This post contains spoilers through the second season finale of Downton Abbey.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, but there was something disconcerting in seeing a rising fervor for Downton Abbey this season precisely as the show revealed its major structural flaws. And while the season finale (really, the Christmas episode aired as a stand-alone in the UK) contained a number of beautifully-filmed emotional high points (I particularly like Carson framed between Matthew and Mary during the servant’s ball), it also illustrated how those flaws have hollowed out or overstretched what could have been richer stories.
Downton Abbey seems to have become allergic to consequences. Presumably the next season will see Sir Richard attempting to exact vengeance on Mary, but unless Matthew is to behave the cad and back off his proposal, any efforts to shame her will be blunted by the protection of her marriage. Bates, it seem, will not hang, and the show seems dedicated to the idea that the only way Anna can be happy is through his eventual exoneration. Lord Grantham will forgive Sybil, and she and Branson will bring a grandchild back to Downton eventually. The only people who seem to have their ambitions thwarted, and then not even consistently, are Thomas and Edith—the show’s determination to short shrift the latter seems increasingly like habit rather than narrative integrity.
How much sharper would Downton Abbey be if Mary were forced to suffer disgrace and exile? If Bates had actually murdered his wife, a crime that would simultaneously feel emotionally justifiable and expose the hollowness of a system where the servant classes rely on noblesse oblige, rather than merit, for advancement? If Sybil had difficulty adjusting to life with Branson, and the show was brave enough to turn that fairy tale into an exploration of the costs of progress?
But that would require a broader story, and it points to the clutch of weaknesses at Downton Abbey’s core. I agree with Maureen Ryan that the longer season of the show has exposed some of Julian Fellowes’ limitations as a television writer. Enough is going on here that Downton Abbey—and it’s rare that I’d suggest this for a British show, though I often think American shows should have shorter season runs—really might have benefitted from an American-length season, and from an American-style writers’ room to give the storylines and the characters room to breathe.
The time jumps between episodes have become a way of moving the story forward, sometimes rapidly, but they’re also an crutch for Fellowes. When Sir Richard declared to Mary after she broke off their engagement that ““I loved you, you know…more than you knew. And more than you ever loved me,” it’s difficult to believe it from what we’ve seen on screen. The vast majority of their courtship and engagement was conducted in the language of power. Perhaps we’re meant to believe that a tenderness developed between them in the moments we aren’t privy to, but that’s a bit of a cheat, asking us to do the work that Fellowes hasn’t.
The abbreviated storytelling also means that Fellowes can be awfully abrupt with certain storylines. Take the potentially fake Patrick, for example. If he’s false, unraveling his impersonation would have been a fascinating, emotionally involved process. And if he’s real, there’s something awfully callous about simply letting him vanish, exiling him from his ancestral rights—and more importantly, a decent existence—on grounds of his disfigurement. Either way, it’s inexplicable that the family wouldn’t want to know for certain whether he is real or false. If he’s real, Matthew would suddenly be thrust into a very different kind of life, and if false, they would want the evidence to rebut any future claim the false Patrick might make to the estate. Dropping him in simply to shock us with his disfigurement and the possibility of great upheaval and having him vanish conveniently is deeply lazy storytelling that pays a Glee-worthy lack of respect to the actual investments and likely reactions of the people at hand..
Similarly, the treatment of Edith has been truncated and odd, increasingly detached from emotional realism. What happened to the girl who was dashing about the countryside in a car, kissing farmers, taking control of the officers entertainment at Downton? Is she so untouched by the war that she’s ready to retreat to the rules that governed her behavior and passions before it? Are we really to believe that Sir Anthony’s rejection of her is to be the end of things between them? Or has Fellowes simply not found room for Edith in the countless other stories he’s trying to tell in a very limited number of episodes? It feels suspiciously more like the latter than the former.
I’ve wrestled all season with the question of whether Downton Abbey is progressive, conservative, or, as Carina Chocano argues convincingly in this week’s New York Times Magazine, neither fish nor fowl as we currently define them. But whatever the show’s politics are, Matthew’s proposal was a reminder that it’s decisively narratively conservative. The characters who play the most conventional roles—the slightly thwarted lovers—and whose union is most important to the preservation of Downton Abbey and the social order that comes with it, stand squarely at the center of the frame. The women who make daring, unconventional grabs for the lives they dearly want, whether it’s Sybil’s escape with Branson or Gwen’s landing a secretary’s job, vanish from it entirely.
And everyone else seems trapped in a show that risks becoming as airless as the mansion it chronicles: Anna will forever long for Mr. Bates; Edith will become the latest aristocratic ghost to grace Downton’s halls if she doesn’t escape to a neighboring country estate; Daisy will replace Mrs. Patmore; Thomas will forever be searching for the dog in the woods and the advancement its discovery represents; and Carson and Mrs. Hughes will continue to reign over it all, a place for everyone and everyone in their place.