Downton Abbey Watch: House of Despair

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The formula for a cult hit is a tough one to sketch out. Though it seems odd to think of Downton Abbey as anything but a television juggernaut, it wasn’t necessarily destined for iconic status. No one was waiting for an Edwardian period drama set in Yorkshire; Mad Men opened the doors for the possibility of a successful historical study, but the charm of that show was the fact that many of its viewers had either lived through or heard first-hand stories of that era. British period pieces sat on the DVD shelves of American women everywhere, sure, but they didn’t feel fresh. No one seemed interested in ordering what Downton Abbey was serving.

And yet, when it hit, we ate it up. Perhaps we needed a dose of sumptuous luxury in a time of economic drought. Maybe we craved frothy love stories in a post-Sex and the City world. Some have suggested that the class issues felt vital in the age of the 99%. I like to think that Downton worked because it was simply too good to ignore. From the first Dowager quip, writer Julian Fellowes proved that it was possible to make a series set in the past that did not feel dusty. The first season had an unstoppable energy, and its universe was so intricate that one could disappear into it entirely. That, more than anything, may be why Americans are clinging to the show. It’s a fully-formed fantasy; pre-packaged escapism in a difficult time.

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So here we are, in Season Two, and people are nuts for Downton. Like, really nuts. A recent article in the New York Times described viewing parties for the show that feature 1910’s cuisine, hand-painted teacups, and fascinator hats. Jim Morrison’s widow apparently watches the show alone, in bed, in sweatpants and a tiara. We are truly living in the Golden Age of Downton hype.

Which is all to say, the second season should be much better than it is, and this week’s episode revealed cracks in the show’s shiny veneer. Downton functions best when its characters live in a bubble, because that’s where all the drama lies. The war has blown open that conceit, and now the show has morphed into Downton Abbey vs. The Outside World. This presents a whole set of problems — why anyone should care about the house’s internecine mini-dramas when boys are getting their heads blown off, for example. Suddenly, our glorious little micro world has something to prove; life inside Downton has to become even more intense and overwrought to rival the horrors of the battlefield. For the past few episodes, the show has tiptoed delicately around the war, allowing it to enter the house in a controlled and even comical way with the convalescent home scheme. Because there were wounded soldiers at Downton, we could acknowledge the front without any of the big tragedies, leaving us to care as fervently about a tender duet between Mary and Matthew as we would have in peace time. The love story has been trumping the war, but only because the war hadn’t really been a force in anyone’s life until now.

Not any more. The war has gone and detonated all over everything, and all of a sudden the plotlines we were told to invest in simply don’t matter as much. Welcome to the bloody, bloody Downton Abbey — it’s not exactly what we signed up for.

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For one thing, the glamour has vanished. The stately house still exists, but the bedazzled costumes do not. Only the Dowager Countess (and Lady Mary on her fated trip to London) still turn it out. Everyone else is in somber grey and white, devoting themselves to drabness as much as the cause. When the most titilating visual of the entire episode is Lavinia crying in a corset, then it is clear we have entered new territory.

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If Downton before the war was fueled by order, now it is fueled by despair. Nearly everyone in this episode is having some sort of crisis, and there is very little redemption. Matthew is paralyzed, and with the injury comes the hard truth that he will never procreate (Ooh! Mentions of consumation on Downton Abbey? How very!). This not only severs the possibility of a fulfilling life with Lavinia (whose eagerness to sign onto a sexless marriage is noble, if not a little immature. Where are the older women in her life to tell her this is a terrible idea?), but also the future of the entail.

Matthew’s pain ripples outwards and touches almost everyone in the family. Grantham learns that his estate’s future is yet again in jeopardy, while Mary nurses the wounds of a man she desperately loves but cannot be with. Michelle Dockery, who is carrying the show on her back, god bless her, has one of the most heartbreaking reactions I’ve seen on television when she learns through Lavinia that Matthew’s nether regions no longer work “properly.” It’s in that moment that she realizes that even if she were to somehow wrangle back Matthew’s affections, then they would come with a life of celibacy. Dockery plays this reckoning with such depth; her face switches from horror to sorrow to a deep understanding. Lady Mary, it seems, will never have a healthy sex life. The first time ended in disgrace, and her future partner doesn’t respect her enough to do her a favor without giving her a condescending speech about gaining the upper hand. Matthew may have been her only chance at having her bodice kindly ripped. Sex is not a topic that any of the proper ladies of the house would discuss, of course, but Mary is boiling with it, and it is so frustrating to see her resign herself to a life of chastity (or at least boredom with Carlisle).

But where Dockery toed the line with her performance, others veered into the mawkish. Daniel Stevens is dashing when on his feet, but laid up in a bed, he plays Matthew by pulling his face and rolling his eyes back into his head in lieu of transmitting deeper emotions about his paralysis. His insistence upon pushing Lavinia away is exciting — if it means we are a step closer to Lady Mary stepping into her place — but most of his scenes end in crumbling self-pity. This is how we would expect a “crippled” man to act, of course, but it is just setting the stage for future episodes full of a despondent Matthew who can’t think of anything but his legs (and what’s between them).

Even more macabre was William’s fate. In trying to save Matthew’s life, he sacrifices his, and takes Daisy’s moral compass right down with him. One interesting thing about the servants in Downton is their groupthink; it is hard to stray from the pack and survive. As Hughes, Patmore, and even William’s poor old father press Daisy into her sham marriage, she hardly has any other choice. The wedding was a poignant way to end the episode, but the emotions it wrung out felt largely unearned. Sophie McShera does a valiant job of running through Daisy’s journey from obstinate to awkward to something nearing love, but she is overshadowed by the circus around her. Downton has never strayed from melodrama, but it has never done something this openly schmaltzy.

Every melodrama needs a villain, and this week, the bitch is back in Mrs. Bates. Poor O’Brien — even when she tries to make nothing more than just a wee bit of trouble, something terrible happens, like say, a miscarriage or a woman trying to blackmail her entire household. Mrs. Bates is pure evil, making her one of the show’s more one-dimensional aggressors. She’s a plot device with no soul. In season one, Downton could do better than that. Now she must be eliminated, and I predict a whole world of trouble falling on Bates and Anna’s heads. Their garden is not as rosy as they think.

And if that wasn’t Debbie Downerton enough for you, we’ve got Ethel, jobless and living in a shack with her illegitimate child, Branson manhandling Sybil in an attempt to get her to relent, the dangerous chemistry between Lord Grantham and new widow maid Jane (where was Cora this episode?), and poor, poor Edith, who must devote herself to helping William die comfortably.

The only bright spot of the night was the Dowager’s uncharacteristic devotion to William, pulling all the strings in her arsenal (the phone call with her cousin “Shrimpy” was the best gag of the show) to bring him home and let him wed his sweetheart. Anyone who raised a man as gracious as Grantham must have a heart somewhere, and in this episode it finally emerged. It is just a shame that her goodness was surrounded by anguish everywhere. Our sweatpants and tiaras may soon need to come with a bottle of tequila.


  • Yes, Lady Sybil has finally started to show some heat towards Branson, though it is still impossible for me to see why. The guy is just a vehicle to push out political history about the Tsar to the audience.
  • Bates and Anna praying together should be a GIF by the time this is posted, if not sooner.
  • I’ve been reading the Internet rumors about Thomas and O’Brien possibly being related, and I have to say, it makes sense. Why else would they be in such cahoots all the time?
  • If I had to be walked down “the aisle” to marry a near-dead man that I didn’t love, I would sure as hell want Carson to do the walking.
  • Dowager’s best zing: “When you give these little people power it goes to their head like strong drink.”

In past lives, Rachel Syme has been Books Editor of NPR and Culture Editor of The Daily Beast. She is currently at work on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years. You can find her on Twitter at @rachsyme.

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