Downton Abbey, Season 2

The Problem With Downton Abbey’s Lousy-Looking Trench Scenes
Talking television.
Jan. 10 2012 11:19 AM

Downton Abbey, Season 2

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How lousy are those trench scenes?

Brendan Coyle as John Bates in Downton Abbey
Brendan Coyle as John Bates in Downton Abbey

© Carnival for Masterpiece. All rights reserved.

Fellow Abbey-cedarians,

Dan Kois Dan Kois

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

I’ve always assumed that somewhere in Britain, tourists may find a series of pre-dug trenches, created by the UK Film Council (awarding funds from the National Lottery) so that English filmmakers might forever be able to shoot crappy-looking Great War footage. On the rare day when the BBC or whoever aren’t filming the flower of England face-down in the mud, visitors may enjoy picnics in the sun while their children race through that hellish underground maze. The war scenes in Downton Abbey are lousy indeed and make me glad that Julian Fellowes didn’t kick off Season 1 with a sinking Titanic obviously filmed in a Brighton swimming pool.

In a way, bringing the war to life goes against the entire point of Downton, which is that for most of these characters—upstairs and downstairs—the world outside Downton Abbey might as well not exist. Sure, Carson and the Dowager Countess talk about the war, but mostly in terms of how it affects this household—maids in the dining room, wounded soldiers in the parlor. (There are a few exceptions, of course, like Lady Sybil, who now that she knows how to bake a cake should make an excellent nurse.)

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And as for Anna and Mr. Bates: Yes, you both are right that it would be lovely for Bates to loosen his stiff upper lip and actually tell Anna what’s going on. But June, Bates’ loyalty to Lord Grantham doesn’t allow him to consider Anna first. He’s known Grantham much of his life; they served together; Lord Grantham has treated him fairly and honorably—Bates can’t condemn him to public shame. (And I think he knows that Anna’s love for him is such that telling her what happened might lead her to take action damaging to herself and the family; indeed, she basically says as much as he leaves.) That doesn’t make it easier to watch, but I do think there’s honor in his martyred silence.

But sadly, I don’t think Bates has a plan. I think he’s stuck. My fond wish for this season of Downton Abbey is that the final episode end with the entire household, lords and servants, banding together to march on London, pitchforks in hand, to string up that conniving wretch Mrs. Bates. Even O’Brien could get in on the act! Granted, she’s not fond of Bates, but surely she could get motivated to stab someone with a pitchfork.

Looking forward to next week,

Dan

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