Presumably this sub-plot is inspired by the PG Wodehouse character Lord Emsworth and his champion pig, but having Lady Mary roll around in pig filth after she’s been dealing with depression and bereavement for some time is an interesting choice to bring her back towards the light.

Silly speeches: Evelyn Napier: “I gather you were the heroine of the pig drama.”

Molesley dyes his hair blue

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Silly-ha-ha.

How silly? Season 5 opened with an episode that embraced the classic balance of soap opera drama – here provided by Lady Edith’s love child, not to mention her accidentally setting the house on fire – and gentle silliness that made the show such a success back in the first season. This was one of the series’ classic tiny, tiny sub-plots that exist purely to lighten the mood – in the midst of the literal flames, Molesley, hoping to attract the attentions of Baxter, tries to dye his hair and it comes out blue. Perfect Downton silliness.

Silly speeches: Lord Grantham: “Can you please keep Molesley in the kitchen until his hair stops turning blue?”

Lord Grantham turns dinner into a horror movie

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Silly-WHAT, definitely.

How silly? Downton loves to highlight medical conditions that are little known now, like dropsy, or better treated now, like ecclampsia. A perforated ulcer is a condition that can still affect people today the same as it could a century ago, but is not especially common, and there’s certainly nothing silly about the symptoms or the seriousness of the condition, which has killed a number of well known people including JRR Tolkien.

What puts this on the ‘silly’ list – though firmly in the WHAT? category, very much not the ‘ha-ha’ side – is the way the whole thing plays out. It’s a genius moment, really, a moment of water-cooler television in an era when those are increasingly rare. The cleverest part is that much of the episode is devoted to the genuinely dangerous sport of motor racing, so when you hear ITV’s warning of blood to come, you assume there’ll be a car accident. Then, by the time we reach dinner towards the end of the episode, you’ve completely forgotten the warning. And suddenly blam! – the whole thing turns into Alien, with poor Lord Grantham projectile vomiting blood all over the dinner table during one of Downton’s refined evening occasions. It really shouldn’t be silly at all, but the sheer unexpected shock of it provokes startled laughter as much as horror.

Silly speeches: Branson: “There’s a dinner that delivered more than you bargained for!”

Mr Spratt IS Cassandra Jones

Silly-ha-ha or Silly-WHAT? Both.

How silly? For Downton’s last regular episode before its Christmas grand finale, there had to be a decent amount of silliness in the mix. Mrs Patmore’s B&B struggling because the first couple to stay there were adulterers is up there with some of the sillier plots, but it’s out-sillied by the reveal of the true identity of Edith’s magazine’s agony aunt – none other than the Dowager’s butler Spratt. One thing you can certainly say for it, it was the most memorable and characterful thing Spratt ever did.

Silly speeches: Edith and Laura: “Bananas!”


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Juliette Harrisson

Sep 11, 2019



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