My husband and I have been watching Downton Abbey these past weeks and we’re now partway through the second season (so, you know, here there be spoilers, at least up to part way through the second season–be ye duly warned). We both really liked the first season, and I found the first few episodes of the second season engaging.
There’s a lot to love–the beautiful setting, the beautiful characters; the fact that the good characters, aside from minor flaws (a temper, an impulsiveness, a peculiar blindness in the context of one’s lady’s maid), are very good; and the bad characters, aside from occasionally redemptive acts, are reliably awful. This means that as viewers, we can feel a kind of safety in watching. Bates will always be quiet, courtly and honourable, even to his own detriment; Lady Sybil will be reliably activist and progressive; and so on.
This reliability is something appealing about the show. Except when it stops being appealing, and starts to feel static.
This stasis isn’t endemic, of course. At this point in season two, a couple of the characters have revealed a little more about themselves. It’s a fine line between this and actual transformation, in some cases.
Lady Edith, for instance, was an extremely one-sided character in season one. We primarily saw her in the context of her contentious relationship with Lady Mary, which brought out the worst in her, and I remember feeling a little irritated by this, since it was obvious that she might be rather different outside of that context. I don’t know to what extent season two has changed her, and to what extent she’s simply been shown in other situations, where she has a chance to be herself. It’s likely a mix of the two.
The Dowager (Aside: Maggie Smith alone makes this show worth watching. She more or less OWNS every scene in which she has a speaking part) has also possibly changed, or revealed more of herself–I’m not sure which. She went from being a snobbish stickler of propriety to being a curmudgeonly grandmother figure who is protective of her family and happens to be a dowager countess.
Other “good” characters–Mrs. Patmore, Bates, Anna, Cora, Grantham, Carson, et al. have stayed more or less the same. Though the story arcs stretch across episodes, in some ways the format is like episodic television, in which everyone retains the same fundamental characteristics, and in each episode they have to face different situations and respond based on those particular characteristics (think: MacGyver, Murder, She Wrote, etc.).
I don’t mind this, actually. I rather enjoy these characters, and seeing them interact.
My main frustration with the show comes from the baddies of the piece: Vera, O’Brien, Thomas. In season two, we learn that O’Brien has a soft spot for PTSD victims and is more loyal to Cora than she was in season one. But in every other context, she’s as nasty as ever. Yet, she remains employed. I find Cora’s blindness vis-a-vis O’Brien mystifying, particularly considering how much everyone upstairs seems to know about all the minutiae of goings-on downstairs.
I would have wished for more nuance from Vera as well. She enters, issues threats, talks about wanting money and laughs evilly. I think the story would have been more compelling if we actually had an inkling of compassion for her, rather than just presenting her as a totally nasty and horrible antagonist. Even if Bates never feels that compassion, I would have liked to. I’d have liked to have glimpsed her situation, her hardship, her point of view. For me, that would have escalated the conflict, because I’d be more ambivalent.
But my biggest issue with season two is Thomas. He was awful in season one. Then, in the first few episodes of season two, we saw him on the front–amid the horrible, nightmarish trenches of the Great War. We saw him scared, experiencing things that you’d think would have changed him deeply, traumatized him, and for the purposes of story, provided him with an opportunity for growth.
Indeed, he’s so afraid, that he intentionally wounds himself to get away from this situation–and I suspect that far braver souls than he would have done the same thing amid the horrors of the trenches. But then, he gets back and is completely unchanged. This really disappointed me. I mean, if he’d been a different kind of horrible after he got back–as a result of trauma, anger, bitterness, some PTSD of his own, whatever–I could see that. But he’s exactly the same kind of nasty as he was before: mean spirited, nasty-tongued, petty, scheming and malicious. It’s as if the war hasn’t put things in any kind of perspective for him at all.
And then, there are the wafer thin circumstances under which he was brought back (Grantham to Carson: “Well, Cora seemed so excited and I didn’t want to disappoint her.” WTF? This is the guy who stole, then lied about it and tried to pin it on an honourable character whom Grantham considers a friend–in a world where that sort of thing is enough to get you dismissed without a character). It all felt rather contrived.
The result: we have precisely the same set up, with almost the same cast of antagonists (plus Vera) as in season one, but with the war as a backdrop.
This, for me, makes the show feel rather static. And while some of the patterns of the show are fine–and rather comforting, really–between the three main black-and-white villains, I’m honestly debating about whether to keep watching. I like villains who are awful but intriguing. Or better yet, characters who are fully developed, flawed and nuanced, and who happen to be villains because their interests are in opposition to the interests of the protagonists.
The counter weight–the element of the story that would keep me watching–is Lady Mary’s growth. Amid a number of characters who are relatively static (even Lady Sybil is static–she’s just more of what she was in the first season. So: more about equality, more about women’s rights etc.), Lady Mary is actually changing. She has grown and matured in ways that I think are real, consistent with her character, but also gratifying to watch. I’m intrigued to know how she develops and what happens with her.
Downton also invites comparison with another British series that is named after a house: namely, Brideshead Revisited (and I’m not talking about the recent film, which I am told was execrable. I mean the BBC series starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud and Claire Bloom). Brideshead is set between the wars, and is also about a titled family and their troubles during the transition from the old world values into the new.
And yet, it is also fundamentally different: this isn’t a safe world of characters who can be relied upon, but rather a place in which friendships and romances are inexpressibly sweet, but fleeting and ephemeral–a place in which the characters’ fundamental values come into conflict with their desires, hopes, inclinations. The characters in Brideshead often go to dark places indeed, and they are changed by those places. They emerge from them infinitely sadder and more solitary. And yet, it is all so beautifully told, so wonderfully and evocatively depicted. I find it a haunting series–I’ve seen it more than once–visually lovely, compelling, nuanced and replete with discussion points about the nature of character, faith, morality and indeed, the human condition. If this sounds at all intriguing, I highly recommend you check it out!