Why Downton Abbey is Addictive (and Instructive)

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While the set and costumes of Downton Abbey are early 20th century, the plot is thoroughly 21st century: fast and full of tension.  People call it “addictive.” Gawker even says “It’s like crack.” What makes a narrative “addictive,” and what can we learn from it as novel writers?

Here’s a close reading of the first 15 minutes of Downtown Abbey, series 1, episode 1. 

Look at how this series of scenes works…

  • to introduce dramatic questions—these questions keep us watching/reading because we want to know the answer.
  • to ensure that every single scene has some conflict, some crackling energy, some kind of voltage spike. Janet Burroway says, “Only trouble is interesting,” and Downton understands this.
  • to teach us how to read the series, whom to follow, what to care about.

Key

DQ=Dramatic Question:

Spike= the voltage meter of the scene spikes

WTW=Why this way and not another way? A kind of reverse engineering where you remove or rewrite an element of the story, make something “bad” or less effective in order to understand what makes it good.

Let’s begin.

Be sure you watch the first 15 minutes or so first. It will make more sense that way.

Montage. A close up of telegraph operator. Dot dot. Dash. Dot. Shots of telegraph wires carrying this message. More urgent dots and dashes. Spike.

Train whistle! A man’s head in profile riding a train.

DQ: Who is this man? (Yes, I know it’s Bates, but I’m going to write this as a naíve reader would experience Downton upon first viewing.)

Telegraph operator reads message, looks worried. “Oh my God! That’s impossible.”

MDQ: What’s in the telegram? What’s the bad news?

Exterior. We get our first look at Downton Abbey. Wowza. Spike.

Interior. Time stamp: April 1912. The first face we see is Daisy’s. She’s going around waking up the staff. Which is how we’re introduced …

Room Interior. Anna and Gwen rising. Even in this simple scene, there’s trouble when Anna says, “Just once I’d like to sleep until I woke up natural.” Spike.

Kitchen. Mrs. Patmore thundering around the kitchen with Daisy, ordering her around. It’s a routine morning, no doubt, but still, there’s voltage to this scene, a conflict via Patmore. We also learn a little about the house via her orders.

We follow Daisy up the stairs, and thus begins the amazing tracking shot as she enters the beautiful rooms. She is our eyes, and (like her) we cannot resist a quick look around. It’s that little peek she sneaks that gives the scene of a routine morning its little jolt.

The tracking shot shifts the POV to a footman gathering glasses. He asks if there’s any sign of William, and when they meet in the dining room, there’s a small kerfluffle. “You’re late when I say you’re late,” the dark-haired footman says. Spike.

Daisy is building a fire in the dark drawing room. Gwen and Anna enter to fluff couch. They ask why she didn’t turn on the lights to work, and she confesses she’s scared of electricity. Spike. A historical marker is introduced organically into the story—through dialogue, “in scene,” not through exposition. 

Ominous shot of woman holding keys walking down a hallway. They look like dungeon keys. Spike

Two men in livery, old guy and William, young footman. Old guy asks, “Where are the papers?” Tells young man to “get the board out.” Board?

Back to drawing room. Woman with keys enters room with maids, drills Daisy the scullery maid. Ticking clock introduced. She must get back downstairs before the house awakes. She’s not dressed in uniform like the rest, because she mostly resides downstairs, out of the eye of the house. She must finish her task before she’s seen by the family upstairs, who (you realize) we haven’t even seen yet.

Bike messenger approaching castle. DQ: Does he have the newspapers the old guy is clamoring for? And is he carrying the message the lady at the telegraph office was upset about?

WTW: If we hadn’t had the earlier scene at the telegraph office, his approach would seem routine, ordinary. But now it’s full of energy, because we’re anxiously waiting to find out what’s in the telegram.

Interior bedroom. Woman in diaphanous nightgown rises and sees the messenger boy. She looks incredibly bored. (If only she knew what he was carrying!) She’s the first member of the family whose face we see, and so, we become “attached” to her as a character first. Not much energy in this scene (well, except for being able to see through her nightgown.) All that really happens in this scene is that she uses pulls on some sort of cord (a bell pull) and…

Boom, in the servants’ kitchen, a bell rings on a large board full of bells—which is how we learn (organically, in scene) about the house’s communication system. The old man says, “And they’re off.” Anna asks woman to help her take Lady Mary her tray. Woman balks. Electricity spikes. Back door bell rings. Old man says, “The papers. At last.” 

William at back door. “You’re late!” he says to the messenger, who tries to defend himself, but then he says, “You’ll see.” 

DQ: WHAT WILL HE SEE?

WTW: Writer Julian Fellowes is stretching the tension to the breaking point. The messenger could have told William, “Hey, the Titanic sank!” but he doesn’t. He just hints that something’s not right, and we’re dying to know. We have to keep watching the show to find out. 

William irons. Why, we wonder. Carson orders William to iron the London Times, for his lordship, and the Daily Sketch, for her ladyship. (Later, we will be rewarded for paying attention to this line when we see the Earl reading the Times and Cora reading the Sketch.) William finally sees the paper. Close shot of his face. Concerned.

DQ: What’s in the paper?

In the kitchen, Daisy asks the question the audience can’t ask: Why iron the papers? Snippy Lady answers (because it dries the ink) but her response isnt just an answer. Its also a put down. “We wouldn’t want the lordship’s hands to be as black as yours.” Daisy, who seems new to Downton and to service, has been the character we’ve been “with” the most thus far, our main POV character. We’re as full of wonder and questions as she is.

WTW: If Daisy wasn’t there, or if this world was “old hat” to her, we’d be more confused. It’s no mistake that hers is the first face we see in this show.

William shows Old Man the papers.

Interior of kitchen. Everyone’s asking, “Is it true? Nothing in life is sure.” Now THEY know, but we still do not. Also the family upstairs does not. The tension continues to stretch.

Lord Grantham makes his entrance down the staircase.

DQ: When will HE learn the contents of the papers?

WTW: The servants in the kitchen could have said, “I can’t believe the Titanic sank,” and boom, we’d know, but the story waits as long as possible.

Interior, dining room. “Morning, Carson,” the Earl says. “Is it true what they’re saying?” Now, everyone in the story knows and we do not! There’s some talk of the ladies being taken off, and interestingly, it’s Lord Grantham who says, “The ladies in first class? God help the poor devils below decks. What a tragedy.” He opens the paper, and ta-da! We see the word, “Titanic.” Question answered.

However: there’s a good, old-fashioned reversal in the works here. Remember the telegram?

Girls come into the room, including Mary, the one we met this morning in her nightgown. The footman gives a third girl a telegram and she gives it to Earl. He’s spouting platitudes about unsinkable ships and un-climbable mountains when she hands it to him. He opens it distractedly. Music swells. He runs out of the room.

Enters his wife’s bedroom. She’s reading the Sketch in bed. “It’s too awful for words.” He stares out window. “Did JJ Astor get off?” she asks, and we know that he did not, because we saw Titanic by James Cameron.

DQ: what was in the telegram? What has he rushed upstairs to say?

“I’ve had a telegram. James and Patrick were on board.”

DQ: Who are James and Patrick?

O’Brien enters with the breakfast tray. The wife says, “Surely they were picked up?” We see O’Brien register this question, and we see the Earl seeing her recognize this, and he stops talking.

WTW: I’m not the first person to say this, but in so many period dramas, the servants are invisible, like the red-shirted men on Star Trek, expendable and forgettable drones whose job it is to push buttons and take phaser fire. When you watch a lot of period dramas, you become accustomed to their presence in rooms where Big Things are discussed, and you never think, “So what are the consequences of these other human beings knowing these things?” There’s an added level of tension to the scene in Downton BECAUSE the servant is there, whereas in so many other dramas, this scene would be between Earl and his wife. Period. Here, it’s a triangle: between the Earl and his wife and also O’Brien. Her being present matters.

Wife Cora says, “You must tell Mary. She can’t hear it from anyone else.”

DQ: Why does he need to tell her? Does she mean she doesn’t want her to hear it in the papers, or because father and daughter are close? Why can’t they both tell her?

The promise of the show’s opening scene has now been fulfilled. Our first question has been answered: What was in the telegram? But the question now is: Who are James and Patrick. And why is their death a big deal? We must keep watching in order to know the answer to that question.

Cut to: man’s feet with cane walking down a dark corridor. Ominous.

DQ: who is this guy?

O’Brien in a bedroom talking to the two servant girls we met before. “Neither of them were picked up. That’s what he said.” Spike. O’Brien’s presence in the earlier scene has this consequence: she’s got news, and news is currency. All three women talk about the terrible shame. They all know these two guys, but we don’t. O’Brien says, “It’s a complication.” SPIKE.

DQ: Why is it a complication?

Scene going down the stairs: O’Brien explains the line of succession, girls can’t inherit, James and Patrick were going to inherit the title, etc.

So: the DQ is partly answered. What we want to know now is: Why does this matter to Mary?

O’Brien and maids come upon a man. He’s the face on the train we saw in the credits, whose feet we saw coming down the hall. They are surprised to see him standing there. O’Brien accuses him of “pushing in.” Tension. Spike. Not: “Hello, how are you?” but “What the hell are you doing here?”

WTW: This is why O’Brien has to be in this scene. If it was Anna it would be, “Hello, how are you? Nice to meet you.” 

He introduces himself as John Bates, the new valet. O’Brien looks down at his leg, his cane, and seems doubtful. Spike. Trouble. Anna tries to make nice.

DQ: Why is his cane a big deal?

Interior Kitchen: Mrs. Hughes asks Bates, “How can you manage?” If you are wondering why his cane is a big deal, the story answers that question with the line, “Because we’ve all got our own work to do.” Aha. Carson greets and welcomes him.

WTW: This is why it’s important that Mr. Bates is not already AT downton when the story begins: because his introduction to the staff and their rank is OUR introduction. Mrs. Patmore: what about all them stairs? He says, I can manage. More tension. He exits room. “Well, I can’t see that lasting long,” O’Brien says.

Shot of staircase. Bates looking up.

At the top, servants’ rooms. Bates is breathing hard, sweating. Spike. We feel for him. Bates sees his room. Camera stops to pan around. Compared to the luxurious rooms we’ve seen, it’s nothing. But the music is light and hopeful and Bates coos, “Oh yes.” He’s smiling. A throw-away moment has been made to matter. Later, we’ll learn why it matters—he desperately needs this job.

Interior, library: Mary asks, “Does this mean I’ll have to go into full mourning?” We’ve returned to the DQ of why those deaths matter to Mary, why she needs to be told. In response to her question, her father is grim and reproachful. “My first cousin and his son are almost certainly dead.” She’s momentarily chagrined. There’s a spike. “We’ll all be in mourning,” he says. “No I mean with the other thing.” WHAT OTHER THING? Then we learn: Patrick, her cousin, was her unofficial fiancé? No one knew about the engagement outside the family, and her father says that mourning him openly is up to her. She says, “Well that’s a relief,” and at that moment we see Lady Mary as her father does, as an honest but cold person, someone who is relieved that she won’t have to pretend to mourn a fiancé she didn’t love. There’s a look of recognition that passes between them.

And thus: Lady Mary’s character arc is established. She begins as someone we don’t like much, a cold person who gradually thaws over the course of the show. This scene is why many audience members don’t like her—because we were introduced to her at her worst, so to speak, character flaw and all. But it’s what makes her interesting, this coldness. And because she was the very first Upstairs character we saw, we know that SHE is who we’re going to be with for the long haul.

We are 13:46 into the show.

One thing I’ve learned by watching (and re-watching) Downton is that my internal EEG voltage meter spikes in every single scene.

Novels must produce a similar kind of energy.

(Here’s my post from last year about why I’m watching the show.)


About Cathy Day

I'm the author of THE CIRCUS IN WINTER and COMEBACK SEASON, and I teach at Ball State University.
This entry was posted in Teaching, The Biggest Things, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why Downton Abbey is Addictive (and Instructive)

  1. I a huge fan of Downton Abbey. I enjoyed your moment-by-moment analysis. It’s interesting to think about “why” it’s so compelling, and your breakdown say alot.

  2. Cathy Day says:

    Thanks a lot, Lori. If I had the time, I would do this with the whole episode.

  3. ted strutz says:

    That was fascinating, Cathy… thank you. Not only your observations, but the process you used. Last year you posted “Why I’m Watching DA”… Last year I watched because I had read it was written by Julian Fellows, and ‘Gossford Park’ was one of my favorite movies. I had never watched ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, but love period pieces… especially with Keira Knightley front and center. So I tuned in and was smitten, much like I was when I read ‘Circus’.

    Love your new profile pic with the clown!

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  5. Marji Laine says:

    I’ve been hearing about Downton Abbey connecting to writing. Thanks so much for providing the impetus to watch the first episode! Excellent! And I loved your analysis!

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