Assessing the Second Season of Downton Abbey at Its Midpoint

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This post contains major spoilers for second season of Downton Abbey, through Episode 4 of the PBS airings.

It’s no secret that I love Downton Abbey.  The first season was easily the most rewatchable thing I’ve seen on television since Lost ended.  We are now at the midpoint of the second season in the United States, and I thought I’d give some of my thoughts on the progress of the season so far.  This season has had its detractors, and although I’m not one of them, I do admit that it has not been as coherent as the first.

But let’s start with the positives.  Now that the timeline of Downton Abbey has entered World War I, the stories told on the show have more urgency.  But Julian Fellowes has made the right choice to keep most of the action at Downton, which focuses the story on the characters, rather than on the war.  As such, the few war scenes that are shown – like the Battles of Amiens – have great impact.

On the character front, things are as strong as ever.  Mary is my favorite character on the show, and I’m pleased at her maturity this season.  Mary has had some superb scenes so far; the standouts include saying goodbye to Matthew at the train station, singing during Matthew’s surprise visit, and supporting Lavinia after Matthew’s injury.  In each of these scenes, Michelle Dockery has risen to the occasion splendidly, conveying every complicated emotion through her expressions, movements, and, least importantly, words.  It may be a long shot, but I’m hoping she receives an Emmy nomination this year.

Comparing the Mary of the first season to the Mary of now reveals how far she has come.  As I watched her nurse Matthew in the most recent episode, I couldn’t help but remember that she called him a “sea monster” early in the run of the first season.  Mary and Edith have also grown in their relationship, and although it was entertaining to watch them try to destroy each other’s lives as spectacularly as possible in the first season, it is refreshing to see them put aside their pettiness now.  Both characters now have the maturity to recognize that the war has brought more pressing issues to the table.

Many contend that with the wartime developments of this season, Downton Abbey has fully submerged itself into the depths of the soap opera.  True, there’s a cartoonish villain (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Bates), a paralyzed hero, and an unwanted pregnancy, which are a bit over the top.  However, two of the most impactful scenes of the season – Matthew and William’s return during Edith and Mary’s performance and William and Daisy’s heartbreaking deathbed wedding – may have been soapishily overdone but were so expertly acted that they nevertheless packed a warranted emotional punch.  The former had me cheering in my seat, and the latter had my eyes welling with tears.  Downton Abbey isn’t afraid to embrace its soap opera nature, and as long as it doesn’t begin introducing long-lost twins, I’m fine with it.

The show’s issue, however, is its pacing.  The first season covered two years.  This season covered the same amount of time by its midpoint.  And that’s not to count the two years that were skipped in between the first two seasons.  Why Fellowes seems so intent to zip across time is unclear to me.  The most jarring time jump is in the most recent episodes; Ethel is pregnant at the end of Episode 3 of the PBS broadcast, and in Episode 4, her baby looks about six months old.  What happened during that year?  Furthermore, Mary must be at least 27 or 28 now, and it is absurd that she is not yet married.  It’s even more absurd since Sir Richard Carlisle proposed to her at least a year and a half ago at this point.

Despite its problems, Downton Abbey still remains a gripping character drama – and that elevates it from the dregs of “guilty pleasure” status.  No character (with the possible exception of Mrs. Bates) is completely one-dimensional, and the relationships developed in the show explore interesting moral questions.  Was Daisy, for example, right to grant William his dying wish and marry him even though she wasn’t sure she truly loved him?

From the beginning, however, Downton Abbey has centered on issues of class, namely, the divide between the aristocracy and their servants.  This season so far has delved into the changing social dynamics that World War I brought.  Sybil has become a nurse, and Edith has begun driving.  Mary has foreseen the aristocracy’s impending doom and has attached herself to a powerful, rich newspaperman.  Most of the servants have recognized that change is coming and have begun making plans for future lives.  And with most of the male staff off to the war, even stalwart Mr. Carson has had to made simplifications to the service.  Watching the characters of Downton grapple with the changing social circumstances has made this season just as intriguing as the first.

Thus, all the minor problems of this season of Downton Abbey are forgiven due to the immense positives.  And let’s not forget the giant plus that is Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, who is as hilarious as ever this season.  I leave you with my five favorite Dowagerisms of the season so far:

  • “Really, Rosamund, there’s no need to be so gleeful.  You sound like Robespierre, lopping off the head of Marie Antoinette.
  • “I’m a woman, Mary.  I can be contrary as I choose.”
  • On Downton as a convalescent home: “Really, it’s like a living in a second rate hotel, where the guests keep arriving, and no one seems to leave.”
  • “We’re used to Matthew now.  God knows who the next heir will be.  Probably a chimney sweep from Surrey Hill.”
  • On the telephone: “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”

If you’ve been watching Downton Abbey, what are your thoughts on its progress so far this season?

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5 thoughts on “Assessing the Second Season of Downton Abbey at Its Midpoint

  1. As you know, I’m a huge Downton fan, but I agree with your points about the pacing. I mean, it’s 1918 already and the next episode is 1919! And no one looks a day older than they did in 1912. I guess the girls’ hair and dress are styled a bit differently to show that they are older, but otherwise everyone looks exactly the same. And I think because of that it is very deceiving to the viewer, who thinks that maybe only a few months have passed when it’s actually been a year. And I agree that the most jarring thing with the pacing has been Ethel’s pregnancy. I guess they feel that they just have to move the time along to get through to the end of the war in order to keep up with the theme of “change” taking place at Downton.

    Great post/recap of the first four episodes!

    • Good point about the aging – I neglected to mention that. I think it’s the biggest problem for Sybil; since she was 16 at the beginning of the series and is about 22 now, she should have visibly aged in that time. They’re going to have to start using makeup to age the actors if they keep going at this pace.

      • I think from what I’ve read season 3 is only supposed to encompass 18 months, so looks like they’ll slow it down a LOT for that season. But yeah, Cora needs a little gray in her hair at this point! And I agree, except for changing Sybil’s hair, she looks exactly the same.

  2. Pingback: Highs and Lows of Downton Abbey, Season 2 « manymediamusings

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