Downton Abbey, Season 2: Lookback/Review

Just in time for Season 3 of Downton Abbey, a look back at the season that was, Downton Abbey, Season 2.

With the New Year comes new resolutions, new clothes that are exchanged for better ones (oh, the holidays, the ultimate time of the return) and, best of all, new television. Returning shows, brand new pilots, all brave their way through the cold to warm our entertainment-starved hearts.

One of the most anticipated returning shows is undoubtedly Downton Abbey. With its mix of upstairs-downstairs drama, mellifluous British accents and no shortage of beautiful costumes and sets, this Brit import has made America long for the days of Ladies, Lords, discreet butlers and a stiff-upper lip.

What better time then, as we look forward to the trials and travails of the Grantham household, to look back upon the ups and downs of Season 2?

Let’s start with World War I and the fact that a major, global conflict was completely packed into one season. Yes, that’s right folks. One. Season.

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Granted, World War I lasted only five years and yes, no one wants doom and gloom to stretch on and on and on (that’s why shows like Breaking Bad are on cable).  Nonetheless, it seemed that the war was glossed over in a matter of episodes, with obligatory wartime storyline events being checked off. Someone close, but not too close dies (William): check.  There are star-crossed lovers (Mary and Matthew): check. Someone gets horribly, but not too horribly injured (Matthew): check. A big sacrifice is made by the family/workplace/household (Downton becomes a convalescent home): check.  People show plucky sides of their characters and realize who they are (Sybil and sort of Edith): check. 

Check, check, check, check,and then the war is over, the great influenza epidemic of 1918 happens in ONE episode and all of a sudden it’s Christmas and Mary and Matthew get together, yay!

Is your head spinning yet?

With such a cramped, rushed season, it was no wonder that character development seemed as shell-shocked as the soldiers on the Western Front. Granted, there was some lovely writing for those characters who had formerly seemed either one dimensional or boring in Season 1. Watching Sybil go from a social causes dilettante to a hardworking and skillful nurse was like seeing the women’s movement happen in one person. Bates and Anna of course were given meaty scenes involving Bates’s ex-wife and then his wrongful incarceration. Mary naturally, was Mary: proud, cutting, but vulnerable in all the right spots and, until her newspaper magnate fiancé Sir Richard Carlisle needed to be written out/he became a one-dimensional blackguard, the two had brilliant interactions. You could almost see what their marriage would have been like: a partnership with strength and growing mutual affection. Alas, Matthew Crawley just had to get in the way. 

Far and away, the character with the best growth had to be Thomas. Instead of being solely the conniving, awful, slimy bastard of Season 1, his work with the injured soldiers (particularly one who eventually committed suicide) showed another side of his personality. Here was a Thomas with compassion, here was a Thomas who had experienced the pain of being different, here was a Thomas who shed tears of grief. Then he went and kidnapped Lord Grantham’s dog, but that almost seemed like a comic afterthought, a nod to his former scheming soul.

Other characters however, were not so lucky in their storylines. Edith particularly had a rocky road (and I give Laura Carmichael credit for handling her character’s swerves with grace, poise, and humor).  First, our ultimate Lady Middle Child almost shows humanity by eagerly throwing herself into the war effort. Then she ruins it by trying to commit adultery with a farmer. (Poor Edith, she’s so hapless, she can’t even manage unethical and just hits obnoxious instead). Then she throws herself even further into the war effort by comforting wounded soldiers, always helping them with requests, constantly writing letters and being at their side. THEN she completely loses her last modicum of sense when she goes and believes an injured Canadian con man when he claims he’s the heir who died on the Titanic in Season 1. Granted, her clear gullibility makes even the fake heir feel guilty, guilty enough to abandon the enterprise altogether. When the mark makes the con man feel so much pity he gives up his con, you aren’t sure who’s worse: the grifter or the spineless mark. Oh Edith. Will Julian Fellowes ever let you grow up?

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Of course, anything Edith did in Season 2 paled in comparison to the awfulness of Lord Grantham. This stalwart, loving, yet noble example of the British aristocracy; this benevolent lordship of Season 1; completely disappears in Season 2; morphing into a whiny, bratty, spoiled, rich, sulky baby. He’s too old to fight in the war, so instead of getting past it and pitching in with other ways to support the soldiers, he broods about this insult to his manhood for the entire season. Then, when the rest of his family is too busy for him because they’re doing things like charity, nursing and fundraising for the war, he soothes his slighted feelings by going and starting up an affair with a housemaid (ok, they only kiss, but that’s because Cora gets sick and they’re interrupted by very late feelings of compunction).  Lord Grantham. Can you get any more cliché?

The only moment when we see a flash of the old Robert is when Mary confesses the Pamuk incident to him. He doesn’t care (duh) and tells her to go to America and find a “cowboy to marry!” Hurrah! Of course, she goes and finds Matthew, but hey, that’s cool too.

Then there were many other random, misused storylines that barely deserve a mention, let alone a paragraph, but here is the dutiful, woeful list: Daisy feeling guilty about pretending to love William for the entire season; Ethel’s entire baby mess; Bates being put in jail (won’t he ever get a break!!); Lavinia; Matthew’s obsessive and useless guilt about Lavinia; Carlisle, Shirley MacClaine, and the Pamuk scandal being brought up again and again and again.  Phew. That’s quite a lot of meandering, even for a period soap opera.

In the end, Season 2 eschewed what made Downton interesting in the first place (the characters) for twists, turns and plot points. True, by the end of it all, Matthew and Mary do finally get together. And the Dowager Countess does get some lovely zingers, per usual (“Don’t be a defeatist dear, it’s very middle class,” “Edith you are a Lady, not a Toad of Toad Hall” and the best, “Do you promise?” to Lord Richard when he tells her they’ll probably never meet again).  Still, Downton Abbey: Season 2 seemed to have less and less of the wit, verve and heart of its brilliant predecessor Gosford Park to spiral down into CW type melodrama. Really, by the end of the season, I would not have been surprised by a visit by the supernatural. Oh wait, there was: Lavinia’s ghost. And the transformation is complete.