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There comes a time when a television series is no longer a simple pleasure but a type of illness: when you cast a sheepish glance at your partner at midnight and he responds with a brusque, shamefaced nod before pressing play for the fifth time; when the theme music continues to echo through your head well into the following morning, lending the housework an unearned grandeur; when you are gripped by the urge to know what happens next, even as this propels you towards an ending you know will leave you bereft; when, in short, your television-viewing life becomes your real life, and the hours between a type of holding pattern, a dream.
This may be nothing to be ashamed of when it is a series of acknowledged greatness, such as The Wire or The Sopranos. But what of Downton Abbey, a glorified soap opera set in a castle? How does that rate among the tastemakers, the HBO-viewing elite?
The series’ creator is Julian Fellowes, also known as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford: former actor, Conservative peer, husband of the lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent. Despite such dubious qualifications, he knows how to tell a story, as evinced by Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, which Fellowes also scripted (dropping Altman’s name already makes you feel better). Like Gosford Park, Downton Abbey is set in an eponymous English country house. The Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), is married to an American heiress, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern); an entail ties her fortune to the earldom in perpetuity. With the sinking of the heir presumptive aboard the Titanic, the inheritance now bypasses their three daughters for a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who enjoys the impeccable middle-class credentials of being not only a lawyer but the son of a doctor. (“It does seem odd that my third cousin should be a doctor,” muses Lord Crawley. “There are worse professions,” his lawyer consoles him.)
And so Matthew Crawley arrives at Downton Abbey. “They’re clearly going to push one of their daughters at me,” he gripes to his mother, overheard by the eldest of those daughters, Lady Mary (the formidable Michelle Dockery). Thus our marriage plot is born, and we settle comfortably into the genre: Jane Austen meets Upstairs, Downstairs. The mouth-breathing Matthew is not quite as dashing as Mr Darcy, apart from the occasional flash of a fluorescent eye; nor is Fellowes as sly as Austen, though he does produce some gleeful lines. Most belong to Maggie Smith, playing to type as the Dowager Countess. Mary inherits her grandmother’s wit alongside some of her brittleness; like Austen’s Emma, she must receive a lesson in humility before earning her man.
Episode Three introduces a rogue element into the storytelling, as a Turkish diplomat, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), perishes in Mary’s bed (“No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house, especially somebody they didn’t even know,” quips the Dowager Countess). His glassy eye leers past the camera and we abandon the gentle pleasures of Austen for a new hybrid of Gothic drama and French bedroom farce. It is a bracing surprise, but – with all due sympathy to the gorgeous Pamuk – not an unpleasant one. Not only does it establish the series’ boldness but it provides Mary with a dark secret. And how that dark secret interacts with the marriage plot generates much of what follows.
But Downton Abbey is broader in scope than Mary’s romantic fortunes, attempting something of a Dickensian cross-section of society – or, at least, of a house. As in Dickens, certain characters are allowed more dimensions than others. Most of the aristocrats are uncommonly good sorts, apart from Mary and the Dowager Countess, who not only get the best lines but human complexity too. Life downstairs offers a parallel marriage plot and yet more decent people (part of the series’ charm is its good-naturedness). There are only three wicked characters, all of whom issue from the lower classes: Mrs Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the scheming wife of Lord Grantham’s valet; Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), the bitter lady’s maid; and, most problematically, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the evil gay footman. Lest anyone mistake their natures, O’Brien and Barrow spend time smoking in the courtyard, perfecting their scowls.
Fellowes deftly weaves together a houseful of storylines. While there may be more breadth than depth, fine acting creates the illusion of depth. And television offers other pleasures besides. There is a visual opulence to Downton Abbey that feels almost nurturing: the green pelt of the Abbey’s lawns, immaculate as a billiard table; the light-filled luxury of the rooms, presided over by the butler Carson (Jim Carter) with mathematical precision. The opening credits are a hymn to orderliness, as shutters are carefully opened and a table set with the aid of a ruler, and the characters live their lives according to similar aesthetic principles. Dressing for dinner is a full-time occupation for the ladies of Grantham, and when Mary appears at dinner it is as a vision of almost Euclidean perfection: the right angles of her neck and shoulders, the precise arcs of her eyebrows, the symmetry of her Empire-waisted gowns. What is the aristocratic life? A type of performance art, perhaps, a grand folly, but also a triumph of order.
Only in Season Two, with the advent of the Great War, do we realise Downton Abbey is an elegy. As the season progresses Matthew’s mother, Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton), asks Lady Grantham: “That life of changing clothes and killing things and eating them, do you really want it again?”
She certainly does, but why? For Lord Grantham, the stewardship of the estate is his “life’s work”; Lady Grantham strikes a more absurdist note, justifying the household by the number of servants it provides jobs for. (Indeed, many of the servants are as invested in the system’s preservation as their masters: the war provides Carson with the serious problem of “how to make dinner sufficiently grand with no footmen in the house”.)
At the same time, war offers new opportunities to the female members of the household. The avidity with which the Crawley daughters grasp the possibility of work – as if meaningful work were the real luxury, which perhaps it is – is criticism enough. And yet we cannot help but feel relieved at the end of the season, when Mrs Crawley’s plans for a convalescent home are swept aside and Downton Abbey is restored to what it was: a giant, opulent stage for the nightly theatre of these privileged beings.
Sadly, Season Two wreaks havoc not only upon Downton Abbey the household, but upon Downton Abbey the television show. There is a new heavy-handedness to the soundtrack, low strings informing the viewer that world wars are serious business, only partially counterpoised by the reliable asperity of Lady Mary and the Dowager Countess. Characters lurch out of type, so that you sense the presence of those malevolent deities, screenwriters, bending them against their will. Lord Grantham’s feelings of superfluity during the war are worth exploring, but his sudden romance with a maid feels manufactured. Similarly, Mrs Crawley fares badly, demoted from occasional voice of reason to gullible meddler. Her eyes take on a ferrety ill-used look, as if she has realised Julian Fellowes just doesn’t like her.
More problematically, the genre mutates beyond Gothic drama or French bedroom farce into something like Scooby-Doo. A heavily bandaged soldier appears at the Abbey, professing to be Patrick the lost heir (Trevor White), cured of Titanic-induced amnesia by a wartime explosion. Only Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the ‘plain’ sister, believes him; the rest of us are not quite as trusting.
This is when you start to feel a bit let down. You want Downton Abbey to be better than this, for its own sake, but also for yours. But perhaps it no longer matters: by now you are sufficiently invested in the fate of Mary and Matthew to continue watching, even against your will. Will they or won’t they? At the end of Season One, Mary hesitated at a key moment and Matthew withdrew his proposal. Now he returns in Season Two with a fiancée, Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle), who has no dark secret and commits the unforgivable sin of being likeable. Meanwhile, Lady Mary becomes engaged to newspaper magnate Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), after the two have circled around each other like pterodactyls:
Sir Richard: I think we’d do well together. We could be a good team.
Lady Mary: Now that sounds better. But I can’t help thinking that tradition demands a little mention of love.
Then, just to be sure, Matthew is paralysed in the war, precluding the possibility of a ‘proper’ marriage, an alarming prospect not only for the earldom, but for Mary’s bodice, which by now you are as keen to have ripped as she is. You begin to fear that Fellowes has boxed himself into a corner, or – worse – capitulated to the modern realist law of the disappointing ending.
Spoiler alert: Fear not! Such anxieties make no allowance for Lazarus moments. But even with Matthew’s manhood restored, there remains the problem of Lavinia. When somebody coughs, you remember the Spanish flu and know instinctively it has designs on Lavinia. A difficult moral position: you wish it upon her, but also you do not, because you still (despite the evidence) hope to respect the series in the morning. Fellowes, resourcefully, uses Lavinia’s demise only as further obstacle. Shortly before she perishes, she witnesses a kiss between Matthew and Mary, so that Matthew suspects she dies of a broken heart.
“Let’s accept that this is the end,” he tells Mary. “Of course it’s the end,” she gravely assents. “How could it not be?”
Well, for one thing (you note with complicated relief), there is the Christmas special remaining.
Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent book is Welcome to Your New Life. Her most recent album, Beethoven Piano Trios, was released in March.