Downton Abbey thoughts, Season Two

* I’m quite proud of myself for remaining almost entirely unspoiled about the entirety of Downton Abbey to date. What little I did happen across told me less than nothing. A TV Guide cover asking whether Mary and Matthew would marry only asked the question obvious to any viewer from the pilot on. And hey, when was the last time a PBS show ended up on the cover of a supermarket checkout-aisle magazine anyway? I was more happy for the show than irked at the TMI. More troubling was the season-finale review headline I saw in the sidebar at XOJane: “A Happy Ending No One Wanted,” it read, so at least to an extent, I knew where things were headed. (Once I figured out it wasn’t part of this Julieanne Smolinski piece on handjobs, that is.) But it was more cryptic than revelatory: Was it referring to an ostensibly positive outcome the characters nevertheless didn’t really want? Or did it mean the show had served us something it expected us to like, but we didn’t? I wasn’t spoiled, I was intrigued. (Having seen the ending, which was the happy ending I wanted thankyouverymuch, I still can’t figure out what they must have meant.)

* Rather, what I’d heard about the second season, from a comment here, a tweet there, was that it wasn’t as good at the first, and that this dimunition in quality was tied to an increase in the soapiness of the storylines. And indeed, as reported, Series Two was some sudsy shit. The evil ex returns! An imposter! Rejected by Father after marrying across the tracks! Pregnant after a night’s indiscretion! The climactic all-hands-on-deck natural disaster that threatens them all! Random and unexplained yet somehow reassuring flashes of the paranormal! The doctors say he’ll never walk again, for god’s sake! Each and every one of these plots was featured on The Young and the Restless over the past year, folks. Each and every one!

* But to be blunt — who cares? The show is a soap. It’s about romance and family among a huge cast in a fixed geographic location. Why not embrace, and enhance the production value, of as many soap tropes as possible? At any rate nothing here was more outlandish than Lady Mary’s first sexual encounter ending with the death of her lover in flagrante, for pete’s sake. All of it was handled with the wit and skill and beauty I’d come to expect from the show. (God was it beautiful to look at at times — the misty Christmas morning, the red afternoon light in the library as the family watches the touring war-hero general play a game, the swirling camera when Anna first spotted the secretly returned Bates down in the village.) And frankly, no one who watches Breaking Bad has any right to complain about any show being over the top or hard to swallow.

* For me, the show this season was notable as a showcase for a handful of the performers/characters, and for World War One.

* Rob James-Collier’s Thomas was certainly a grower this season. For starters his is the most underrated of the show’s Great Speaking Voices — the stentorian tones of Carson, the silken waveform of Lady Mary, the bedroom rasp of Lady Sybil, the posh perfection of Lord Grantham. Thomas’s voice sounds like it’s only slipping out of his mouth partway, like it’s hiding something in there somewhere. It sounds like it’s squinting.

* Aside from that, though, I think we got a lot more evidence that he’s more than just some Evil Queer stereotype. His homosexuality is treated with enormous, actually rather heartbreaking sensitivity this time around. (Granted, I thought so the first time, too — there was something crushing in watching him flail to get past that sleazy aristo played by Charlie Cox to get at the burning love letters that were to be his ticket to the top, crushing both in Thomas’s desperation and his lover/victim/victimizer’s swagger in physically overpowering him.) You can’t help but sympathize deeply with a man you’ve watched break down and cry over the suicide of the one person to whom he’s even come close to confiding the truth about himself over the entire course of the series. That that person was a badly wounded, blind, depressed stranger shows, I think, what Thomas truly thinks of himself. He’s a bully because he’s been bullied, overtly at times I’m sure, but also in a thousand ways large and small by the strictures of the heteronormative society to which he has no choice but to conform. Internalized oppression.

* But even his bullying was humanized. He unilaterally disarmed from his grudge match with Bates, and advised O’Brien to do the same. He was shown to display real fear and, I think, regret and shame over the results of his actions — when his attempt to become a black marketeer ended in ruin, say, or when he realized his dognapping had gone tits up. Like O’Brien when she looked in the mirror and saw a person who’d just attempted to injure a pregnant woman, I get the impression he wasn’t nuts about what he’d seen in himself, even if, in the end, his final scheme was rewarded.

* What’s more, his decision late in the season to be more cheerful, friendly, helpful, and productive may have been just an attempt to ingratiate himself with Carson and the Crawleys now that his prospects had dried up, but the fact of the matter is that, well, he became more cheerful, friendly, helpful, and productive. In the same way that his platonic folie a deux with Evil O’Brien in the first season helped incentivize bad behavior, I like to think that the new status quo, the new reactions and rewards he’ll receive for being a decent person, can’t help but steer him in that direction. The fact of the matter is he has a great smile, and he can be very charming and win people over just as easily by actually being decent as by faking it. Being a dreary, nasty fuck has very strong headwinds, and perhaps his new course of action will help him see there’s another, less unpleasant course he could set.

* In a similar vein, I came to internally refer to O’Brien this season as (to borrow a term from comics fandom, as I am wont to do) Nu’Brien. No, she wasn’t quite able to shed her old self — egging Thomas on with his black marketeering and shady attempts to get in Lord Robert’s good graces, making mischief with Mrs. Bates. But for the most part, she used her powers for good, not evil, even when her conception of “good” was as narrowly defined (PRESERVE AND PROTECT THE HONOR AND HAPPINESS OF LADY GRANTHAM) as possible. Like Thomas she had her moments of genuine regret — the atom bomb that was her realization that she’d essentially aborted Cora’s baby for nothing had its fallout, as did her poorly thought-through decision to alert the genuinely awful Mrs. Bates to Mr. Bates’ return to Yorkshire. And moreso than did Thomas, she was able to express concern and sympathy for the other servants, from William to Anna to, eventually, Bates himself. There are few things I value more in fiction than when characters overcome their differences to be kind to each other, so I found Nu’Brien rather moving.

* But even more than that, I just found her interesting. When you find out that in real life she’s pretty much a dime piece, you start not just to appreciate but to marvel at actress Siobhan Finneran’s physical comportment on the show. Unlike…well, every other character, I think, O’Brien reveals nothing with her face or voice. She’s like an automaton compared even to Thomas, let alone comparable women characters — Mrs. Hughes, say, or Mrs. Patmore, or Anna or Jane or Ethel or even Shore. That kind of control of one’s face and voice and body is admirable in an actor. She’s kind of the inverse of my beloved Mickey Doyle in Boardwalk Empire, her buttoned-up weirdness a contrast with his showy weirdness, but both of them every bit as watchable and pleasurable.

* So Lord Robert’s midlife crisis was provoked by an actual crisis! That’s smart writing, especially given how out-of-left-field his unfaithfulness to Cora would have felt were it not rooted in his deep disappointment in himself and in the system over his helplessness during the War. Of course there was the subtle and simultaneous strain of dissatisfaction with, even dislike of, Cora herself — her inability to meet his emotional needs or even recognize that he had any during Downton’s wartime period, her pragmatism-cum-coldness over the various interpersonal crises that developed during that time, particularly regarding Mary and Matthew. And his impotence over the War was echoed by his loss of control over the fates of Mary and Sybill, and even over Downton itself. All told, you had a guy who’d been raised all his life to be the center of his world suddenly discovering that a) he wasn’t, and b) in a lot of ways it wasn’t much of a world to begin with. He asked Jane, his ersatz paramour, if she ever wondered what it was all for. Can’t get more direct than that.

* But even before that, he had an exchange with Cora I wrote down verbatim: “I don’t think you’re a fool, isn’t that enough?” she asks him. “No,” he replies. “Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.” It struck me then as an astute take on how frustrating, even confusing, it can be to us when we find ourselves unable to take succor from our significant others and life partners despite the abiding satisfaction we receive from them in every other respect. But now I see it as the roots of a crisis of confidence, in himself and in the institutions that shored him up. Thus he went from a character I didn’t even mention in my discussion of Season One, during which his stalwart reliability rendered him a prop more than a player, to one of my favorite characters on the show. Hugh Bonneville rendered him utterly likeable throughout.

* The main “She’s Leaving Home”-type story here was Sybil’s, of course, and her runaway romance with the Bono of the motorpool. But I was more profoundly moved by Edith’s story, how she quietly came into full personhood as she took on the responsibility of providing for the wounded officers in Downton’s care. As everyone always said, there was little doubt that her sisters would find their place in the world, even if they never defied convention as Sybil did. By contrast, Edith is a prime example of the true cost of the sex and class system, which walls off potentially productive members of society on both sides of the divide from finding their true calling and making the contributions they’re truly capable of making. Only the apocalyptic upheaval of the Great War enabled Edith to do something other than wooing lower-upper-class suitors. When you think of Oscar Wilde imprisoned or Alan Turing killing himself, when you think of centuries of potential giants of politics or literature or science toiling unthanked on Mississippi plantations, when you think of half the population of Saudi Arabia forbidden even to drive cars, think of what these people could have done for the classes that oppressed them, of whatever stripe. The loss of the oppressed is far more grave, but it’s not just the oppressed’s loss, is what I’m saying.

* Am I the only one who started singing “How do you solve a problem like Lavinia?” to himself the moment she looked a little ill at the dinnertable? The show (I know, it’s all written by one dude, but “the show” is a hard habit to break) wrote itself into a corner with this lovely, pleasant, selfless lady — certainly more pleasant and selfless than Lady Mary even at the best of times! — and solved it in a manner I found rather crass, whatever its realism. It’s not as though she’d been allowed to develop into anything but the remotest corner of the Matthew/Mary/Carlisle/her love quadrangle, so while her loss illustrated both the reach and the caprice of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, we really only felt that loss through the other characters, not through Lavinia herself. This was the second time I thought the show grabbed real-world catastrophes and clumsily wielded them as two-bit storytelling tools — the other, and more egregious, being the time that both the Great War and the Troubles were reduced to farce in Branson’s wacky assassination/protest-by-prank mix-up.

* These were all the more striking in light of how well the show dealt with the War itself most every other time. Downton Abbey was never going to be an explicitly antiwar show — it’s just not a political beast, and at any rate a show that values loyalty and honor and courage as much as this one does is going to be fairly helpless in the face of the choice to depict cowardice as either a moral failing or an act of sanity against the insanity of the war itself. (Which I suppose is a political program, disguised as apolitical by centuries of morals established by the masters of war.) But that doesn’t mean that the show couldn’t use its focus on the complexities of familial and romantic relationships in the context of the old class system to shine a spotlight on war’s costs where those concerns intersected.

* I think my favorite example here is a simple, physical aspect of one actor’s performance: The black, angry, piercing depression in the eyes of Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley after he’s paralyzed. He displayed an intensity (and a handsomeness, not incidentally) he’d never been able to before, and the rupture in the presentation was sufficient to convey just how bad things really were for him, and by extension for everyone.

* But really I liked all the major war storylines: William’s slow death and its impact on Daisy, lingering even after he’d gone; the tale of two war widows with Robert’s beloved Jane and the shunned unmarried Ethel; Thomas’s million-dollar wound; Matthew and William’s painful goodbyes, and their bizarre it-was-all-but-a-dream returns from the front before inevitably heading back into the breach; even the craziness of the False Patrick, with his burns and bandages and Anthony Perkins voice.

* My one regret is that Molesley’s shirking never went anywhere. Between that, his doomed run at Anna (thwarted by Bates), his equally doomed run at becoming Lord Grantham’s valet (also thwarted by Bates), and his drinking at the Spanish Flu dinner, I thought he was headed for a full-fledged Character Arc, with said arc bending toward villainy, but the light comedic business with him getting drunk was the last we saw of him. He was the dog that didn’t bark.

* A few more observations:

* Good Lord did sleevelessness become Michelle Dockery. I found myself awfully glad Lady Mary was stuck with the one dress for the duration.

* What better time to cheat on your spouse or fiancée than when she’s laid up with a pandemic that’s killing millions worldwide?

* Just about the only thing that could make the Dowager Countess more entertaining was to have her start laughing at her own jokes, so thank goodness they did exactly that. “I do hope I’m interrupting something” and “I don’t expect you’ll see me again”/”Is that a promise?” are lines for the ages by the way. Also, any time I really look at Maggie Smith’s eyes, I think to myself that she’s got a truly great villain role in her somewhere, if the right part comes along. I mean a David Lynch-type villain, a villain who radiates menace. The Dowager Countess is a pussycat compared to what’s potentially in there.

* What a pleasure it is to watch a show during which the problem for the actors is that time moves fast rather than slow. I’ve been watching The Vampire Diaries (it’s fun! It’s like True Blood without the intentional camp factor, so it’s like this super-serious exploration of sexy young vampires and witches and werewolves taking their shirts off and literally ripping people’s hearts out on-camera), and at some point during its third and current season it hilariously revealed that not even a year had gone by since the pilot. Characters had gone from “la-di-da, cheerleaders, football players, popular girls, blah blah” to “my entire family and circle of friends has either been murdered by or turned into vampires” between the start of junior year and the Fourth of July. Lost is probably the best example of a show where each episode spanned a single day or so, at least for a while. Yet in comics like Love and Rockets, or in shows like Battlestar Galactica, we see just how rich for the storyteller and pleasurable for the audience taking advantage of the swift passage of time can be. I’m not 100% convinced that Downton Abbey has sufficiently aged its performers to account for, what, the passage of seven years of story time over the course of one year of real time, but it’s a challenge I find myself glad they’ve accepted.

* Most poignantly, I found myself pretty profoundly moved and disturbed by the scene in which the family and staff gather round the clock to honor the war’s end, because it reminded me of the now-quaint notion advanced by another of the Great Post-Millennial TV Dramas: “Wars end.” Ha, remember when that was true?

4 Responses to Downton Abbey thoughts, Season Two

  1. DerikB says:

    “Lost is probably the best example of a show where each episode spanned a single day or so, at least for a while.”

    Deadwood.

  2. bobsy says:

    So strange, in an icky way, seeing reviews of DA pop up on this blog (and others, I know, nothing personal at all against STC here).

    It’s complicated, and probably not worth explaining, but I would never, ever watch an episode of Downton Abbey on matter of absolute principle. It’s as close as a TV show is going to get to simple comicbook Evil.

  3. [...] pal Sean T. Collins wrote about the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey. As always, insightful [...]

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