I accidentally encountered an episode of the final season of Downton Abbey last night. The TV was turned to PBS when an On Demand show ended so I let it continue in the background as I worked on the computer. I gave up watching Downton sometime in the third season because I’d grown annoyed at it and came to suspect its politics (plus after Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley character was killed off, why continue?). So last night’s season 6 episode was the first I’d seen since season 3.
Of course I could immediately pick up most of the narrative strands. That’s how soap operas work. But as it wore on, I was floored by how sloppy the writing seemed to be for this episode. It played like a French and Saunders parody of Downton (minus the laughs). It was the Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes wedding episode. So I had some thoughts about how writers can avoid the clichés Julian Fellowes employed in this episode.
If you’re a fan of the show, I’m sorry to offer some critique. I’m not its intended demographic. I rankle at how, in my opinion, Downton effortlessly infuses class division and nationalism with a fuzzy nostalgia. The fact that Michelle and Marcus Bachmann cosplay as the Granthams should tell you a thing or two as well! I concede that other intentions it has might be colored by its soft-focus, costume-porn, Masterpiece setting, and any character complexity is often thwarted by its glorified soap opera structure, but Archie Bunker has shown us that the gulf between writer’s intent and audience reception can be vast and dangerous. From the beginning, Downton asked me to care about the Very Important relationship problems of a house full of straight people, and to vilify the only pitiable inconstantly-written gay character because it was 1912 don’t you know. That was his fate. Oh, and any character’s lefty politics is just a silly phase. By the end of season 3 (and the departure of Stevens) Downton held nothing for me. Its simple moral universe is one I don’t ascribe to and don’t wish to visit.
But rather than a critique of Downton the series (I’ll leave that to the links offered above- take it up with those authors), I’m interested in unpacking episode 3 of season 6 to see how it relies on some very cliché and hackneyed narrative tools, in the hope that I and others can identify, understand, and avoid them in our own writing.
Perhaps the most egregious thing in the episode is the abortive plot point that goes nowhere. In this episode it is “Mrs Hughes needs a wedding dress.” Mary offers some of Cora’s clothes without telling her mother. Mrs Hughes and the maids try on the clothes in Cora’s room. Cora returns from a bad day out and makes an appearance in the drawing room with Mary, Edith, and The Earl but conveniently leaves before Mary can remember to tell her about the clothes (and of course Mary does not follow up on this or Cora turn around when she hears Mary’s voice cut off by the closing door). Yes, communication errors like this happen all the time in real life. Bad scripts rely upon such communication errors in order to lazily advance a plot point.
What follows is high drama when Cora walks in and berates the lady staff for trying on her things in a very wooden scene (honestly, can anyone in the cast just recite lines without playing an actual emotion like Elizabeth McGovern?). The actors portraying the lady staff get to play chastised briefly, Mary gets to play indignant briefly, and Cora gets to apologize. And the whole thing is resolved very quickly. It serves absolutely no narrative purpose other than to create some bland drama for drama’s sake, and to eat up some air time. No one is affected by it in any way.
I could be generous and say that narratively, perhaps, this diversion serves to reinforce the class roles of all involved– Cora gets to be the wealthy benefactor giving hand-me-downs in the end, and the maids get to be put back in their servile place, but even this is sloppy since the whole thing is layered over with a schmaltzy “we owe Mrs Hughes so much” vibe (for no other reason than she has served loyally all these years). The whole thing still seems to me to be no more than manipulative filler. It’s there to create some brief, cheap, empty drama, unburdened by actually having any point or consequence.
Speaking of Cora, apparently there’s some lurking unresolved plot point this season about her helping someone potentially losing a farm that the kitchen maid Daisy is very worked up about. I was not interested enough to try and figure it out. Daisy is told that Cora is involved somehow and is happy the Countess is taking charge. She’s told not to say anything about it… but of course at first opportunity she blabs to Cora that she knows all about it. These sort of inconsistent characters are incredibly cliché, and it’s no coincidence Daisy’s inconsistency is often played for comedy. We know she is going to be inconsistent. We roll our eyes and say “that’s our Daisy.” I suppose it is sort of the warm familiarity Downton audiences are looking for, but it’s still shoddy character motivation.
Back to the plot point: When Cora is told by Daisy that she knows about the farm, we know from her stumbling that Cora is not actually doing what Daisy thinks. But does Cora actually explain that to Daisy and end the misunderstanding right there? No! Of course their conversation is interrupted by another character’s arrival and Daisy trots off. Does Cora try to follow up with Daisy later to make things clear. No! Of course not. Those two characters are not put together until later in the episode when Daisy again brings it up and again Cora stammers and AGAIN they’re interrupted before Cora can explain, and the topic is immediately dropped. This is shoddy screenwriting again. Contrived misunderstanding and poor communication skills, and that clichéd “third character interrupts two characters before things can be made clear and nothing is ever followed up on” device gets used twice in the same episode to the same characters! Don’t do it in your writing.
Mary Mary Why You Buggin’?
As an aside, Mary seemed to spend most of this episode just stating facts and having a reaction to things. It is the ‘stating facts’ stuff that seems to be a hallmark of this show that is ripe for parody. I imagine Dawn French in a flapper wig narrating all of the scenes we just saw for the benefit of whatever character happens to be in the drawing room. Or whatever viewer missed the subtext because they ran to the toilet.
The Return at the Wedding
Mrs Hughes has a Very Important Scene where she tells the Granthams that her and Mr Carson’s wedding will be “all about them.” It will be their day, which is why they’re not having it on the estate and doing it all themselves. On any other show it would be an opportunity for the staff to assert their humanity and independence. On Downton it is in the context of how this all makes the Granthams feel.
After the wedding, the bride and groom are being toasted. They are the center of everyone’s attention on their day. Until the main toast is interrupted at that exact moment (another interruption!) by the return of black-sheep Tom Branson, fumbling into the festivities. And the rest of the scene (and the end of the episode) is the Grantham’s teary reunion with him and his daughter.
The entrance of Tom is contrived and clichéd- down to him entering at the exact moment of the toast, allowing him to end the toast with his words and draw all focused attention on him. This is not good writing. This rarely happens outside bad writing. And when it does, you probably have the feeling, “this is just like it happens in the movies!” It is artificial.
And by having Tom return at that moment, Downtown gets to make Carson and Mrs Hughes wedding, the thing that she said was meant to be “all about them”, all about the Granthams. Presumably Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes continue to stand there, glasses raised, while the camera remains swiveled to the teary Granthams and Tom reuniting. Even on Mrs Hughes’ special day, the focus is on the elites and their story. It is this sort of thing that gets on my nerves and allows me not to just enjoy Downton the way that its fans do. Or Michelle Bachmann.
Although it was supposed to be one of the major foci of season 6, we see the wedding of Carson and Mrs Hughes is really just another contrived plot device, a box to tick as the whole of Downton lurches toward its series conclusion. Critics like to proclaim the under-stairs staff as the emotional anchors of the show (a bit of revision I don’t buy), but again and again, the status quo is reasserted in Downton– the hallmark of the soap opera. The camera returns its focus to the rich people and their issues. Fade to black.
This may have been one particular dud of an episode of Downton, but even if it does not comment on the larger series as a whole, it illustrates several hackneyed plot devices and a host of familiar but awkward clichés TV writers use all the time. I suppose they return to and rely upon them in episodic shows because they’re familiar, easy, and simplistic. And some audiences respond to them, or overlook them entirely, because they are expected. By this point with Downton, one certainly knows exactly what to expect from this show.
I’m always trying to exorcise cliché from my own writing, to keep what I write from being too predictable or boring, and make it original. This is not always easy or possible, but there are rewards in the effort. That is one of the reasons why feedback and critique is often very valuable in the writing process, as well as paying critical attention to what, as a writer, you’re doing as you plan, plot, and write. Examples like this episode of Downton can be illustrative of what to avoid, and hopefully bring up ideas about how it might be done better. By you.
[Please note that in this discussion of Downton Abbey, I did not offer random, gratuitous praise of Maggie Smith. That has also become a cliché.]