THERE ARE SPOILERS AND SPOILERS AND SPOILERS IN THIS POST.
If you have not finished Season 2: do not read on!
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.
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?*
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!
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: