Continuing with season two of Downton Abbey in order to complete the totality of writing about the series so far, I find myself a bit underwhelmed. Season two finds the Grantham family in the midst of World War I, on the home front with their mansion being modified into a makeshift hospital and away from home with characters fighting in the war or moving away from Downton because of outward effects. Sadly, this season has been disappointing and didn’t really follow in the direction I thought it might that I had laid out in my article on season one. The direction Fellowes takes these characters as well as lingering and abrupt story lines begins to push things a little too far overboard or nowhere near far enough. The season still works largely though, due to the established characters who are just fun to hang out with, regardless of their overarching story.
My chief complaint of the season, is probably the handling of most of the storylines which seem to either be underdeveloped and abrupt or prolonged and wrung of any lasting emotion that makes us not even care anymore. Edith, the middle Grantham daughter, is a chief cornerstone of a couple short and undercooked story lines. Her first in the second episode concerns her relationship with a farmer that starts and stops solely within the confines of the episode. This could be fine if it contributed anything towards her character or story going forward (besides the pursuit of a husband), but it ultimately captures nothing and is never mentioned again. In episode six (the worst of the season) an injured Canadian officer comes to Downton claiming to be the previously thought dead heir to the Downton family while Edith re-establishes a previous attraction to him. It’s obviously set up to cast doubt on whether he’s lying or not, but it’s handled so haphazardly and offhand that it seems like we’re just rolling through obvious beats until he disappears at the end. These ideas seem very misplaced and serve as a roadblock to the hampered flow of the season. These complaints aren’t directed at Edith as a character (who grew more caring throughout the season, but it was mostly due to her activities as a nurse) but on how she is handled in certain storylines that neither serve her or the story any better.
On the flip side of things, Bates (Lord Grantham’s servant) tries to separate and divorce himself from his previous wife while taking up with Anna, one of the head servants. This could have worked fine if it was just spread over a couple episodes, but it lasts the entire season with him going back and forth with his previous wife and new repetitive kinks that keep popping up in his divorce. It’s a shame because Bates was one of the best characters of season one, and he gets shunned off to the side in a tedious story which keeps replaying the same beats. It’s as if Fellowes didn’t know what to do with Bates and Anna for a whole season beyond the divorce, so he just kept inventing new ways for them to be sucked back in until he ran out of episodes. Another frustrating storyline that lingered on for far too long was Daisy’s (a kitchen maid) guilt at marrying and saying she loved a man, just to make him feel better in the war, while she thought she didn’t share the same feelings. This would be fine for one episode, but it’s stretched so far beyond belief that it makes this dimwitted character even more unrealistically dumber that she can’t understand her feelings. All her actions of course point out that she did all these things because she loved him, while her dragging on about this helped no one.
The back and forth between Matthew and Mary over when they’ll get together (because it obviously was going to happen) is stretched, naturally, over the entire season as it is the major through line in the series. The story itself has enough twists and turns that it never really becomes boring in a narrative sense, except in this case it is the characters themselves who get a bit muddied. It’s frustrating when everything is laid out in front of these people to get together, and especially when you know they will get together eventually, and it takes a mountain of things for them to finally act on it. With how these characters are drawn, their actions and reasons why they can’t be together becomes impeding. Any normal couple would’ve got together by then, but it seems as if Fellowes is saying to the audience “Not yet, guys!”, and makes these emotionally stunted characters avoid each other once again. It only takes a couple people dying, a world war and endless gossip to be revealed before they finally get together.
It really all comes down to you as a TV viewer. Do you watch TV for the stories or for the characters? I’m still not entirely sure which side of the fence I fall on, I’d like to think it’s for the characters (which is true to an extent), but I largely also really care about the narrative with everything syncing together and feeling cohesive in the end. This season frustrated me because of that, as there was lots of stopping and starting, overwrought storylines and ones that just felt thrown in with not a lot of care done to them. The 8 episodes plus the Christmas special span about 4 years, with some of the episodes jumping as much as half a year in between them. This causes some inability to place what is still important, who knows what and creates a weird pacing problem where it’s hard to decipher what is still poignant and relevant at the time for these characters. My point is that even though the plot and its many regressions (lets not talk about how a character was “paralyzed”, but miraculously could walk again after a misdiagnosis) were dismaying, the characters still retained my patience and affinity for the show. I like pretty much all of these characters, and besides what I wrote above, I’m a big fan of the Matthew and Mary relationship story, just not always how the characters are strung along. I’m more forgiving of this seasons’ problems as I just enjoy hanging out with these characters and seeing them grow (for the most part) because of the war.
As it wouldn’t be all that fun leaving this article mostly negative (that’s a lie, it would be pretty fun), I’d like to touch on something that I forgot to mention in my first article and something that continues on into this season. There is an overwhelming sense of vision and direction that is showcased in each episode, with gorgeous shots that I could pick out of every episode if I wanted. While it’s not necessarily hard to make a shot look good in a period piece, since the sets and costumes are all so lush and elegant, making everything look picturesque, I’m more interested in the framing and shot compositions. A framing of a certain character between objects or other characters can do a lot towards building the emotion and carrying the story beyond words. While not a great episode in and of itself, in episode six after the Canadian soldier has left, Edith is seen sitting and seemingly enclosed between two pillars, crying, with the Grantham estate looming in the distance. It’s a striking image that makes us feel for her loneliness and her feeling of distance from the members of her family. In episode eight, the season finale, when Sybil, the youngest daughter, reveals to her father that she plans to marry a servant, her father Lord Grantham is framed terrificly. He faces the camera in focus, looking off screen while over his shoulder and behind him is his daughter, out of focus. This not only lets the actor Hugh Bonneville play this scene wonderfully off his face but also symbolize his unawareness of what’s going on in the house, especially with his daughter’s courtship. Simple framing and direction like this helps these scenes and characters portray dense layers and even encapsulate a whole character or storyline.
Looking back over the season and as I write this I’m beginning to question Fellowes’ writing in a complete narrative sense going forward. Coming from a largely film based background, I’m wondering if Fellowes isn’t all that accustomed with stretching and maintaining a story over eight hours as opposed to just two for a feature film. It’s a concept that intrigues me and something I’ll be looking out for next season with how he paces everything. All the pieces are there, it’s just a question of whether the form and structure of an entire season will be in place next year, instead of bits and pieces popping in and out. He can write characters and build their relationships like nobody’s business, it’s just the question of creating a believable and serviceable arc across the season that hits unique beats. I’m still all in with the show as these characters continue to engage and be pretty downright fun, but with some more focused narrative and structural development, season two’s disappointments could all just be a hiccup.