TV Talk: DOWNTON ABBEY: The Christmas Special
One should never watch a Christmas Special on any day other than Christmas. Christmas Specials are sugar-sweet, delightful and a little bit ridiculous: perfect for the early evening of a day spent loading oneself with candy, roast and passive aggressive comments from your parents about your job/lifestyle/marital status. Christmas Specials are meant to be a little bit silly, a little overwrought - after all, the target audience is half-pissed families who are spread out in front of the television, avoiding the need to speak to one another for the rest of the day. And while the Downton Abbey Christmas Special was absolutely perfect for Christmas, it makes no kind of sense on a random Sunday evening in February.
The best that can be said of the Christmas Special is that it wrapped up all of the annoying story lines we've been burdened with all season: Daisy has made peace with her relationship with Poor Dead William and has even grown enough of a backbone to finally request a position higher than kitchen maid; Sir Richard Carlisle has been kicked to the curb, and that smug bitch Isis the Lab finally gets hers.
But really, this episode was a mess of plot resolutions and unearned victories and intellectually I hate it, but I couldn't help but be elated with it as well. The Downton Abbey Christmas Special is like the Dexatrim of television - unhealthy, lazy and mind-numbing; but at the end of the day, we lost those stubborn five pounds (made of dragging plot lines) with no actual work on our parts, so do we really mind? After all, the entirety of Downton now knows the story behind Mr Pamuk's death, Sir Richard Carlisle consequently gets dumped by the family at large, and Mary and Matthew kiss in the snow and decide to get engaged. Everyone's happy, except for those who expect this show to be as good as it was in Series One!
I don't even want to spend time on the interminable trial of Mr Bates, for whom none of Downton Abbey's staff or masters can manage to say one thing that makes him seem innocent. Consequently, he's found guilty and sentenced to death, though the death sentence is appealed by Lord Grantham and reversed to life in prison. Bates bears this all with his typical noble dignity and Anna, pure and patient as ever, could give Mother Teresa a run for her canonized money. The two are obnoxious in their complacency about the situation and I find myself begging the television that either of them will act even remotely human this season. Everything's so perfectly wretched for both of them and they bear it all so well. O'Brien and Thomas over-react to everything and Bates and Anna under-react to everything else: is there anyone in this show who will ever respond to situations with something approaching normalcy?
Speaking of Thomas, he decides to take O'Brien's advice to ingratiate himself to Lord Grantham (in the hopes of gaining the now Bates-less valet position) by stealing something valuable and then finding it. So he takes . . . the dog. And locks her in a shed, presuming that he can later find her and play the hero. Look, on Christmas Day we celebrate the birth of the son of God by a virgin woman, all of which was foretold in a prophesy by angels, and THIS STORY LINE is the most ridiculous thing I've ever spent my Christmas thinking about. It turns out well enough for Isis - Downton Abbey will never be a tragedy, so the dog will never die - but it looks like Lord Grantham is stupid enough to fall for Thomas's ploy and will make him his new valet. So there's a plot line not to look forward to next year.
But, as I said, as stupid as this episode was, I still grinned whilst watching it. The downstairs staff become obsessed with an Ouija Board, which provides at least enough comical relief to mitigate the dragging soap opera that has become Bates' entire existence. And I won't lie - Matthew and Mary's proposal (not to mention Mary's impatient assertion that she fucked Pamuk to death out of lust, not love) struck just the right chord of giddy romance that the season has been missing. I almost didn't even mind when my precious Edith's heart was broken again. Almost.
So what will we see in Series Three? Now that the war is finally over, I'm hoping that Downton Abbey can slow down, pull in and regain its center. The 20s were a time of excess and greed; if Julian Fellowes is smart, he'll draw parallels to the last fifteen years of every Western country now facing economic decline. He'll focus on women's liberation, the decline of the ruling class and the rise of social freedoms. He'll finally use the minimal cache that Branson brings by focusing on the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War and what they both mean for English society. At least one episode will focus on Maggie Smith trying to figure out the first BBC radio broadcast. And if Fellowes is truly smart, he'll be patient: there's no need to stuff the entire decade into one season. I'd like to see the delicate threads of an impending economic collapse woven into the next season without actually seeing the economic collapse realized yet. What Downton does best are the details; as long as it spends more time on those and less time on ridiculous story lines that only serve to bounce one episode to the next, I have faith that Series Three will be this show's redemption.
Meredith and Hulk will be discussing the Christmas Special and Series Two in more detail later this week while I try to scrub my brain of every scene of the past season that didn't involve my boo, Lady Edith. You can follow along with our TV Talk conversation here. Thanks for letting me play in the Badass sandbox for the last few months, everyone! Here's hoping none of you are imprisoned for murdering a scenery-chewing villain in the next year!