Ten days ago PBS aired the second season finale of Downton Abbey. I realize this review may be considered “late” and thus irrelevant by a culture in which relevance has a 27-second life span. Yet certain things in life demand time. They require thoughtful responses – not knee-jerk ones. I wanted to allow my thoughts to marinate. (Spoilers may follow depending on where you’re at in the series.)
And holy smokes did I need it after the finale episode. I cannot decide whether I loved the ending or felt betrayed by it. The entire season operated at a lower energy level than the first – despite the Great War, a Spanish flu outbreak, and murder trial. I kept waiting for Downton Abbey to return to its season one brilliance.
Confession. I binged on season one of Downton. I watched all seven episodes in six days. From the chatter across social media, I am not alone in my Downton obsession. (Last week’s finale drew 5.4 million viewers – the largest audience for PBS in three years.) The magnificence of Downton during its first season was its focus on the everyday lives of the ultra-rich and their servants – all living in one, massive country estate in Yorkshire, England.
The fights were petty. The characters were authentic in their display of common jealousies, catty snobbery, misguided self-interests, tentative love, conniving ambition, and cross-class friendships. Downton sparkled because it devoted itself to its characters. Its people. Sometimes the most fulfilling entertainment occurs when we are invited to watch the slow-burn narrative of characters who act so utterly human. The mundane is made new. It becomes extraordinary in its ordinariness. The occasional scandal and exceptional fashion doesn’t hurt either.
The second season stood poised to capitalize on its first. And yet, somehow, the human emotions and ambitions that fueled the first season were replaced by events. World War 1 might have served as a compelling backdrop to a changing culture and society, reflected within the occupants of Downton. Yet it served more like a crutch. Various subplots used the war as ways to progress forward, yet drained of the color and wit that marked the first season. The narrative waffled in its direction; it seemed to lack commitment. It either needed to spend more time within the battlefields or reduce its presence and commit fully to a homefront narrative.
As it was, the war functioned as a transparent machine for plot developments, such as Matthew’s temporary paralysis, William’s death, and the love triangle between Matthew, Mary and Lavinia. The Spanish flu, as well, seemed to primarily operate as a cop-out method through which Matthew and Mary could finally be together. Even the drama between Bates and the hateful Mrs. Bates – with her threat of publishing Mary’s scandalous secret – served more as a device to hold Mary hostage in an engagement to Richard Carlisle than a subplot driven by authentic motives. In many ways season two did not feel honest.
Regardless, I am still a Downton junkie. I still have hope for the series and its third season. Now that we’re finally over with the will-they-or-won’t-they of Matthew and Mary, perhaps we can now return to the aspects of Downton that made it so spectacular in the first place. There was a moment towards the end of this season, in which a spark of original brilliance leaped from the screen: the delightfully supercilious Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) and her daughter-in-law Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) conspired together on how to convince their middle-class, progressive, opinionated relative, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), to leave Downton to pursue some “greater calling,” such as refugee work.
Yes! That is the Downton I have come to love. The attention to those attributes that make us human, and thus relatable. Honest renderings of the everyday emotions, schemes, fears, dreams, and discontent we all face – with the added punch of style and gorgeous cinematography. C’mon Downton, I’m standing by you. I believe the real you is still there somewhere. Bring it for season three.
Downton fans, what did you think of the season finale?