What Went Wrong with Downton Abbey’s Ending and What We Can Learn from It
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Okay, I think we’ve recovered enough from the shock of Downton Abbey’s bad season finale to talk about it–and learn from it. Note: If you didn’t watch the program or don’t know what Downton Abbey is, keep reading. I’m discussing principles more than a specific TV program.
While Downton Abbey is the latest example, we all can recall the moment a film ended poorly, a TV show’s closing didn’t satisfy, or a book’s conclusion just felt like a cheat. What can we learn, as writers, from those disappointments?
- Don’t kill off a beloved character before his/her time. I think an author can end a character’s life if the reader has time to adjust to the inevitability of it. But who can forget Stephen King’s novel (and film) Misery, in which a fan took the ultimate revenge on an author for doing away with a favorite character? The point is to have an artistic purpose for doing so. We all know that Matthew in Downton Abbey had to be written out of the script because the actor was leaving the show. But his death felt like a cheat, an easy answer to the program’s problem as opposed to a natural outcome of where the storyline was going.
- Leave readers with a sense of anticipation. Let the reader imagine some hopeful future for your characters, that they’ve grown in a significant way, and even though the upcoming days will have their challenges, the characters are ready to face it. Downton Abbey didn’t give viewers anything to look forward to: Lady Edith plans to begin a disastrous affair (won’t that be fun to watch!?); Downton Abbey’s future has fallen into disarray with Matthew’s death; Lady Mary will have to soldier on as a new mother without a husband; Tom will continue to grieve the loss of Sybil….even the downstairs characters don’t have anything hopeful on the horizon. What’s to bring us back next season? I’m hard-pressed to find a compelling answer.
- Even if you’re tired of your characters, never let the reader/viewer guess. If I remember correctly, Agatha Christie found Poirot an impossible man and would never have given him such grievous peculiarities if she had realized readers wanted a steady diet of him. In Downton Abbey, we came to expect witty yet sharp comments from Violet Crawley, Maggie Smith’s character. But by the end of this season, she came across as unkind and predictably conniving. What happened to the clever but crotchety woman we had come to love.
- Keep the plotline fresh. Downton Abbey’s season is a short one, and I was still reeling from the loss of Lady Sybil in this season’s first episode by the time we reached the finale. Unimaginatively, the writers took the viewer over that same sad terrain with Matthew’s car accident. This second death was overwrought and a rehash of a plot twist already used this season.
- Avoid neat bows at the end. The scene with Thomas and James becoming comrades felt forced. I understand that James would feel bad Thomas had taken the beating in his place, but little had been done throughout the episode to prepare us for the comradely reading of the newspaper. I felt that the writers wanted to resolve their relationship and did so in one final scene. The story would have been better without this neat bow.
Downtown Abbey writers messed up on many levels. But, as I said at the outset, we each can recount other disappointing conclusions. One that continues to haunt me is my utter displeasure in reaching the end of Cold Mountain. After waiting (and wading) through the entire novel for the two protagonists to come together, the author kills one of them off in a scene filled with the randomness of death that is chilling. I’m still trying to forgive the author.
Now it’s your turn. What elements bothered you about Downton Abbey’s season closer? How can you apply that as a lesson to your own writing?
What other film, book or television program left you disappointed and dissatisfied?