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Even between seasons, the British costume drama commands our attention
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
O’Brien is — or was — my favorite character on the show. I’m hardly alone in my love of hating her. After Finneran’s announcement was published on The Daily Mirror’s website, hordes of devastated fans wailed in grief. “NOOOOOOOOO!" said one reader post. "I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE! I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE!”
Finneran didn’t give The Daily Mirror much of a reason for her exit, other than “I am not doing it anymore.” (OK, be that way.)
But I just don’t get it. Who’s next to say “I’m out of here” — Isis, Lord Grantham’s beloved yellow lab? What’s wrong with being in one of the most popular, critically acclaimed shows in TV history? International fame and job security — isn’t that what all actors strive for? What are the options for a 50-plus actor like Finneran — John Osborne revivals in London’s West End?
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You don’t see veteran performers like Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, or Maggie Smith, the Dowager Countess, quitting the show. Even Shirley MacLaine was knocking at the castle door last season, and she'll be back. It has also been reported that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the opera singer, is joining the cast. No fool, she. At age 68, she’s performing wherever she can.
Boomers Can't Just Walk Off the Job
I get (sort of) why Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley, and Jessica Brown, who was Lady Sybil, quit the series. They’re young and in their prime. They can always find work, or so they think. I thought that too when I was their age and left a great magazine gig to be a freelance writer. But I don’t understand Finneran’s decision to say ta-ta to Downton. She’s a boomer. She should know better. You don’t give up the day job!
Downton Abbey minus O’Brien? That’s like Rebecca without Mrs. Danvers, the deranged, manipulating housekeeper who eventually torches Manderley, the stately English manor where she’s employed. Yes, Downton Abbey still has Thomas the conniving under-butler (or did when I last checked the Internet). But when push comes to shove, Thomas is no match for O’Brien.
I find O’Brien far more interesting than anyone taking tea upstairs. Lord Grantham is all about being stuffy. Lady Cora's mission in life, apparently, is being served breakfast in bed. Lady Mary’s greatest skill is delivering nasty digs to Lady Edith, her not-so-pretty sister. Then there’s Violet, the Countess Dowager — double takes being her raison d’etre. But O’Brien represents something much deeper: survival at any cost. She has obtained a very high position in an era when women didn’t have careers. She’s clever and intelligent, wears black (even off-duty) and goes by her last name. Did you know she has a first name? It’s Sarah. O’Brien’s definitely a woman ahead of her time.
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There Will Be No Goodbyes
The show’s producers say there will be no farewell scenes for O’Brien. If she has to go, can’t she at least get her comeuppance? She is, after all, a vengeful, backstabbing schemer. She needs to do something so bad that the Granthams cut her loose — maybe they should finally learn that O'Brien put soap on the bathroom floor so Lady Cora would slip and suffer a miscarriage. I feel cheated that I won’t be seeing O’Brien go down in flames. That never-to-be-filmed episode is too delicious to contemplate.
Don’t worry, the producers say. Losing cast members isn’t a bad thing for Downton. It helps keep the show alive, they say. Six new characters are coming aboard next fall. Besides Dame Kiri, there’s supposedly a love interest for Lady Mary and an elderly dowager for Violet to pal around with. So far, they sound like pretty tame additions. Even Mr. Bates and Anna have become boring, now that they’re married and living in their first home. They like decorating the cottage and going on picnics in the countryside. The Abbey needs O’Brien more than ever.
Online photos of Finneran in real life show her to be a voluptuous beauty, the complete opposite of O’Brien. Maybe she doesn’t want to play a frump anymore. If that’s the case, she needs to get over it.
But I’m not too worried. I’m not convinced O’Brien is leaving Downton for good. After all, you can’t believe a word she says. There’s always an ulterior motive. It’s in her nature to return — to burn the place down.