Monday, January 21, 2013

Downton Defense

Basically, if you haven't seen Downton Abby, go watch seasons one and two right now. It's available on Netflix.

Go on. I'll wait.

Welcome back. Obviously, you've seen seasons one and two, and so you won't be annoyed by the spoilers that are below. Carry on.

So yesterday, Trisha posted a great blog about how when you set the rules of the world of your story, you need to stick by them.

She outs Downton Abby in particular of breaking the rules, most clearly with the character Matthew Crawley's "I can never stand again. No wait... It's a miracle, let's dance." plot line.

I suggest you click on her post, because she makes some great points. It's a common fault for T.V. shows to present an obstacle, and then just drop it when it gets boring. The worst offender I can think of is Glee, where characters are despondently in love with one character one episode,  break up for a dumb reason the next, and then drop their hate just so they can sing a duet two episodes later. And don't get me started about how they never sing the same song more than once. I get why for a T.V. show the repetition is annoying, but as a real life choir dork, it strains believability.

And you can't stop believing.

But anyway. On topic. I have to defend Downton Abby, because the point Trisha raised is a huge one for me as a writer.

Season two of Downton Abby has Matthew just returned injured from war. The Doctor says there is a chance that he could recover, but most likely he will never be able to stand again. He won't be able to walk, to run, or... most importantly, he won't ever be able to have children.

This is a big problem, because as the heir, his child (if it's a boy) will inherit a huge fortune. And it's not just the vast amount of money, and properties that the child would inherit, it's the history of it that's important.  The tradition. And don't forget who the fortune came from, Cora's American money, Lady Grantham's traditional money. Above all of that, what's most important is the name.

 Lady Mary has been raised her entire life under the knowledge that she is entitled to a better life then others because of the name she was born into. Imagine the kind of self delusion necessary to live surrounded by people you like or love ( like Carson, Ana, etc.) who live feet from you yet in a completely different world. How can you justify that without giving the thing that separates you (i.e. family name and money) an enormous amount of importance.

Mary loves Matthew, but has lost him now more than once because of her need to prove the weight of her family's name. And now, here he is, in a wheel chair, engaged to someone else who will care for him more patiently than she would. By all tradition she should let him go. If she marries someone else and has a son, then she will carry on "the family show" the way she'd been born to do.

And then Matthew stands.

I love that, that shot in the dark that scatters the ducks. For me, it's not because it breaks the rules that this moment stands out, it's because it reinforces my most important opinion/rule of writing. Always scatter the ducks. Always go for the thing that changes a path, because a story ends once the path is set.

Yes, I see how it is jumping the shark for him to recover, and I'd be right by Trisha's side, complaining about lazy writers breaking their own rules, except that long before he stands, the doctor says that there's a chance that he will recover. By that one comment, the doctor put the dueling pistols onto the mantle.

But even if he didn't, I think I'd still be willing to look the other way, because to me it's not about the rule or the expectation of the audience that they are breaking, it's about the test the characters are going through.  If you are going to test a character, and change them emotionally, prove themselves morally, or just hold a character over a fire, there is a segment of your audience who will stay by you, just to watch the characters squirm.

Not everyone will stay, but I probably will.

Trisha brings up the Spanish influenza story line as another example, and yes, it seems improbable that the only person who died from it, was the obstacle in the way between Mary and Matthew. But hey, it's a love story. Obstacles have to be removed somehow. And the creators go to great lengths to say that historically that's how it happened, it was just when a person seemed recovered that they were at their most dangerous stage.

Yes, I did watch the PBS specials.

There are a few other times when the writers suggest a treat or a threat, and then take it back, but for every "We're going to lose Downton", there's a punch that's not pulled. Characters die. Love stories end. Characters are pronounced guilty. Consequences happen, though usually the upstairs gets off lighter than those in servant's garb. But that's kind of the way with it, now isn't it?

Downton Abby, to me is all about the rules, and the traditions of polite society. The show is about  the fairness and impracticality of rules; from Matthew, a distant relation inheriting all the money, and not Lady Mary, because he's male, to the rules of conduct between the upstairs and the downstairs, to the unfairness of Lady Mary's affair compared to the maid Ethel's consequences for the same level of mistake.

I think writers can take notice to some of these rules. For example, a writer with a "name" can break a rule and survive just fine, but a lowly writer could break the same rules and have a huge fall out. Also, yes sometimes success can happen for someone else, even though by all accounts, it should have come to you instead. Speak up about it, or else marry the person who stole your opportunity. ( Downton suggest's that's fine).

If you can give me a character that I love, like Lady Grantham, or Walter Bishop, or Kristina Braveman, or Matrim, or Gen, or Katniss, then you can break any rule you want to, and I'll stick along for the ride.

The main reason, however, that I'm going to keep watching isn't because of the soap opera characters in Jane Austen clothing. It's not because of the seeping slow minutia of the lives and growth of the characters, or the picturesque landscapes, the house itself, or the amazing costumes.

 I will continue to watch for Lady Grantham.

That Dame Maggie is a treasure.



  1. I think this is one of those things where you're never going to please everyone. What works for one viewer/reader doesn't work for another.

    Love your analogy on scattering ducks. That is a brilliant concept.

    Great post! I probably should watch this show. It sounds interesting.

  2. What MaryAnn said about not pleasing everyone. And sometimes I'll even love something the first time through, and then go, 'Hey, wait a minute!' if I rewatch/reread it.

    Excellent post.

  3. I was critical, but I guess I failed to stress that I really do enjoy watching Downton every week. Maggie Smith's dowager countess is enough to keep me tuned in. I'm getting nervous about Thomas, though. If he does what I think he's going to do, historically I'd expect him to be fired. I guess we'll see.

    I'm glad to see other people can appreciate aspects of the show I found a little stagnant. I hope anyone that hasn't seen it reads your post and decides to check it out. Even if I don't think it's perfect, it's still a show worth watching.

    1. Trisha, your post was awesome. I hope this doesn't come across as me critiquing you. I've been wanting to write a post about Downton Abby since I finished season one, but it kept stalling on me, and I'd write about something else instead. Your post made me think, and inspired me to respond. I was going to just write a comment on your post, but my response just kept growing, and since it was my day to post, I had at it.

    2. Not at all! I love seeing everyone's point of view. :)

      I did worry that my post was all negatives though, even as I was posting it. Overall, Downton really is a great show, and you did a good job representing that.


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