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The Continuing Story

Eileene and I have been watching Downton Abbey together. It’s very much in the spirit of Upstairs, Downstairs or Gosford Park (which latter shares writer Julian Fellowes with Downton Abbey): an ensemble casts portrays the trials of gentry and their servants on the eve of WWI. It’s good but not great. It stretches the limits of plausibility at times, and ultimately fails to rise above the herd of endless British series fascinated with the manners, class structure, and amateur sleuths of the Edwardian era. Still, it’s well-acted and fairly entertaining, so we finished the series this week.

The seventh and final episode of the season may have lost me as an audience, however. I was surprised to discover it was merely the first season of three (?), but that’s all right—my fault, not the show’s. What isn’t all right is the launching of several explosive new plot lines on top of the old without resolving anything. I understand the need to offer the audience tantalizing promises for the next season: to insure there is an audience for the next season. But the end of a season should also provide dramatic resolution to at least some of the old plot lines; story arcs are so called because the tension is supposed to rise and then fall, settling into a new state of affairs.

There was none of that here. The tension between Thomas and Bates wasn’t resolved, but merely left dangling as Thomas takes his leave to become an army medic. Neither of the marriageable young ladies has been either married or conclusively refused, but merely left in a limbo of weeping over misunderstandings and uncertain prospects. Bates and Anna are likewise in romantic limbo. Matthew, who struggled both for acceptance as inconvenient heir and to adjust to his new role, was abruptly threatened in that position by a pregnancy, which was equally abruptly cut short—within the space of an episode—and pointlessly returned to a state of reluctant inheritance. All the major issues unsettled at the start of the series remain unsettled now.

Suddenly I discover I’ve been watching a soap opera. Not merely a drama with tragic elements—I signed on for that—but an endless, aimless drama wherein everyone takes turns being piteously noble and villainous, wherein stories churn without end. They last while popular and are abandoned without conclusion because writing them to a conclusion wastes a perfectly good chance to dredge it all up again later. Endless, aimless drama is not something I signed up for.

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