Three Screenwriting Reasons to Watch Downton Abbey Immidiately

From left to right: Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Amy Nuttall, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Thomas Howes, Joanne Frogatt, Brendan Coyle, Siobhan Finneran, Rob James-Collier, Dan Stevens, Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown-Findlay and Penelope Wilton in “Downton Abbey” (2010–2015, PBS)

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I rarely watch any TV. In fact, I despise it. Why? The writing, that’s why. If a show is good, it needs to consistently engage me for me to want to continue watching. When you stretch something in a 22-hour episodic film, there’s so much you can do to keep someone engaged. As TV theorist Vladimir Lifschutz brilliantly said, a show is always in perpetual battle with its eventual end. The writers always seem to feel the need to stretch the end until it doesn’t become interesting anymore. They always seem to tease it in multiple episodes, with no pay-off, as they’re left to fill in the gaps before the “end” arrives, until the next season restarts the same process. I want to watch the Downton Abbey movie, but, having never seen the show, I was afraid that if I’d watch the movie without knowing anything, I wouldn’t understand it and, ultimately, wouldn’t like it. To properly criticize an adaptation, sequel and/or remake, one must have some form of knowledge of what the film adapts its source material on. And since I’m forced to be at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to start watching the show. I’ve only seen two seasons and I’ve already seen enough for me to form my own opinion on the show and write something about it.

Simply put, Downton Abbey has been, so far, an incredible exercise in master screenwriting. Every aspiring screenwriter needs to watch it. I’ll give you three reasons as to why you need to watch the show immidiately, if you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon.

#1: Every character is properly developed and serves a purpose to the story, one way or another.

There are so many characters (like any TV show) in Downton Abbey that it could very well be hard for you to follow every single arc — but Julian Fellowes masters the art of balance so well that every minor character is as interesting and compelling as the main ones. For example, the butler Joseph Molesely (Kevin Doyle) has enough character traits drawn out in the first few episodes of season one he’s in for us to care about him. When Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) tries to force Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) to send Molesley in the trenches, it’s explicitly said in his facial expressions that he’s afraid of going, that he prefers the security of the Crawley house and Downton Abbey that he tells Clarkson he has problems with his lungs. We know, right then and there, that he’s vulnerable — and that trait is again challenged in Episode 8 of Season Two as he doesn’t know which wines to serve he decides to taste them all, which makes him drunk. He’s not just vulnerable, but vulnerable to pressure. He’s a minor character, but we know so much about his psychological mindset that it’s impossible for us not to care about him and don’t want him to be in the same danger as Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) or William Mason (Thomas Howes). Every character has a purpose — whether they like it or not. Some of them exalt sensibilities of vulnerability, others can truly be spiteful (like Rob James-Collier’s Thomas Barrow), but they all serve the purpose of keeping the house running and the characters in good spirits. After three episodes, you know every character by name and their modus operandi without ever getting lost. That, my friends, is a rare sight to see.

#2: Julian Fellowes is not afraid at destroying and reinventing the tropes of the Period Piece

Julian Fellowes, creator of “Downton Abbey”

Julian Fellowes doesn’t bend the knee to what was done before, even if he’s a conservative (bad joke, I know). He refuses the “happy ending” and/or the “lavish fantasies” of the privileged Granthams, but never ceases at challenging them in precarious situations. He’s also unafraid at breaking your sympathy or the respect you had with the characters when they commit despicable acts. When Mary (Michelle Dockery) has a secret affair with a turkish diplomat, Kamal Pamuk (Theo James), you think: How dare they?!? You’ve lost the respect you’ve had with Mary — as you can’t fathom exactly what she did. Fellowes brilliantly sets-up the affair, making the audience think it will blossom in a secret relationship. Then he dies of a heart attack. Mary is brought back into reality, thinking what she’s done and the scandal it will bring to the family. This is the perfect example of not bending the knee to the lavish fantasies of the privileged and the tropes of the Period Piece. Fellowes simply doesn’t care. He is a master manipulator — pulling you in exactly where he wants you to be in, and then subverting your initial expectations, making you more engaged than you already were.

The arc between Bates and his wife is another example of how Fellowes operates at writing perfect storms. Every time you think the arc is over and done with, out comes a surprising revelation to challenge Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to prevent them from marrying. Will Vera accept the decree nisi or not? It’s too much for her — she decides to punish Bates from the dead, by killing herself and framing him for murder, making sure he gets the capital punishement so he’ll never marry Anna. But: saved by the bell! Bates’ sentence has been changed! It’s the challenge Fellowes keeps pitting the characters with. There’s the psychological challenge but also the spiritual one. Fellowes isn’t afraid to reveal his penchant to divinity with characters like Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) causing Cora (Elizabeth McGovern)’s miscarriage, asking for redemption through her mercy. It’s a heartbreaking scene when Cora is on her death-bed with Spanish Flu and O’Brien asks for forgiveness, but because she’s so disoriented, she can’t bear to say it. She turns to God and redeems her soul by caring about Bates in the finale. Fellowes destroys the famous tropes of the class-divides between the servants and the family, and puts them in the same pedestal, with the same psychological mindset and problems — but he always seems to find a satisfying path for redemption with every character: Daisy’s act of kindness, Mary’s acceptance to Matthew’s proposal, Thomas dancing with Violet (Dame Maggie Smith), Robert (Hugh Bonneville) accepting Bates as a valet. All are acts of kindness that makes you care for the character, thinking that there’s some good hidden deep in their anguish and psychological angst.

#3: The series is written like a perfectly constructed chess-board

The moment that the audience has been all waiting for over the course of 17 episodes finally came, and it didn’t disappoint. Why? Because Julian Fellowes made sure to construct his chess-board before playing with it. It’s a terrible analogy, but every step Fellowes makes is a conniving one — constantly manipulating the audience member and hoping they fall along for the trap, until the checkmate is done. With every character serving a purpose to the story, Fellowes can do anything to make them drive the multiple arcs forward. He adds Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) and Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) to spice the will-they/won’t they relationship between Mary and Matthew, until he doesn’t need them anymore, constantly challenging the characters through psychological ordeals. Fellowes never resorts to using the tropes of the period piece in a predictable manner, because he establishes the characters in such a fixed, single-minded way that it seems they’re stuck with their “normal” character traits, until a challenge presents itself in the chess-board. Cora being pregnant shook the house, as Matthew was no longer the new hair. O’Brien advanced herself in the board and accidentally got rid of the problem by placing a bathsoap on the floor. Matthew will marry Lavinia — until the Spanish flu hits the family and she dies, wanting him to be happy and forces her to follow his heart. Julian Fellowes believes that it’s all a matter of perspective, each character interaction and challenge will deepen their psyche, so they’ll be ready to accept their fate and whatever comes along their lives.

Downton Abbey follows the rhythm pattern of a perfect storm — starting with the sinking of the Titanic, not shying away from the atrocities of the first World War and the Spanish Flu, while also deepening every single important character through world events. Daisy (Sophie McShera) isn’t in love with William (Thomas Howes), until he realizes how important it was for her to marry him in deathbed for her father. She keeps repeating the same lines to convince herself she wasn’t in love with him, until she accepts the facts in front of her. Julian Fellowes is unafraid at manipulating its audience through a chess-board of perfect moves that leads to a series of checkmates. He’s unafraid at challenging his characters, physically, mentally, and spiritually (with a Ouija board at that) to strengthen them and realize that, no matter who you are, you have challenges that you will have to overcome. That’s the crux of being human, and Fellowes never differentiates the class divides as “inferior” or “superior” beings. He isn’t interested at presenting any lavish fantasy or a paint-by-numbers story. He only uses the familiar tropes in a way to pull you in, to manipulate you, so he can subvert them to further deepen you into Downton’s twisted world. And it works everytime.

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Maxance Vincent

I currently study film and rant, from time to time, on provincial politics.