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.


  1. There were some eye-rolling moments in the series, certainly. I think Mary was ready and willing to sleep with Pamuk out of sheer boredom. My god, it looks pretty on the outside to be one of those sisters, but what a life.

    But I can't believe there's an entire post on Downton Abbey and no one mentioned Mr. Bates?

    I think Mr. Bates killed his wife.

  2. Ramona - you are a provocateur! Mr.Bates could never have killed that harpy. Even though she may have deserved it. I vote for the Rebecca-like she knew she was dying so she poisoned herself.

  3. Oh, Rosemary, that makes me so sad. When people of my age were young we all watched Shirley Temple as Heidi, in black and white, at least once a year. I don't remember the whole story, but her friend Klara was sickly, but with Heidi's surreptitious help she miraculously and dramatically improved, a la rising out of the wheelchair for her joyful parents.

    Don't you all think the costumes also serve as a sort of character on that show? They are so luscious, and even amongst the servants you can see subtle differences. Comparing Daisy with Anna, then O'Bryan, then Mrs. Hughes with her belt of keys. I love that.

    I also thought Mr. Pamuk was going to introduce Mary to some fancy sexual technique, possibly oral, that would allow her to preserve her virginity, although I didn't trust him to stick with that plan.

  4. Karen, wasn't it supposed to be the fresh mountain air and all the goat's milk that "cured" Klara? I read and re-read the Heidi books and that goat's milk stick in my mind.

  5. Darlene, I can't remember, it's been ages. What most struck me about that book was their diet, though. Cheese (presumably from goats milk), and hard bread, plus milk. No word on vegetables or fruits, or even meat. Even as a child that freaked me out!

    I can't decide about Bates. Could anyone resist the urge to knock off someone so obnoxious? She was so awful.

  6. Rosemary, I have no problem with a Rebecca-like ending to the Mrs. Bates problem. He killed her but he gets away with it because I didn't like her. Works for me!

  7. Ro, how did you miss reading Heidi? Although I suppose it's actually the "Klara" moment:-)

    I'm going for the Rebecca-like plot re Mrs. Bates. She knew she was dying so she poisoned herself and made it look like he did it. Julian Fellowes borrows from everyone else, so why not Du Maurier?

    But I don't care. It's still such fun to watch.

  8. I also thought it was hinky that Pamuk snuck into Mary's room and tried to force himself on her. (Granted, her resistance wasn't strong, but if it had been--and she knew this--that would have been a huge scandal that would ruin her also.) In those times, as Deb says, there was tons of bed-hopping during those English country-house nights--but not with single girls of good family and prospects. Men might try to seduce them or at least get some heavy petting, but it wouldn't be by invading their bedrooms.

    And the Heidi moment, of course. The thing is that we love the characters who are so well-fleshed and motivated that we'll overlook all these problems.

  9. Hasn't The Secret Garden got a "Heidi" moment, too?

    Ah, Mr. Bates. Zzzzzzz.

  10. Ladies, please! How could you talk about the series and not mention the wonderful Hugh Bonneville. A man of integrity and compassion, who sweeps me off my feet.

    Thomas killed Mrs. Bates! Remember he borrowed money for a black market venture and was duped. Where did the money come from? We haven't been told yet, but he was in London at the time she died. He killed her because he couldn't pay back the money.

  11. So funny Karen, I loved reading about that cheese, bread, and milk diet. I still love cheese:).

    Terry, I think you may have nailed it--Thomas killed Mrs. Bates, knowing it would be pinned on Bates himself. How perfect is that?

  12. So you guys think Thomas framed Bates?


  13. Thomas murdered Mrs. Bates and framed Bates, yes! And since he's Thomas, his early success with this is going to start coming unraveled again while he squeals about how unfair it is.

  14. I think it was Rhys who first suggested on her blog that Sir Richard killed Mrs. Bates. That makes perfect sense to me.

    Thomas killing Mrs. Bates to frame Mr. Bates is fiendishly clever but would have taken a lot of effort on Thomas's part. I suppose it depends on motive: does he hate Bates enough to do it (or want to be a valet so bad)?

    I feel sorry for Mathew's bored OCD valet who lost his temp job to the evil Thomas.

    I can hardly wait for next season!

    Cathy AJ

  15. Am I the only person who thinks Carlisle arranged to have Mrs. Bates killed, because he realized she wasn't going to keep up her end of the bargain?

    I thought Mary's resistance/desire with Pamuk was very truthful. It's hard to imagine she felt one but not the other, though I always thought she got more than she bargained for. (See where flirting leads? :) But it's a complicated moment for her, and I liked that it had more than one color.

    Character trumps plot...very interesting. I think in this case it's certainly true. I tune in to D.A. to spend time with these people more than to find out where the story is going. Great article - thanks!

    P.S. Deborah, I really enjoy your books and only recently learned you're American! Fooled me!

  16. Sorry...just saw the comment about Rhys's blog and Carlisle. I'm not alone!

  17. Amusingly enough, the "Heidi" moment actually happened to the actor who plays Matthew Crawley. He injured his spine playing rugby some years back, lost all function in his right leg, and when the swelling went down, regained the use of his leg again. Just FYI. Do agree that he probably would have landed flat on his face, though.

    And the timeline for Downton Abbey makes no sense whatsoever, if you look at it critically. By the time Mary's scandal (SPOILER) will have come out in S3, it's not going to matter as much because the family can play it off as Pamuk being the bad guy, what with the whole World War I and fighting against Turkey thing going on. The English countrymen would find it a lot less scandalous since it's a) 8 year old news, b) Mary's engaged to a man of good repute, and c) the aforementioned tensions between England and Turkey at the time. Also, the ideas of promiscuity and sexual freedoms changed *a lot* during WWI.

    But I agree with Joanne Lessner that the Pamuk incident was Mary getting more than what she bargained for. Her overconfidence cost her in spades, and I found it interesting how a single point had a ripple effect that completely altered her character (she grew up) and affected every piece of her life for nearly a decade.

    And the only way Thomas would have killed Vera Bates was if he stopped by to bribe her and in true Thomas fashion, his scheme went horribly, horribly wrong.

  18. I love everything about this movie. From the story line of show upto the props and arrangement of their sets especially, the way they achieved every scene they wanted to have. Hmmm. How about setting up my own downtown abbey room in our house.