Downton Abbey’s Bates Problem

Photo: Joss Barratt/Carnival Films

Let's start with the letters. Last night on Downton Abbey, poor, wrongfully imprisoned Bates was upset because he didn't have any. Then his only jail friend warned him about a planted shiv, Bates managed to rehide the single shiv in his cell mate's bed, and all the letters were delivered to their rightful owner. The audience was rewarded with a close-up on Bates's pale, haggard face as he smiled at the letters. What beautiful letters, his face said. I'm so happy we devoted a whole story line to these letters.

If only we at home could channel Bates's saintly patience. Downton has long overestimated Bates's appeal — that was so not the sex scene we wanted last season — but last night's episode was the breaking point: He is now the dullest character on a show that spends hours arguing about dinner jackets and real estate. Are there any crimes left that Bates has not been accused of? Is Julian Fellowes just angling for an SVU-style spinoff where Bates gets framed for something new every week?

It's not just the repetition that is frustrating; time spent on Bates is time stolen from Downton Abbey proper, with its intrigue and glittering parties and snotty one-liners. This is physically true in season three, when Bates is stuck in jail, but it has always been the problem with the character; Bates never belonged to the world of Downton, even before he was shipped to the big house. Apart from his wine skirmish with Thomas and his brace-bonding with Mrs. Hughes, Bates's story has been contained to Anna — his love for her, his inability to marry her (because of his crazy ex-wife), his missing letters from her. The show always had to interrupt its upstairs-downstairs flow for Bates and his latest misfortune, which inevitably involved getting blamed for something. The prison sentence just makes his separation literal.

It also highlights his shortcomings — his weird bursts of anger, his lack of charisma. Shirley MacLaine may be feeling it, but the Bates charm has been missing since season one, when he was just another valet with a limp and a good attitude. We rooted for Bates and Anna because everyone deserves love, and because Matthew and Mary wouldn't deliver. But all the major couples are married now (Sorry, Edith), and Bates's endless string of "not guilty" pleas is wearing thin, especially when there are babies and hot footman and maids turned prostitutes to deal with. We've already answered the will-they-won't-they (they will); we can already guess the outcome of his appeal ("Not guilty!"). Leave Bates to read his letters in peace offscreen, and give us more time with the characters who do things. Just don't let them frame Bates.