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Moving Downton

Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Warning! Warning! If you yourself are a regular visitor to the Abbey that is Downton, if you have found yourself caught up in the tension of Lady Mary’s romance with the dashing Matthew Crawley, then I am certain that you were a little more than disappointed Sunday night when the dashing Mr. Crawley became the dead Mr. Crawley. People have often made the connection between Downton Abbey and Jane Austen, so I feel it is not too much of a stretch to say that it would have been like the death of Mr. Darcy or the passing of Colonel Brandon (not to be confused with the Downton character Mr. Tom Branson). In short, it was an utterly inorganic plot twist that has drastically altered the nature of the story. What was a classy, well-shot, sharply acted period drama has gone the way of Days of Our Lives. Or Dallas. Or Deliverance. Death for the sake of drama. Death without substance or meaning or movement. Whatever Downton is, it is no longer Pride & Prejudice or even Tess of the d’Ubervilles.

Now, for the sake of the substantial argument, of what effect this has on the literary meaning, I suggest you visit tomandlorenzo.com (http://www.tomandlorenzo.com/2013/02/downton-abbey-visitors-from-the-south.html) . I do not plan on providing a literary analysis when they have already done a far better job of it. Rather, I wish to reflect momentarily on the death of Downton, a death which happened simultaneous with the death of Mr. Crawley. The reality is that this plot twist was never really a part of plan of the writer, Mr. Julian Fellowes. He had every intention, when he started the series 4 years ago, to provide the audience with a neatly told period drama complete with snappy dialogue, lush sets and classic romance. He produced scenery-based story that evolved into a serial. He certainly didn’t want to become a serial killer. But now that the death toll has been ratcheted up to the point where over half the episodes involve murder, suicide, fatal illness or tragic accident, one does have to wonder where all this is going. And whether it is worth watching. The reason for this is a confluence of two factors: the studio’s pressure to produce hype and the contractual demands of the actors. In short, as Downton has blossomed into the most successful British drama since ‘Macbeth,’ there was great pressure from the studio to keep the drama coming, regardless of the cost. At the same time, there was a great urge from the cast (most recently, Matthew Crawley’s Dan Stevens) to break out of the overly cloistered world of Downton. And lets face it: who can blame these emotions. If you are studio exec, why not ask for ever-increasing tragedy to keep the hype coming? If you are a 20-something actor, do you really want to do period drama for 5 years straight? The result: death and destruction at epic levels. Viewers have seen more death in Downton bedrooms than they did during the wars scenes.

The studio might say that this is the best way to move the plot forward. The actors might say that this is the best way to move their careers along. The question remains: is this the best way to move your audience. Ending the series on Sunday with a happy Mary and Matthew would have been a far better way to tell the story. Leave off that last two minutes of the car wreck, and Downton Abbey would have gone down in history as one of the most poignant, polished and well-told stories in television history. By continuing it (unnecessarily) past its natural story arc, your audience is moved toward jadedness and cynicism. The point is that the writers and producers have sacrificed meaning for the sake of longevity. They have momentum  but it is not positive momentum  They have bought into the ‘Superstition of Progress:’ that a thing moving fast (like a car) must be moving forward unstoppably  It is ironic that the full consequences of this superstition go over the heads of the producers while they have them fall right on the head of Matthew Crawley. It is a pity that it had to fall on the heads of his fans as well.

Oh well: at least the management of Downton is now in the hands of a sensible Irish Catholic (provided, of course, they don’t kill Branson off as well…).

About Daniel Lacourrege

Daniel Lacourrege is a 20-something year old theologian living in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It is the best place in the world to be a 20-something. It is the third best place in the world to be a Catholic (Rome & Jerusalem claiming first & second).
His life has become one adventure right after another. Most of them start in a classroom or library, but very few of them finish there. He likes most things, but usually must be in the mood for them. The only thing he is never in the mood for is traffic.
If you feel so moved, you may email him at lacourrege4@archbishopshaw.us.

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