Downton Abbey, Season 2

Ep. 1: On Soaps, True Love Must Be Thwarted Immediately
Talking television.
Jan. 9 2012 11:54 AM

Downton Abbey, Season 2

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I fear for Mr. Carson.

Brendan Coyle as John Bates and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Smith
Brendan Coyle as John Bates and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Smith

Nick Briggs/Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for Masterpiece

M’lord, m’lady,

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

I cannot fathom that neither of you has yet brought up the calamity that struck Mr. Bates and Anna, with Mr. Bates’ horrid wife blackmailing him into leaving service at Downton and going off with her for what presumably will be a miserable life together in London. Seth, you call Bates a “bizarrely uncommunicative self-flagellant,”  but it seems to me he’s just a good man—too good a man for his milieu, likely, but that’s part of the pleasure of Downton.

June finds the nice characters “puzzling,” but I find them inspiring—especially the men, like Matthew, Bates, and Lord Grantham. Brendan Tapley, in his lovely essay about Downton and the male broken heart, says the good men of Downton demonstrate a time when “a soulful, ethical heart was the standard of a man’s love.” That standard, Tapley points out, “did not render these men subordinate or submissive; on the contrary, it proved them real men.” I admire that about them, and I ache when their love (and their honor) sends them off to misfortune.

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For all roads lead to misfortune in Downton. Indeed, professing one’s satisfaction is the fastest route to ruin. (Sometimes, all it takes is standing up in a trench and riffing on the vagaries of fate to earn a bullet through the skull.) When Bates and Anna shared that sweet moment in the kitchen, it was clear that their happiness could not stand. The moral order of great soap operas demands that true love be punished immediately. (By the way, Seth, you asked about the glitzy prime-time soaps of yore; I’d argue there’s at least one on the air now, ABC’s Revenge. Just check out the official teaser summary for the most recent episode: “An unstable visitor crashes Daniel's intimate birthday celebration; Conrad and Victoria use Charlotte as a pawn in their bitter divorce battle; Emily's plan starts to unravel.” Sudsy! Revenge even features its own Dowager Countess in Madeleine Stowe’s delightfully mean Victoria Grayson.)

Do you two fear for Mr. Carson as I do? This unstoppable force of the downstairs order was laid low by a spilled tureen. (“What about my dress?” Lady Edith shrieked, as Carson staggered, clutching his chest.) The change everyone speaks about in such an anvilly manner may bring the Granthams down a peg, but it’s Carson who’s most forcefully attached to the way things are and least suited to the way things will be. I don’t see him adapting, do you? His touching advice to Lady Mary—if you love someone, tell them, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life—made me wonder who Carson loved, and what Carson regrets. I hope we find out.

Yours etc.,
Dan

Editor’s note: For the benefit of American readers who haven’t yet seen Season 2 of Downton Abbey, please avoid spoilers when commenting.

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