Downton Abbey is remarkably instructive about story telling. The common wisdom is that while the audience grew during the show’s second season, the show actually went astray by descending into soap opera. ‘These observations raise the question of what exactly constitutes soap opera and why the audience nonetheless grew. Aside from the superficial, though genuine answer of an audience fascination with English class history, I think the answers lie in the matter of plotting.
The only serious reason to create period drama is to comment on the period, to offer a perspective on it that is revelatory generally, and at least by implication, about how the present emerged from that past, however remotely. Otherwise it is merely costumed entertainment, which is fine too.
Whatever its historic accuracy, Downton Abbey began, in pace and tone, in the lavish and intricate air of its physical and character setting, as a film that was going to bespeak, not merely exploit as backdrop, its dramatically changing place and time. One need only return to the first, two hour episode to observe the difference. What remains is the physical backdrop, the music, and that air redolent of fading privilege. Despite early word that the third season would offer a return to first season form, the signs are not good.
The difference is all in plot development, how plot further develops character, and in the case of a period piece, how changing character reveals the churn of social forces. In season one, Matthew’s drama grew out of the prospect of inheritance, and his acceptance of it, that also dramatized the ascendance of the middle class in England and how it would assume its conflicted burden of a storied, and mansioned, aristocratic legacy. In season three, thus far, we have witnessed a kind of rerun. This time, though, Matthew was not conflicted over a clash of cultures, but positively tortured that he was going to inherit the money of the woman he loved after things never quite worked out with the former woman he loved, who he came to love again, thus breaking the heart of the latter woman he loved, who fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be) died in the Great Influenza Pandemic before her heart could break too much and clearing the way for Matthew and the former love, the Lady Mary, whose father, the Earl of Grantham, is about to lose his great estate because he put all of his wife’s eggs in one railroad, and whom Matthew could rescue from the reduced circumstances of only twenty-five rooms if only he didn’t feel he’d be such the heel if he accepted the money.
I think you may get my point.
Matthew, an extraordinarily charming character once he learned to relax and let the valet dress him, played by the charming Dan Stevens, began to rival Mr. Bates for insufferable nobility, but then an odd thing happened. No, I don’t mean that as a convenient turn of phase. It’s my point. In well plotted drama – which is to say, not soap opera – plot points advance the plot while also developing and deepening character, which should naturally develop further plot points. Matthew had a decision to make – his slightly stuffy sense of rectitude or the fortunes of the family into which he was about to marry. What would we learn about him in his confronting this choice? How would it influence all of his relationships?
In the same, second episode, Mary’s sister Lady Edith, is left quite literally at the altar by her much older betrothed. This is a perfectly natural development because the issue of Sir Anthony’s age and slightly infirm condition has been problematic all along. His decision has a grim inevitability to it, and the plot development accentuates the fate and deepens the character development and challenge of Edith as an unlucky spinster.
This kind of natural emergence of plot out of character and existing circumstance, in case you were wondering, is among the many great strengths of Breaking Bad. Perhaps nothing is more extraordinary about Breaking Bad than that it has sustained a single story arc over five seasons, offering regularly stunning plot developments none of which have ever seemed concocted or incoherent. They have clearly had their groundwork laid far in advance, and beyond the sheer thrill of them, they always serve the greater cause of character.
To return, then, to Matthew and his dead, one-time honey’s money, how is the crisis resolved? It turns out the always pure and noble-hearted Lavinia, before she died, left Matthew a letter concerning the inheritance. Yes, but, Matthew agonizes agonizingly, refusing to read it, it will only lavish him with praise and love and cast him further into the dust of shame. No! Lavinia wrote the letter after she was spurned, forgives all, and still wants Matthew, should events come to it, to accept the money, without guilt. Henry the Eighth what good fortune! But Lavinia was rejected almost immediately before being driven to bed with the flu that killed her. How could she possibly have mailed such a letter to her solicitor????
Turns out – ah, “turns out” – after some investigation, that Daisy, the kitchen maid, whose job it would never be to fix the fire in the bedroom of a guest, much less a guest left alone while dying of the flu, and with no one instructing her to do so, had nonetheless done all those things and been in receipt of just that letter which, on instructions, she posted without telling a soul. Just so Matthew could agonize. And then be rescued from his dilemma without consequence to character or story.
One can just imagine Julian Fellowes sitting over a spot of tea or two trying to figure how he was going to get out of that corner.
That is how Downton Abbey has become soap opera. And that is my plot point. I mean my point about plot.