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Review: Downton Abbey, Season Two

The second season of Downton Abbey returns to US airwaves this weekend, just in time for the seven households that haven’t torrented it yet. The British import has turned out to be an unexpected hit for US television. PBS seems rather astounded by the show’s success; Masterpiece has gone from being a somewhat stodgy line of programming to the talk of millions of viewers. Will the second season live up to the sparkling glamour that captivated US viewers last January, and have changing times shifted the way people view the show?

Last season was all about class boundaries and what happens when they start to fall apart; this season was about boundaries of the body and deconstruction of social order through warfare. Class continues to run throughout Downton Abbey as a critical theme that’s rather unavoidable on a show about upstairs and downstairs life at a manor house. Season two, though, shifted the dynamic and took it in a different direction, which was probably a good decision for the show. Maintaining one-note storytelling to lean on a reputation instead of taking risks is rarely a good idea.

As young men are called up, the household staff are required to make do with fewer and fewer footmen and other young male servants, creating a bit of a crisis as the traditional mores about dinner service, and the other myriad details of manor life, begin to break down. The butler serves lunch, the maids light the fires, and they contemplate the dire terror of holding dinner without footmen. The luxurious life at Downton starts to seem increasingly ludicrous in this environment, and the deep selfishness of the upstairs characters sometimes becomes shockingly evident.

Yet, among the younger generation, things seem to be shifting. Mary’s changing her worldview to adapt, and Sybil decides to take up nursing because she’s determined to do her bit. From her nascent explorations into feminism in the first season, she grows into a much stronger and more independent woman interested in acquiring her own skills and pursuing true love, even if it means crashing through class boundaries to elope with the chaffeur. Edith, too, begins to develop into a deeper and more complex person with genuine compassion and an interest in the human beings around her.

The young women of Downton recognise that times are changing, and are well aware that things will not return to normal at the end of the war. This realisation seems to be coming more slowly to their elders, who struggle to make their way in a world where they start to feel increasingly irrelevant. In a way, just as last season echoed the growing global class tension, this season showcased the generational divide creeping across the planet as people are forced to adapt, or die.

The war doesn’t just take young men away from Downton; it also brings young men to the manor, in the form of officers convalescing in the drawing room and sunning on the lawn, at the behest of Mrs. Crowley and Sybil. This provided a fascinating opportunity for looking at the significant social impacts of disabilities associated with the First World War, which had a huge influence on how people viewed and discussed disability in the early 20th century.

Season one explored disability in an intriguing way in the figure of Bates, but season two sadly experienced a number of stumbles. In its haste to bring home the horrors of war for viewers, Downton Abbey evoked some dubious imagery of disability and life with disability. It also elided the complexity of disability in British society in the teens and twenties, including among the upper classes.

From the independent Bates of the first season, whom we had an opportunity to see in weak moments as well as strong ones, we met a series of soldiers experiencing an adjustment period after serious injuries. Trench warfare brought home a series of men with blindness, damaged lungs, and missing limbs caused by mustard gas and explosions in close quarters; many of those young men undoubtedly struggled with the shift in their ability status. This would have been fascinating territory to explore, had it been done well.

But Downton largely chose to depict disability as an unrelenting tragedy; the show informed us that paraplegic men don’t have sex and apparently live in misery and helplessness, for example. The idea of being affianced to such a man is so horrific that the characters hasten to figure out how to dissolve such an attachment, since obviously the wife of a disabled men would be ‘chained to his chair.’ That the show chose to go this route was deeply unfortunate, given its otherwise strong handling of disability and the rich, complex material available for mining in that setting.

Even more unfortunate was the eleventh hour miracle cure to resolve the dramatic tension.

It was a pity to see the show strike such a strong note on the social and class shifts that accompanied the First World War, while falling so badly on the topic of disability. Given the impeccable research that has distinguished so much of the series, it’s a great discredit to the show that the creators didn’t take more time to handle disability well.

This may not spoil season two for many viewers; the show still has all the drama, all the costumes, and all the other delights that made season one so much fun. But it did shed a dark spot over my enjoyment, just like the dubious handling of racial subjects in the first season. One thing Downton Abbey unfortunately highlights is where Julian Fellowes excels…and where he does not.

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