Some happier endings in the season-ending Christmas special, but was it good as a whole?
PBS just finished showing the second season of "Downton Abbey" (U.K. viewers saw the finale back at Christmas). I reviewed most of the season in non-specific terms in early January, and promised to weigh in with more details — and an opportunity for you to discuss the same — after it had all finished airing here in the States. That time has come, and I have various thoughts on both the finale and the season coming up just as soon as I have a loader...
As I wrote back in January, I had a very mixed reaction to "Downton" season 1, where I loved most everything to do with Mr. Bates and the rest of the servants downstairs and rolled my eyes at most of what was happening upstairs with Lord and Lady Grantham. My reaction to season 2 was equally mixed, and yet weirdly backwards: I took much greater enjoyment out of what was going on with the lords and ladies than I had a year ago (though parts of their stories annoyed me) and suddenly began viewing anything to do with Bates and his Anna as the chore I had to get through to get to the rest.
In fairness, there were lots of eye-roll-inducing storylines going on throughout the house, but none felt quite as shamelessly melodramatic as the return of Bate's estranged, unapologetically evil wife, who lacked only a mustache to twirl. Her constant manipulations and betrayals seemed designed only to make Bates and Anna miserable, and to prolong their attempt to get married and just enjoy life for a bit. It was storytelling for the sake of delaying an outcome, not for its own sake.
For that matter, there were times in the second season where it seemed like "Downton" creator Julian Fellowes
was so desperate to keep star-crossed lovebirds Lady Mary and Lord Matthew from finally making it work that he was going to take a page from "She's All That" and have Mary discover that Matthew had only pretended to fall for her to win a bet. That, or have a meteor land between them right before they finally declared their love. I'm aware that social mores getting in the way of true love is a staple of fiction both of and about this era, but Fellowes kept throwing ridiculous obstacles in their path like he was terrified the show would disintegrate the second they were allowed to be together. (I call this The "Moonlighting" Fallacy.)
Fortunately, Mary and Matthew finally cast aside their various excuses for not being together — including Mary's uncouth nouveau-riche fiancé, newspaper magnate Richard Carlisle — in the Christmas special, and if their decision didn't entirely redeem what had come before, it at least gave me hope for the third season(*).
(*) How many seasons will the show be on the air before the Emmys, Golden Globes, etc. finally acknowledge that it's not a "miniseries" and has to compete with "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," and all the other ongoing dramas? 3? 5? 12?
Other contrived, rushed and/or silly storylines included Lord Grantham contemplating an affair with the new housemaid(**), an impostor claiming to be the not-so-dead heir to the family fortune (that, or he was the true heir, but horribly disfigured and suffering from amnesia) and an outbreak of the Spanish Flu that was used to resolve far too many plots.
(**) That near-fling not only seemed to come out of nowhere, but played very awkwardly in how it tried to present Lord Grantham's decision to send her on her way as yet another example of why he is good and decent and a representative of why the aristocracy's passage into irrelevance is a great tragedy. Hugh Bonneville's performance almost always makes the man's perfection plausible and engaging, but even he can only do so much at times.
And yet for all of that, and all the ways the second season fumbled in terms of depicting the passage of time and letting one story flow easily into the next, there was still much to enjoy in "Downton" season two. In particular, the stories about how the various aristocrats had to adjust to the changing times worked very, very well, whether it was Lady Sybil taking up nursing (and then a romance with the socialist chauffeur), the entire house adjusting to Downton's transformation into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, or, especially, the Dowager Countess Violet (played so expertly by the great Maggie Smith) gradually accepting that the rules she lived her life by need not restrict the lives of future generations.
On the servant end of things, Daisy got to grow up a bit (particularly in the Christmas episode), both professionally (she finally pushed for a promotion to acknowledge her role in the kitchen) and personally (accepting that marrying William on his deathbed out of pity was actually a kindness). And though he'll never turn into a hero, Thomas at least seemed more human and vulnerable in his various schemes this season (possibly because so many of them failed, and because usual conspirator O'Brien had herself reformed a bit).
Though I'm not looking forward to Anna making many tearful prison visits to Bates (wrongly convicted — we think — of murdering the first Mrs. Bates), on the whole the Christmas special left the series in an interesting place going into the next round. Mary and Matthew are together, but both she and the family are on the verge of multiple disgraces thanks to Bates' conviction and the story the vengeful Carlisle is threatening to publish about Mary's season 1 indiscretion with the late Mr. Pamuk. And we know that Shirley MacLaine is joining the season 3 cast as Lady Grantham's American mother. MacLaine and Smith on screen together could be a lot of fun — or it could feel like stunt-casting.
On the whole, I would say "Downton" season 2 got more right than it got wrong. But it got enough wrong that a lot of fans I know who couldn't find fault with season 1 are now very nervous about what the next year will bring.
Now that we've all seen it, we can discuss all of it, from our first glimpse of Matthew at war to the last moments of the Christmas special. What did everybody else think?