Why Last Night’s Downton Abbey Makes Me Appreciate Joss Whedon More

If you watched Downton Abbey last night, I bet you know what this post will be about. Or, maybe, you don't.

Without going into out-and-out spoilers, (***but there be spoilery things ahead***), last night's episode was a classic tragedy playing out on the stage of Masterpiece Classic Theater. As the credits rolled, I could already hear the screaming of a thousand tweets long before I logged online. I could imagine fans weeping, feminists ranting, and historians gnashing their teeth. I could hear the whispers of keyboards, the drumroll of debate, the teary grief expressed in 140 characters or less. I felt somehow detached, which is why I waited to start writing this blog post, but my opinion hasn't changed: I'm disappointed.

The reason was because I felt, as a writer and a viewer, that this was coming, that it was built into the character and practically woven into the show. This doesn't mean I have any brilliant insight into screenwriting or storytelling or that I wanted the grim satisfaction of pooh-poohing the show by waving my metaphorical hanky and saying, "I knew it all along." Rather, it was a well-done device on a well-worn path that left me feeling, "Oh well," and that's what disappoints me most. It isn't the undertone of young female victimization, the thin veneer of classist moral heavy-handedness or the very real truth that yes, women still do die in childbirth, (although I am more than willing to tread down any of those discussion topics) but that the writing was so obvious. Of course marrying outside class would do no good, of course the modern, child-like youngest daughter would become victim to something primal, and of course going down any of the perfectly valid feminist and artistic rants that I listed at the beginning of this paragraph would also be perfectly obvious as well. It's the yin to the yang of having your strings pulled in a particular way to elicit a given audience response, its the familiar heartbeat of tragedies on stage, page and screen, but *because* it is so obvious, it hits a false note.

The acting was there, the set-up well paced, the mood of conflict present and building for towards the climax that was altogether well-designed--even the writing itself was solid with its golden moments shared between sisters and then delivered with hammers by mothers, Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith. But, you see, it was obvious storytelling and therefore feels lazy. It hit all the right notes and all the right paces and plucked all the right strings at the right times in a tune that swelled with violins in the background. It took the beloved flower that modern female audiences cared for and male audiences desired and admired and did what we expect storytelling to do.

And I guess that is why I'm a fan of Joss Whedon.

Young, female characters with tragic choices and inner strength, tagged as victims.
Whose paths were more obvious?

Joss Whedon's writing, although of a different genre, is the work of a master storyteller. It goes beyond the fact that he knows what's obvious and refuses to give it up, it's that he's so well-versed and aware of the craft of stories that he can step outside the text to give us the experience of what we've come to expect in storytelling, the familiar heartbeat of a story, and then twist it, skewering us with our own expectations in a way that is surprising, yet satisfying and which, despite tragedy and tears, delights us. It was *our* fault for being so programmed as to *think* we know what's coming only to have those assumptions turned against us. It's as if Whedon spreads his hands in mock innocence and says, "I never said it would be like that." (Although he knows that's what we were thinking and we know that he knows it, which is why we applaud.) Whedon walks that tightrope of payoff--sometimes he makes it and sometimes he misses--but he always takes the risk of the road less traveled rather than laying prone to the obvious. That's what makes his writing stand out. It's the rock-n-roll revolution of making something new from the old music, the usual beats and cadences, the run-of-the-mill rhythms and tired refrains, but somehow keeping the melody familiar enough so that we tune-in and start to sing along and before we know it, we've hummed merrily off a cliff into something altogether unexpected. That takes genius--an evolutionary jump--to twist the familiar into the surprising based on the fact that we've become so passive that we expect to be spoon fed the usual and gasp a little on the unexpected, added spice. But we come back smiling. Whedon has upped my palate and obvious writing seems bland.

So while I'll still watch Downton Abbey, I am now more aware than ever of its flaws, but the worst is the letdown of being obvious, which makes me even more grateful of treasuring the extraordinary when I find it.

I'm sure there are other fans who have something to say about this, and to all of them I say: "Have at it!"


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