Monday, April 13, 2015

Why Downton Abbey Has To End

I know this post is a bit late as the announcement was made shortly after Season 5 aired its last episode, but I still want to comment on it.  The upcoming 6th season will be the last season of Downton Abbey. I hate to see it go, but I understand why it has to.

Is Downton Abbey still the hottest British import since Paddington Bear or has it jumped the shark?  That depends upon whom you ask.  Americans still can't get enough of it, and that includes me.  I know I love the gorgeous costumes and scenery and how it brings me into a world that is like nothing I have ever experienced or will experience.

I'm not the only American who is fascinated by the world of Downton Abbey.  Even the wealthiest among us have probably never experienced living in a home where everyone dresses formally for dinner and food is served by an army of footmen.  Today's maids aren't required to stay out of sight of the master of the house.  We're not bound by the manners and morals of the day.  Downton Abbey is a fascinating historical, cultural, and sociological commentary.  It is not just a reflection of wealth and inborn status that most of us will never achieve, but also a glimpse of a time gone by that we can never go back to.

The traditions, manners, and morals of of Downton belong to an earlier era, and that is really what this show is about.  The story does not take place in an earlier century when no one was questioning the social order and the nobility still had enormous social and political power.  Downton begins at the very end of that era.  The show starts in 1912.  The century is new and the world is beginning to change, but the viewers know what the characters do not.  The characters believe their world sits on a solid foundation.  Their traditions will always be upheld and wealth will always stay in the family.  It is no dramatic coincidence that the first episode begins with the sinking of the Titanic.  The loss of wealthy family members on that ship is symbolic of what is to come.

In 1912 the century is new and so are some of the ideas taking hold in the world  The family is unaware, but the viewer knows that by the time the 20th century is over, Downton Abbey will likely be nothing more than a tourist attraction and the aristocrats who live there will have to open the doors to the masses they once shunned in order to survive and hold onto what's left of their ancestral home. So far the Crawley family has seen the sinking of the Titanic and World War I.  They have no idea that they are just a few years away from the Great Depression (something that is likely to affect them considering the Lord Grantham is known for making bad investments).  They don't know that another war is on its way and will devastate the country.  They might not live to see the social upheavals of the Sixties.

In the first episode of Season 5, Carson declares, "I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on."  He is right to say that.  The ground he stands on his shaking more than he knows.  The course of history is changing and the inhabitants of Downton Abbey will eventually have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a brave new world. 

But what about the storylines and characters?

Downton Abbey could continue to be fascinating as it moves through the 20th century and navigates the social, economic, and political pitfalls.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to move a TV show through history like this.  Twelve years have passed between Season 1 and Season 5, but the characters have barely aged.  There is no realistic way to move the show too far into the future.  They could age the actors with makeup, but that doesn't seem plausible for the long term.  It would work for a movie, but I think if we were constantly watching made up actors every week, we would likely begin to see through it and stop suspending our disbelief.  The best they can do is cast adult actors as George and Sybil, take them 15 years into the future, and then write everyone else out of the show.

Since the show can't advance into major world events, we are stuck in a little world of soap opera plots.  Yes, the show is a bit more sophisticated than your average American soap, but it has many of the hallmarks of a typical soap opera.  They introduce improbable plotlines, many of which fizzle and go nowhere.  Characters show up for dramatic effect and disappear when their storyline doesn't pan out.  Think of the miraculous cure for Matthew's wartime paralysis or the convenient death of his fiancee`.  Swine flu sweeps through the house, and goes away as quickly as it came.  Their presumed-dead cousin claims to come back from the dead, but his story is quickly debunked and we never see him again.  Rebellious Rose has become more subdued. 

Most of all, they just don't know what to do with Mary's story.  In Season 4 we saw Mary heavily courted by Lord Gillingham, but he seemed to have a potential rival for Mary's heart in Charles Blake.  Then Charles Blake disappears only to have her suddenly feeling horny.   Her new story was that she and Lord Gilligham planned to do some experimental, premarital boinking to see if they are sexually compatible, because Mary is suddenly interested in such things.  Charles Blake seems to accept his loss willingly even though Mary's relationship with Tony fizzles.  Mary's fickleness and indecision makes her more unlikeable and dull.

The other two interesting plots revolved around Rose, Cora, and Violet.  All three of them were given interesting plotlines that were quickly brought to an end.

 Rose was meant to be the rebellious, more interesting character. She was the new Sybil.  Season 5 domesticated her.  She fell in love and married.  The marriage was controversial since her love interest was Jewish, but they seemed to deal with that issue very quickly and easily.  Hardly anyone batted an eyelash.  This storyline would have been much more interesting closer to World War II.  I have read stories of members of the British aristocracy who were Nazi sympathizers.  What troubles will Atticus face?  What troubles will their children face?  It will take too many seasons to find out.

Violet's suitor was the exiled Russian prince Kuragin, who loved her many years before.  His memories and devotion to her are sweet, but we can't see Violet succumbing to her feelings.  They bring back his wife and we are left to seeing them miserably married.  This plot has nowhere to go.

They finally gave Cora a plotline of her own with an admirer.  This could have been great if we saw her be truly tempted - or even have an affair.  Too bad her husband made a big deal and she was insulted and agreed not to see him again.

Then there is poor Edith. The woman is a single mother in charge of a vast publishing empire and the writers can't do anything more than make her sit around and mope.  I think Edith is the best case for a spinoff.  Imagine doing a show where Edith finds her feet and grows a spine and truly shows her brilliance as a writer and editor in a man's world.  I can see Edith weathering the depression just fine with the right storyline.  The writers don't want to do that for her though.

I don't know what will happen in Season 6.  Maybe Mary will find someone to help her run Downton and even find a personality again.  Maybe Edith will finally pay attention to her business and find success with it as well as eventually finding love. Better yet, she becomes a tough, single businesswoman way ahead of her time.  Maybe Lord Grantham will lose his money yet again - well ahead of the stock market crash.  Maybe he will decide he's in love with Thomas and they will run away to New York together leaving Cora to her art-dealing lover. 

For now I remain a fan of the show.  I still swoon over the sets and costumes.  The plots are not what they could potentially be due to those limitations, but they still hold my interest. I will be sad to see it end, but it really does have to end.  The Crawleys may not know just how much more their world will change, but I know, and anyone with any grasp of history knows.  They will lose money in the depression.  Their home will likely be used as a hospital in World War II as it was in the first war.  Eventually they will have to surrender it to the National Trust and it will become a tourist attraction for the very people whom they would never have allowed on their property when the show began.  Maybe it's better to end the show now. 

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