Monday, February 20, 2012

The Televangelist: 'Downton Abbey' Season 2 Finale

Posted By on Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 10:40 AM

Aww shucks

"That blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on."

In describing last night's "Downton Abbey" I feel moved to crib a few stanzas from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." Through the trials and travails of Season Two, one might have wondered if "Downton" had lost its place on the TV pedestal due to dropped narratives and medical miracles (which, I will note, even Dan Stevens in the "Making Of" show seemed to find patently ridiculous), or had the series simply run its course? The Christmas Special, doubling as PBS's season finale, hopefully assuaged those fears. "Downton" never seemed comfortable during the war - it felt as if Fellowes wanted to make bold statements and get to the meat of the war's impact on the house, but shied away from any real discussion or commentary. (In fact, for a far more heart-wrenching depiction of the World War I years, I recommend the recent BBC miniseries "Birdsong").

But with the war over, things began to settle back into the writer's comfort zone at Downton - Thomas was back in his footman's uniform, dances are being given, the biggest worries are not those of a world at war but of love and the destiny of one's heart. The time frame was reduced to a few holiday weekends, and the scope of of the stories narrowed to give us a deeper look at our favorite pairings - Mary and Matthew, Anna and Bates, Lady Violet and everyone. Even Rosamond's story with Lord Hepworth, though it descended quickly and obviously into one of Fellowes' favorite tropes, "rich man sleeps with maid," was a fascinating little jewel into the insight of a woman who has everything but a loving companion. Rosamond speaks openly about being lonely, and her whims to take up with Lord Hepworth are indulged by her mother and brother (until Hepworth is found out to be the cad he is, having an affair with a 1920s Tina Fey impersonator) because she is a woman who already has a secure station and inheritance. The lesson seems to be that if you marry rich enough the first time and find a way to get rid of him, you may then love freely.

The sentiment of "love conquers all" was felt all over the episode, wherein people responded calmly and rationally to some shocking news. As I mentioned in the very first episode of this season, much of "Downton's" drama is stripped away because people are just so gosh darn mature and logical. The reason why we love taking a guilty peek at shows like "The Real Housewives" or "The Bachelor" is because we are seeing people act completely irrationally and outrageously for our own addicted amusement. I'll leave the psychology of that to the professionals, but as far as TV goes I can knowingly say that a lack of drama and obstacle can make a viewing experience rather dry. Instead of letting the secrets of Pamuk's death be discovered by Robert and Matthew quickly and with suddenly resolution, why not have at least Robert harbor the knowledge through more of the season and really think on it? His response to Mary is to go find a cowboy to shake them all up? He still calls his youngest daughter's husband and baby-daddy "the chauffeur," let's not forget, before we suddenly label Robert a progressive.

However, Matthew's few flabbergasted moments at discovering the truth about the Turkish Diplomat seemed in character - the man is utterly blinded by his love for Mary to really consider much more about it, which is fine. It seems likely though that the scandal will follow the house into the third season, which may make for some more considered commentary.

Two stories that did span the course of the season well were those of our Upstairs and Downstairs OTPs (that's "One True Pair" in forum speak). Bates' farce of a trial sewed together the Vera story, but despite the teary emotions are we really supposed to not wonder how the prosecution knew to call on Robert, O'Brien and Mrs Hughes? And to ask them such pointed questions about private conversations that couldn't have otherwise been known? Did Bates, forever falling on his sword, tell them he called Vera a bitch and wished that she was "the late"? And if so, why not also confess about buying the arsenic for the rats? And who, pray tell, is this incompetent fool who postures as their defense attorney? I was calling for Matthew to put his law degree back into practice and defend Bates himself!

In the end, of course, Bates did not hang, and I have great faith that his release will happen during Season Three. In the meantime, we finally got some lingering and moving scenes between him and Anna, and Anna's resolution to follow Lady Mary to America (what a great spin-off show that might have been!) before learning that Bates' life, if not his freedom, would be spared. The same was true for Mary and Matthew, who seemed to interact more than in the entire season combined. Their moments of longing looks, shared jokes and barely muted desires (resulting in fisticuffs between Matthew and Sir Richard) could not have been borne any longer, and we were finally treated to a lovely, proper kiss in the falling snow. The proposal scene was an interesting one because Mary didn't seem at all surprised. And truthfully, should she have been? Their feelings for one another have always been plain. As Matthew beat around the bush regarding her staying, she flat out says, "I will not respond unless you ask properly," which he then does. After Mary threw off Sir Richard, there was truly nothing left but the Ghost of Lavinia, a.k.a. "that sweet dead girl" (to quote Isobel) to hold them back, and luckily her spectral form appeared to Daisy and Anna to send a blessing to Mary and Matthew's future. How very "A Christmas Carol" of the whole thing.

Outside of these main events there were a series of delightful moments, including the Thomas and Isis adventure, and Daisy's Guilt Trip finally coming to a close. That moment above all others (besides the final kiss, of course), filled me with unabashed glee. Daisy is not the brightest crayon in the box and is highly impressionable, and while Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes are like family to her and obviously care about her, they are also her employers. A distance will always be kept. Daisy needs someone to care for her and guide her as a parent, and her discovery not only realizing that William was special to her because she was special to William, but also Mr. Mason's calm and generous manner with her, seems to suggest that Daisy may finally be getting the love and attention she deserves.

Despite the more questionable elements of the season, "Downton" proved at the end to still have the spark and magic we first fell in love with during Season One. As mentioned, now that the war is over, the show seems more comfortable being itself, with intrigue abounding upstairs and down, and affairs of the heart being paramount. Supposedly Season Three will be "Downton's" last, which I think is fitting. Hopefully the mood will lift on the series and the writing will settle down so that we may end our relationship with the show in the same blissful state we left Matthew and Mary last night - forgetting our troubles, forgetting our fears to go DOWN-TON!*

Musings and Miscellanea:

— *It took me all season to make that joke. Let me have my moment!

— I chuckled over the fact that Robert gave Carson a book on "The Old Families of Europe" for Christmas, and of course he loved it!

— I didn't mention poor Edith's storyline, but could we humiliate this girl any further? Why bring Sir Anthony back at all? Or do they have a future together? Poor, lovelorn Edith, she deserves better. Why didn't Robert tell Mary to take her along and find her a cowboy??

— "It's a nutcracker. To crack your nuts." - Isobel to Violet

— I loved the interaction between Violet and Daisy in the drawing room - the most powerful and least powerful people coming together!

— Sad there was a lack of Sybil and Branson last night, though I liked Cora's retort to Robert lamenting an Irish grandchild as, "well, come the revolution it may be helpful to have a contact on the other side."

— New maids at Downton are like the drummers of Spinal Tap - they don't last long!

— Shaking my head forever at Robert's stupidity and misplaced Bates-esque honor during the trial. I don't know how people remember specifics for trials anyway, much less conversations verbatim that were had years before. Just say you don't recall, Robert!! Although if he truly did, I suppose it is as Isobel said "it's difficult to lie under oath, few of us can manage it."

— I hated what had been done to Isobel's character all season, but the woman was on fire during the Christmas Special! She was truth-telling left right and center.

— Sir Richard, however, was at his worst. And can we not blame him, just a little? The woman he is smitten over is clearly in love with someone else and practically rubbing his face in it. She's been snobby and cold with him, and all he wants is a little love and understanding. His pride and ego make him respond in an even colder manner, trying to out-snob the snobs, which leads up to a great exchange with Violet: "I'm afraid we may never see each other again." "Can you make that a promise?"

— All things considered, I thought Mary handled his leaving with grace and class.

— Regarding Lord Hepworth's current financial status, "he's lucky to not be playing the violin in Leister Square!" - Violet

— When the guard yelled "NO TOUCHING!" at Bates and Anna, was anyone else reminded of "Arrested Development"?

— "Don't worry about the vase, it was a gift from a frightful aunt, and I've hated it for half a century!" - Violet

— The servant's ball was lovely, I really enjoyed seeing all of the unexpected pairs dancing together, like Matthew and O'Brien and Thomas and Violet!

— It's been a great ride, see you next season!

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