March 07, 2012

The Definitive Downton Post

Ok, ok, "definative" might be overstating. But, you guys, give me some credit: I have been so good about not posting here about Downton Abbey.  And this is all I will post about Downton (I promise) until the end of the next Season. Be warned all ye who enter here:
If you have not finished Season 2: do not read on!  
You have been warned.

I think we can all safely admit that people are obsessed with Downton Abbey. For my part, I was late to the game--even at Christmas I had yet to see any of it. Then one stressful evening, I dived in, and was gone.

The common complaints against the series is that the plot is too soap-opera-y, the writing too cliched, the climax of each episode too melodramatic (and predictable), and that overall it portrays a too intimate (and therefore unrealistic) relationship between the servants and the Lords and Ladies of the house. (Another common complaint is that it is sexed up. People who say this only watched the first two episodes.)

All those complaints are fair; I cannot bring myself to refute them entirely. In point of fact, some of the most fantastical events of the first season (the death of Mr. Pamuk, the blind cook salting a dessert) are actually true stories. But having stretched the our conscious disbelief so well, I found my patience growing thin when twists turned up in the second season each more contrived than the last. The king of all twists was the return of "Patrick"--when British critics proclaimed that Downton had jumped the shark. A blind cook is funny and human. An amnesiac heir is too tedious to even be considered absurd.

I cannot speak to the predictability of the major twists in Season Two, because most of them were spoilt for me. I knew both that Matthew would walk, that Livinia would die, that Bates would go to prison,* and that Carlyle was a fiend. Still, there were too many cliched endings: did Matthew have to come back right in the middle of Mary's song? (But was I thrilled when he did? You bet!) Moreover, the breadth of storylines sometimes distracts from the stories we actually want to see.  Did we really have to go through all that ridiculous drama with Ethel and her baby-daddy? Downton is, especially in the second season, high camp.* And I honestly don't think I'd have it any other way. Paraphrasing one critic, I say, Downton, you're just too much, but I love you anyway.

Other reviewers--especially in the more literary and/or more conservative circles--tend to compare it with great works of literature.  (Sorry to pick on you, Mr. Brown, but it must be done.) Downton fails because it is not as elegant or well crafted, with characters as deep, and story-lines as fulfilling as Jane Austen. This strikes me as very unfair. I don't think Fellowes would aspire to be considered the next Austen, or even, (a better historical and thematic fit) Downton the next Brideshead. If a bunch of marketers say X is the new Y, should we believe them?*

Some critics say it doesn't go far enough in subverting the preconcieved notions of the Edwardian era. They proclaim that Downton is not truthful to the underrepresented aspects of the time (for eg: every valet in the history of the world was also the Lord's homosexual lover, so why isn't Bates?). I don't have patience for such nonsense.  I appreciate Downton because it portrays the unrepresented aspects of that time period, and those particular social groups in a way that is neither cliched nor subversive. It doesn't make every valet gay but it does show someone struggling with his homosexuality--and I don't mean this as a moral claim.  The meeting between Thomas and the Duke in the first episode, could have just been a titillating blip in the script. But instead we find a complex character--self-serving, but also struggling against a world he feels is unfair. His homosexuality is a part of that complexity, not an over-used trope. 

These arguments continue with an attack on Fellowes himself--that he is only promoting the aristocracy because he is himself an aristocrat. But, I will stand up for Julian Fellowes and the Crawleys. There is something worthwhile about the story--no matter how ludicrous it gets at times--because the story is actually about one thing we have no natural understanding of in America, but which we see (and perhaps envy): aristocratic virtue. 

Yes, aristocratic virtue. I'm not going to get all Aristotelian on you. (Miss M, will you?) But it struck me that the major thrust of the first season was an argument for the virtue of an Aristocrat: standing up for tradition, being model of right action and judgement, and yet in the peculiar (to American eyes at least) position of having men and women (whom you might indeed call friends) serve you. The entire first season is about a new heir coming to terms with his role as heir. Matthew, the hardworking middle class lawyer must learn to be dressed by his valet. As Matthew needs to continue to work as a lawyer, so to his valet needs to--and finds worth and meaning in--being Matthew's valet. Matthew's growing into the role of heir, as well as a friend to Lord Grantham is a lovely thing to watch. 

Lord Grantham is a man of principle and worth--certainly the finest character, and in many ways the best drawn. (It doesn't hurt that the excellent Hugh Bonneville plays him with grace and vigor.)  His nobles oblige doesn't have all the answers in the face of modernity. When the War hits, and he is not allowed to fight, he finds himself turned upside down: his home is no longer his own, his wife has no time for him, he is anxious for the welfare of Matthew (who has truly become a son), and his two of his daughters have made incomprehensible matches. No wonder he was sore. It showed a lack of imagination on the part of the writers to have him fail in that particular way: kissing a maid in a closet. It was strikingly out of character. And worse, it took what could have been a moment to add complexity to the character turned into a total cliche. 

Lord Grantham recovered well, and chose (as he does again and again) the good of his family, his house, and even the good of the maid in question, over his own personal desires. Still it was a disappointment, and showed a real lack of imagination.  As Stearns pointed out this evening, Grantham needed to fall in some way--to humanize him, give him new understanding as life after the War takes shape, and, most of all, to prepare him for Mary's confession. But not in that way. It's actually the only disappointment of the series that still stings a bit. 

There are so many more things to talk about. Bates and Anna (the best character by far, though I am afraid her pure and sacrificial love will have to pay the highest price of all); O'Brien's bangs, the tediousness of Cousin Isobel in the second season, and the brilliance of Dame Maggie Smith…always.  And I can't forget to mention the best scene of the entire series: when all are gathered in the great hall to commemorate the cease fire.  That was beautifully, marvelously done--and conveyed to American audiences, for whom WWII holds much stronger sway in our imaginations, just how important that war was for the making of modern England, and what a great loss the country suffered at the time.

But more than all this--what fascinates me most about Downton and about the frenzy surrounding it, is that the major dramatic tension is over something common and meaningless in today's world: a woman's lost virginity--a one night stand! 

Mary (of the most fantastic eyebrows) punishes herself for her sin, first by denying Matthew, and then by choosing the evil Sir Richard (a "half-man" as Julia calls Rex in Brideshead) (there I go again!) as her spouse, and, as J said, "the earthly wage of her sin." With the dreadful Sir Richard, Mary allows her cold and calculating side to over-rule her warmth and compassion. She isn't suffering because she fears the possible scandal. Nor is she mourning lost love--how beautifully and generously she welcomes Livinia, and promotes Livinia's interests. She is suffering because she is guilty. She cannot bear the thought that the men who she loves most (Grantham, Matthew, and, to some extent, Carson) will judge her for it. But then how beautiful her father's response--that she shouldn't be bound by her folly because she is married to someone willing to use it as a threat. When Lord Grantham frees her to refuse Sir Richard, the confession to Matthew, and his generous response ("Don't joke when I am trying to understand.") couldn't be far behind. 

And Downton really does pay off in the end.  Was there ever a lovelier proposal? 

* I think Bates is guilty. Do you?

* Now that I think of it, most of my favorite British costume dramas (that are not based on great works of literature) are high camp, too. Duchess of Duke Street, anyone (and that was based on a true story). Or House of Eliot.

* Though, the marketers are right, too, when it comes to their own craft. No Masterpiece show has been as popular since Brideshead, and it is safe to assume that most people who like Downton will like Pride and Prejudice and Brideshead if they haven't already given it a chance. And they really should.

Well, I think Dame Maggie Smith ought to have the final word:


  1. I think the music in the background makes it too serious. Otherwise these are the gems from Ms. Smith's character.

  2. Oh, I was so annoyed with the lost-amnesiac-cousin-from-the-Titanic bit! Argh. It seemed so poorly tacked-on, and poorly acted, compared to the rest of the series; I wonder why on earth Julian Fellowes put it in there?
    I hadn't thought about the unoriginality of Lord Grantham's misstep with the maid, though; to be sure, I was mad at him for falling, but I also understand that the series had to show that he's imperfect, as are we all, at some point. How else would you have done it? It did work as a way of demonstrating the importance of maintaining a marriage, though.
    I also enjoyed the development of Mary's character throughout both seasons. Very well done.
    And finally, I want to be Maggie Smith when I grow up.

  3. Bridget1:15 PM

    I am not so sure it was a one-night-stand. I am still astonished at Mary's reply to her mother when she asked "Did he force himself on you?" And so, as an avid Thomas Hardy fan, I think Mary's identifying herself with Tess of the D'Urbervilles was very perfect. (I wonder how many Thomas Hardy fans there are in the American audiences?)

  4. That's fair, Bridget. I was using the term less as an accurate description and more to convey the sense that what she did is not considered wrong at all today.

  5. Carlyle is Rex Mottram! How did I not catch that? I wonder if Sybil will end up "thwarted" like Cordelia - I can see Branson getting mixed up in IRA violence.

    I felt like the war episodes were less compelling than the march of "OMG modernity" in Season 1. I wish there had been more background chatter about specific campaigns and casualty tolls.

    But Mary's confession to Matthew was one of the finest moments yet, from her admission of lust to Matthew's compassionate confusion. You are so right about the aristocratic virtue angle.

  6. I hope Sybil won't, Sarah. I'm afraid that's where it's going, but I hope for more creativity on Fellowes part in that regard. Branson is a brash and fiesty and fired up with ideas, but hopefully providing for a family will sober him a bit, and maybe he'll become a respectable, hardworking, man of the people.

  7. And p/p: I think we all want to be Maggie Smith! ;)

  8. Interestingly, I was slightly more annoyed with Lady Grantham than with Lord Grantham when it came to the maid incident--she was totally ignoring her husband prior to that, what a lesson! But I agree with the consensus that the amnesiac supposed-heir was stupid and wrong (and creepy, and poor Edith!).

  9. I am becoming afraid that Bates is guilty, too. It's killing me!

  10. I am willing to put money down that Carlyle did Mrs. Bates in to keep her quiet.

    I just love the character development in this series. O'Brien esp. she grows, but she never acts out of character.

    And of course Lady Mary, if you go back and watch a scene from the Season 1 after finishing Season 2 you remember how much you disliked her at the beginning, but she has grown in a way that is believable.

    Sigh, I love Downton.

  11. oh my gosh--T! That is brilliant. And it makes Carlyle a thorough villain. I like it. Very tidy.

  12. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing about Richard Carlyle. Hmm... when does Season 3 start?


    (ps. they've already extended it for seasons 4/5)

  14. Why can't it just be suicide with Mrs. Bates? Maybe that's too neat.

  15. I've always liked Bates, so I hope he isn't guilty.

    Lord Grantham kissing the maid was the low point for me this season. I've really enjoyed watching Mary and O'Brien evolve. I couldn't stand either of them in the beginning. Can't wait for season 3!