Monday, June 18, 2012
Takeaways from Downton Abbey
LUCY BURDETTE: Back we were all talking about Downton Abbey, I was late to the party. But now I've watched both seasons and we're breathlessly waiting for the next installment. I find myself thinking quite a bit about the storyline and the characters, and thinking that there are lessons there for both writing and life.
For example, (I'll try to avoid spoilers but maybe cover your eyes if you haven't watched!), that thing that Mary did with the Turkish attache--didn't this lead to the most amazing plot complications? But looking back on the story, isn't it kind of amazing that she did do this? But we bought it, and that leads me to lesson #1--make sure your characters' actions feel believable and come from motives that are plausible, or your fancy plot falls to pieces.
Our favorite character probably turned out to be the dowager Grantham (Maggie Smith,) who in the early episodes was a real pill. But the writer also made her funny and gave her the chance to make clever new alliances with other characters. Lesson #2 leads right back to Blake Snyder's main thesis in his wonderful book on screenwriting, SAVE THE CAT--give even your nasty characters something the reader can root for.
How about you guys? Takeaways from Downton Abbey?
JAN BROGAN: Actually, premarital sex in that era wasn't as rare as we think, so Mary's dalliance with the Turk wasn't jumping the shark or anything, historically. In the 1850s and 1860s even the middle class women I'm researching indulged - although most often with a man they were going to eventually marry.
My takeaway from Downton Abbey is this: We want to escape into an era of more honor, more courtesy, and yes, even more restriction. And good dialogue always wins the day!
ROSEMARY HARRIS: I may have to watch the Mr. Pamuk episode again. I got the impression that they were going to have oral sex, in which case Mary quite likely would have gone to bed happy but not have had to explain anything to the maids in the morning. Was I wrong? In that case the lesson would be - no matter how cagey you think you're being THEY will find out.
My Maggie Smith lesson is that with a good enough actress you will forgive anything. I don't remember any St Paul moment where she turned into a nice but crotch-et-y person - except perhaps her generous act at the flower show. Was that an epiphany for her? She went straight from "what's a weekend?" to trying to save William from conscription.
RHYS BOWEN: I was uncomfortable about that Mary/Pamuk sex episode because it wasn't as if she welcomed him into her bedroom. He forced himself on her and maybe she enjoyed it eventually but she certainly resisted. If she had told her mother that she resisted but he was too strong for her, all would have been okay.
There were several Downton plot points I didn't agree with and one that stands out to me, at this moment is Matthew getting up to save Lavinia when he has been confined to a wheelchair for ages. As one who has spent a month in a wheelchair I know that there is no way he could stand and move without falling over. His legs would not have held him up. So reminder to self--check improbably physical actions before I put them in my story!
HALLIE EPHRON: I'm with Rhys on the "Heidi" moment for Matthew. And also I got a bit sick of his too-good-to-live fiancee. Having said that I completely bought Lady Mary's succumbing to passion. Those women are SO sheltered. That she'd have stuck with the slime-ball newspaper tsar as long as she did? Not so much. ORAL SEX? Really???? I must have been dozing.
I am forever fascinated by the house, which brings me to MY lesson: a great house can be like a great character in a book.
JAN BROGAN: Wow, we must all have different interpretations of that sex scene. I don't remember oral sex either Hallie, but then I also didn't think Pamuk forced himself on Lady Mary. I thought she resisted, but only at first and not that convincingly. Maybe that's the takeaway: everybody takes away something different.
ROSEMARY: Can you say Rashomon?
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oral sex? I'm with Hallie. Really? Um, I thought she was not really resisting ,and.. oh, well. What I wondered about was them getting away with wrapping the body in a sheet and moving it and never saying a word and not being noticed. For our books, we have to remember to think about what would really work and what would be not only physically but psychologically believable.
I was also fascinated by the rehabilitation of Edith. Her nasty note was the beginning of all the trouble,s which I thought was great...but then she seemed to turn into a good person. Was her comeuppance that she was dumped by her once-suitor? And that allowed her to be written as good again?
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Okay, I missed the oral sex thing, too. And no, I didn't think Mary's resistance was more than token. As I understand it--(this from years of reading British crime novels, of course) bed-hopping should have been considered an Olympic event at country house weekends. But only among the married or the conveniently widowed or separated. Almina, the real Countess of Carnarvon at Highclere Abbey during the war, was supposedly the illegitimate daughter of Baron de Rothschild by a woman who was conveniently separated from her husband.
The point being, Mary really did screw up (no pun intended.) And if she'd really resisted and screamed bloody murder when Pamuk came in, that would have caused a big stink, too, with diplomatic complications.
As for Matthew's Heidi moment, I think he might have stood up, said, "Oh, blimey!" and plopped back in his chair, or fallen on his face, but that wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic. And the fiance was really really too good to be true. Made me want to kill her off.
I actually didn't have a problem with Edith's character arc. I couldn't blame her for being jealous and resentful of her sisters. Not very nice, but understandable. But war changed people. So much loss, so much suffering. And it was a long, long four years. Edith not only had a chance to grow up, but to find something of value in herself.
All in all, I can't wait for the next season!
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I can't wait to see what sort of search engine hits we get with this discussion of exactly what sexual technique the suave Turkish diplomat was going to introduce Lady Mary to...
Looking at Downton Abbey critically, it's easy to point out the jaw-dropping events that come out of nowhere and leave you scratching your head - the burn-scarred amnesiac Canadian cousin, for instance. Even my eleven-year-old, who is as much of a groupie as we are, asked, "Why would amnesia make his accent change?" From Mysterious Deaths that Point The Finger at a beloved character to Miraculous Cures that Save the Family Bloodline, Julian Fellowes uses hoary old plot chestnuts at which Dickens himself would have turned up his nose. (Although the saintly fiancee's beautiful, bodily-fluids-free death could have come straight out of Little Nell.)
Yet we couldn't stop watching, and are eager for more. So my takeaway is that character trumps plot. Give the reader/audience member wonderful, flawed characters they love (or love to hate) and he or she will forgive even amnesiac Canadians.