Thursday, November 1, 2012

Downton Abbey (Season 2)


We rejoin the Crawley clan two years after the close of season one. The crisis of Downton's entail is replaced with the crisis of the War, which affects pretty much everyone in different ways. The able-bodied men are shipped off to fight the Germans, and the remaining men join the women in converting Downton to a convalescent home for wounded officers. As with the previous season, the interwoven plot arcs defy terse and summary description. Fortunately, the writers make the most of these arcs, using them to work significant changes in the characters--making the loathsome characters less repellent, and adding a few dings and spots to the more admirable characters. The end result is a complex and impressive drama that rises above the high bar set by season one.

For example, selfish and arrogant Mary, who discovered in season 1 that she really did love the (rather dull) bourgeois lawyer (and Downton heir) Matthew, learns firsthand what it means to love not selfishly but sacrificially, with a genuine desire for the good of the other. This lesson, combined with a few other rough knocks, does wonders for her sense of entitlement, self-pity, and superiority, and she is significantly more palatable with the welcome introduction of genuine contrition and a little humility to her character.

(Matthew, meanwhile, who is briefly interesting during a short stint as a soldier, disappears into the scenery once he is wounded in action. But then, he never really mattered much as a person. He's always been less of an actual character and more of an obstacle--first as the man that Mary was stuck with and didn't want, and now as the man Mary wants but can't have.)

Of course, the transformation of Downton from home to hospital has repercussions. The medically trained Mrs. Crawley and the rightful Lady of the House butt heads over the running of the hospital, and the situation is further complicated when the unsavory Thomas, himself convalescing, is placed in charge of day-to-day operations. The other Crawley sisters follow their mother's lead and immerse themselves in the convalescent home project--Suffragette Sybil trains as a nurse and provides medical assistance, and formerly-annoying Edith comes into her own as a general friendly face, confidante, and gopher, seeing to it that the officers' practical needs are met.

Lord Grantham, who is struggling to adapt to his new role as a functional civilian, engages in some less-than-exemplary (and arguably out-of-character) behavior, much to my annoyance, but the writers handle it well, and his transgressions serve to humble him and prepare him to deal more graciously with his daughters' mistakes than he would have last season.

On the flip side, O'Brien gets more and more human with each passing day. She's still inclined to screw things up for other people just because she can, but her genuine guilt over her actions last season and her loyalty to Lady Grantham transform her into a slightly less repellent individual. She's even sometimes sorry for the unpleasant chaos she creates, and has begun to suspect that the devious Thomas may not be quite as worthy of her affection and unwavering devotion as she previously thought. And even Thomas himself begins to suffer the consequences of his unscrupulous schemes, though whether he learns anything from those consequences remains to be seen.

Downstairs, Anna and Bates (who, it must be said, are much more compelling as a couple than Mary and Matthew) are as much in love as ever, but the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Bates keeps throwing a wrench in things, and by the end of the season it seems as if she may have hit upon a way to keep the lovebirds apart for good. Anna and Bates are probably the most unsullied of the Downton crowd, and Anna more so than Bates, but their constant battle with external opposition keeps them from being boring or saccharine.

And of course, Maggie Smith flutters around in the background, uttering delightful one-liners and generally making the world a better place--occasionally swooping in to offer surprisingly sound advice, deliver a much-needed reprimand, save the day, or just Tell It Like It Is. When I grow up, I want to be a Dowager Countess (should anything happen to my wonderful husband, which God forbid.)

The writers touch on a number of other fascinating issues--the propriety and degree of interaction between recovering officers and personal young maids, the disintegrating social boundaries between the nobility and 'commoners', the tension between honesty and kindness (particularly in dealing with soldiers), the effect of nationwide crisis on private property rights, and the post-war implications on the status quo. It's a fascinating time in British history--the transition away from aristocracy as the pinnacle of the social hierarchy--and the writers handle it well.

I'm definitely looking forward to the third season.

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