Tuesday, May 22, 2012

DVD Series: Downton Abbey Season 2

Season Two of Downton Abbey picks up with the Great War in Europe. It is now 1916. Many of the men including Thomas Barrow (the footman), Matthew Crawley and some of the man servants at Downton have enlisted. Once in the trenches they see what real war is; it's certainly not the romantic fight that everyone at home imagines it to be. Thomas, never intending that he would end up in combat, finds a way out by deliberately injuring himself and getting sent back to Britain. He shows up a Downton, eventually to be placed in charge of the household.

The Earl of Grantham, Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil
However not all men enlist. Initially, William Mason is not allowed by his father but by 1917 he too has gone off to war, although not before proposing to Daisy. The Earl of Grantham is considered too old to fight and instead is made an Honorary Colonel of the local regiment.He struggles with his role in a changing world; from Edwardian gentleman to the rich patron of a regiment.

Downton Abbey is soon made into a convalescent home for war veterans at the suggestion of Isobel Crawley. This causes great tension between Cora and Isobel resulting in the latter making the rather hasty decision leave for France where she hopes she will be of more use.

Lady Sybil, wishing to contribute to the war effort, undertakes nursing training at York and eventually returns to work at Downton Abbey. Sybil also is greatly attracted to the new chauffeur, Tom Branson, an Irishman with strong Boshevik ideals. It is partly these ideals which fuel Sybil's forbidden love.

Meanwhile John Bates attempts to buy off his wife Vera, as a means to obtaining a divorce. Instead, she shows up at Downton, threatening to blackmail him and the Crawleys unless he returns to her. Wishing to protect Mary, John leaves with her but eventually events play out in such a way that Vera is no longer a risk to John and Anna's hopes of marrying.

Lady Edith comes into her own, helping the injured men and easily determining the needs of the various patients at the Abbey. She gradually matures into a more caring, sympathetic person. This is especially seen when she befriends a man who shows up insisting he is a relation of the Crawleys.
Matthew and Lavinia
Although the Crawley family still has hopes that Mary and Matthew will settle their differences and make a match, this is soon put to rest when Matthew arrives home on leave, with the beautiful Lavinia Swire, to whom he is betrothed. Even a weak attempt by Rosamund, Cora's sister and Violet is ineffective in breaking the engagement. Instead Mary puts her hopes in the manipulative Sir Richard Carlisle who is a newspaper publisher, despite the obvious, that she still loves Matthew.

The second season of Dowton Abbey was not as visually rich as its predecessor and is characterized by weak and often silly storylines as well as missed opportunities to develop the characters more fully.

The Bates storyline is overwrought and borders on ridiculous. It is repetitive and predictable. Written specially for Brendan Coyle, the part of John Bates doesn't do this fine actor justice. Bates' waffling between bullying and resigned scrupulosity is almost schizophrenic.

Another silly storyline was the beginnings of an attraction between Robert Crawley and a new housemaid,  Jane Moorsum. The Earl can't decide will he or won't he, and his behaviour is completely at odds with his decisive and honourable character throughout the series to date. All this while Cora is deathly ill with the Spanish influenza? I was left feeling like this was filler for a series lacking fresh intrigue.

The episode dealing with the Spanish flu, in 1919, portrayed this serious illness in a somewhat unrealistic and gentrified way. The truth is that millions of Britons died from this illness which swept through households, taking the youngest and healthiest adults in the their prime. There was an attempt to show just how quickly people became ill when Mr. Carson, Cora and Lavinia all become sick within hours of each other. Predictably though, the Spanish flu became a device to remove an unwanted character.

Lady Mary Crawley, whom I felt was beautifully portrayed in Season 1 by Michelle Dockery, and who appeared to have much potential as a rebellious and modern-thinking, bohemian young woman, was reduced to a bland, defeated daughter determined to follow the rules of a dying order. Instead the role of bad girl was moved to Lady Sybil who tries to elope and who refuses to back down in her quest to marry the family chauffeur (really?) and shrug off her aristocratic status.

Ethel and her son meet the Bryants
One thing I did like was the storyline of Ethel Parks, the maid who gets herself into trouble by having a liaison with Major Bryant, a patient at the hospital and typically, a cad. We are shown Ethel as a single mother - a ruined woman or "drudge", as Bryant's father calls her, while the character of the man who made her so remains untarnished. This story line was very well done and evokes feelings of pity and anger at the inequity, the injustice and her lack of dignity in the eyes of society. Brave Edith stands up the Bryants who don't believe she's good enough to raise their grandson. "A mother's love got to account for something...".

Despite it weak points, I eagerly await Season 3 of Downton Abbey, but I sincerely hope the writers and producers rediscover the magic that made the first season's episodes so appealing.

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