Warning: This post contains discussions of plot points up to and including the most recent episode, which aired February 11 in the US.
What is happening to the writing on Downton Abbey? Julian Fellowes has committed some major storytelling sins, and only the general strengths of the production — the actors, the setting — are able to carry it through. It’s frustrating, because there is a glimmer of the really fantastic work that went into Season 1 but it’s overshadowed by misstep after misstep.
Misstep 1: Forgetting who your characters are.
Remember Season 1? When Lady Mary and Lady Edith so deliciously sabotaged each other’s pending marriages? Awesome trainwreck. Lady Edith was the best wicked ugly stepsister (I was sure we were going to find out that she was actually a stepsister) ever. This season she’s become saintly! But no! She wrecks a farmer’s marriage! But no! She listens to the wounded officers and knows about them! But no — she gets duped by whatisface in the mummy bandages. She’s good! She’s bad! She’s stupid! It was once said about one of Robert Heinlein’s female characters that she was so inconsistent that if she unscrewed her foot and stuck it in her ear, it would not have come as a surprise. I’m just waiting for Lady Edith to unscrew a foot.There is a difference between redeeming a bad character and making them inconsistent. Footman/corporal Thomas suffers from the same writing.
Misstep 2: Lack of conviction.
Hey, (I can imagine the conversation, although in much less of an American accent). Let’s do a series about the cusp of WWI when everything changed in England. You would have it all; the old world passing away, the modern world coming in. Class divisions shaken up. WWI. Political unrest. The flu. Again Season 1 went all out in depicting a world that was about to be upended and no one saw it coming. It was clever writing, good writing, engaging storytelling. This season unfortunately suffers from a failure of nerve.
Branson, the firebrand Communist who is out to change the world — and he plans to dump gross yucky stuff on the visiting general? That’s it?
Structurally the storytelling takes us up to an explosive point and then backs away from it. The imposter. Lady Sybil’s elopement (although Regency readers, didn’t you love the shoutout to Gretna Green?) The flu? The flu was probably the most terrible failure of nerve. Maybe I’ve read too much, and partly this is family history (my grandmother nursed everyone in her household through the flu even while sick with it herself), but the 1918 influenza epidemic was as devastating as WWI in terms of civilian deaths. It is doubtful it would have just hit three people in the house. The village would have been stricken as well. Ethel’s baby probably would have died — or more likely Ethel herself since the flu struck down young healthy people in a disproportionate amount.
Instead, the writers use the flu as a way to get rid of Lavinia, the inconvenient saint. It’s a terrible example of creating a setup and letting everything just fizzle.
Misstep 3. And people say I write fantasy.
Lord Grantham is too nice. Even when he goes to cheat on his wife, he’s too nice. Come on, no one is that nice. No one is that noble or sympathetic or so solicitous of his servants. And it’s no fair showing other people — Major Bryant’s father — being jerks to the servants as if that gets around the question.
Lady Mary presenting Anna with the bedroom for her wedding night. Oh now come on!! No really. Seriously?
If there is no conflict there’s no storytelling. And wishful thinking doesn’t make for good storytelling either. Fantasy requires reality to make it believable; when you go straight for the fantasy, you don’t just suspend disbelief, you destroy belief.
Now the good stuff.
On the flip side, I love Daisy’s arc. Poor kid. She is struggling her hardest to live according to her own sense of rightness, and Mrs. Padmore and William’s dad have both projected their own needs and desires on her. I hope she prevails, and if she has to tell Mrs. Padmore what for, then so be it. I know it’s dangerous talking back to the cook (Saki: “She was a good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go, she went”) but she made matters worse for Daisy and it wasn’t fair.
Thomas is back in livery, which is awesome! Now he can go back to his evil ways. Although I’ve noticed that there is a tendency of the writing to make it clear that bad things happen when servants leave service or get ideas above their station. Which is really ugly, all the more so because it’s probably unconscious. It reminds me of that restaurant we ate at in Fredericksburg — the one with the huge painting of the happy cotton plantation scene complete with slaves that I didn’t notice until I went to the ladies room. Yes, ugly. And all the more ugly because the owners of the restaurant clearly had no idea how inappropriate and terrible it was. Also, Thomas is gay, and gay = evil on the show, so why again am I happy that he’s back in livery? I don’t know, I just think the character is more interesting when he’s being devious.
Clearly I’m conflicted.
I’m also hooked. I want to find out what the finger to the lip tic the imposter did that so interested Lord Grantham. I want Rupert Murdoch to get what is coming to him, and it’s not Huxby or Lady Mary. I want Bates to redeem himself, unless he did kill that terrible woman, in which case, man, couldn’t he have done a better job of it? I want Thomas to find a good man and open an inn together with him far away, like maybe in Cicely, Alaska.
I can’t wait til next Sunday!