Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK SMASHES THE PUNY PARADIGMS OF FILM CRITICISM WITH HULK-SIZED SEMIOTICAL ESSAYS ON STORYTELLING, CINEMATIC PRINCIPLES, AND MEDIA THEORY! HULK EVEN MAKE PRACTICAL HOW-TO GUIDES! See More...

Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK VS. DOWNTON ABBEY - SERIES II

Hulk smashes a postmortem on the second season of DOWNTON ABBEY.

Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK VS. DOWNTON ABBEY - SERIES II

DOWNTON ABBEY: SERIES II IS A FAILURE... THERE... HULK SAID IT.

"But Hulk! It was at least entertaining and often involving! How can you say that!?!?"

THE REASON IT FAILS IS BECAUSE IT TOOK A SHOW HULK USED TO APPRECIATE IN THE SAME WAY HULK APPRECIATED THE WIRE, AND TURNED INTO A SHOW THAT HULK APPRECIATES IN THE SAME WAY HULK APPRECIATES TRUE BLOOD. OKAY, LET'S NOT GO NUTS, BUT IT IS HARD TO DENY THAT THE SHOW HAS BECOME A VEHICLE FOR PURE MELODRAMA AT THIS POINT. A MERE SERIES OF GRAND THREATS AND "WILL THEY? / WON'T THEY?" HYSTERICS. SEEMINGLY GONE IS THE NUANCE,THE INVERSIONS OF EXPECTATION AND THE INCLINATION TOWARD RESERVATION. THE SHOW IS NOW JUST THE DAINTY ADVENTURES OF A BUNCH OF CHARACTERS THAT HULK TRULY LIKES AND THAT'S IT.

AND THAT TOTALLY SUCKS.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? HULK WILL ABSOLUTELY ACCUSE WRITER/SHOW-RUNNER JULIAN FELLOWES OF WHOLLY GIVING INTO THE MOST BASE WANTS / NEEDS / INVESTMENTS OF THE SHOW'S FANS. FELLOWES GIVES IN, INSTEAD OF UPHOLDING THE PRINCIPALS OF DRAMA AND TONE THAT MADE THE SHOW GOOD IN THE FIRST PLACE. IT WOULD BE LIKE IF MATTHEW WEINER SUDDENLY TURNED THE SUBTEXT AND CHARACTER-DRIVEN MAD MEN INTO A GAME OF "WHO IS HOOKING UP WITH WHO?" OR IF DAVID CHASE DITCHED THE PSYCHOLOGICAL-EXAMINATION IN THE SOPRANOS AND TURNED IT INTO THE PULP ADVENTURES OF EVERYONE'S FAVORITE DAD/ GANGSTER. THAT MAY SEEM HARSH, BUT REALLY... IT WAS THAT BAD.

THIS BADNESS REMINDED HULK OF A QUESTION THAT COMES UP EVERY NOW AND THEN. THE QUESTION IS THIS: "WOULD ____ SHOW BE BETTER ON H.B.O.?" FOR INSTANCE, PEOPLE OFTEN REMARK THAT MAD MEN WOULD BE "SO MUCH BETTER" IF H.B.O. SAID YES. WHY? BECAUSE THEN THEY COULD ACTUALLY SHOW ALL THAT UNSEEMLY UNDERBELLY STUFF THEY JUST ALLUDE TO RIGHT NOW. HULK WOULD ARGUE THAT THIS LINE OF THINKING IS DECIDEDLY WRONG. MAD MEN LIVES OFF ITS RESERVATION, SUBTEXT AND ALLURE. AND BY INDULGING IN MORE BASE ASPECTS IT WOULD LOSE SO MUCH OF ITS INGENUITY. MEANING IT WOULD LOSE ONE OF THE VERY THINGS THAT MAKES IT SPECIAL. HONESTLY, THERE IS PART OF HULK THAT THINKS PEOPLE ARE JUST SAYING THAT BECAUSE THERE IS THIS BASE PART OF THEM THAT WANTS TO SEE THE ENTIRE CAST NAKED. OBVIOUSLY, WHO COULD BLAME THEM, BUT THE POINT IS THAT IT WOULDN'T MAKE THE SHOW ANY BETTER IN THE WAYS THAT ACTUALLY MATTER.

HULK BRINGS UP THIS LINE OF THINKING BECAUSE IT INVOLVES EXACTLY HOW HULK FEELS ABOUT THE DULLING OF DOWNTON. THE FIRST SEASON EXCELS WITH THAT SAME RESERVED, SUBTEXT-DRIVEN NATURE. BUT GIVEN HOW MUCH THE SECOND SERIES DIPPED INTO MELODRAMA HYSTERICS, AND SOAP OPERA, THEN YES, HULK WOULD ACTUALLY PREFER THE BLUNTNESS OF PAY-CABLE. BECAUSE IT WOULD ACTUALLY GIVE THE SHOW THE NEEDED TEETH TO MAKE SOME OF THIS OVER-BLOWN, PULPY CRAP ACTUALLY WORK ON A VISCERAL LEVEL. IF THE SHOW IS ABANDONING THE MAD MEN-ESQUE NUANCE FOR THE SAKE OF BOMBASTIC OBVIOUSNESS, THEN BY ALL MEANS FUCK IT, LET'S RAISE THE STAKES AND MAKE IT FEEL VIBRANT. LET'S PUT IN SOME ACTUAL CARNAGE IN THIS "GREAT WAR" (THE STERILIZING OF THIS ISSUE WAS KIND OF EMBARRASSING FOR SUCH A "REALISTIC" SHOW). LET'S RIP SOME DAMN FROCKS OFF. IF THE SHOW IS JUST GOING TO INDULGE, THEN LET'S REALLY INDULGE.

HULK TOTALLY REALIZES HOW LURID AND DUMB THAT SOUNDS, BUT AT LEAST IT WOULD BE HONEST, FOR IT'S BEEN A RATHER LURID AND DUMB SEASON OF TELEVISION. BUT PLEASE DON'T GET HULK WRONG. HULK STILL ENJOYS THE SHOW, BUT THAT'S ALL HULK DOES: ENJOYS IT. TO COMPARE, THE FIRST SEASON SATISFIED HULK MIND, BODY AND SOUL, BUT NOW IT'S JUST THE BODY. A SERIES OF SMILES AND FROWNS ELICITED FROM THE MOST BASIC OF DRAMATIC MANIPULATIONS. BUT EVEN WITH ALL THE INCLINATIONS TO GO BOMBASTIC, THE REAL PROBLEM IS THAT THESE DECISIONS REGULARLY RESULTED IN CHARACTER OR TONE INCONSISTENCIES THAT NEVER QUITE MADE SENSE.

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING FROM THIS SEASON:

-LADY SYBIL'S DECISION TO MARRY BRANSON, THE CHAUFFEUR, NEVER MADE SENSE. IT MIGHT HAVE IN SERIES ONE, BUT NOW IT WAS COMPLETELY COUNTER-INTUITIVE TO THE DIRECTION OF THE STORY. SYBIL WAS BEGINNING TO REALIZE HER OWN SENSE OF INDEPENDENCE AND RESPONSIBILITY. SHE WAS BEGINNING TO FIND BRANSON TO BE AN IMPETUOUS, NAIVE LITTLE POWDER-KEG. AFTER ALL, HE COULDN'T EVEN UNDERSTAND WHY SHE LOVED HER FAMILY. HULK FOUND THIS WHOLE WRINKLE IN THEIR ROMANCE TO BE ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING THINGS THE SHOW WAS EXPLORING: A SENSE OF REAL INDEPENDENCE AND A YOUNG WOMAN REALIZING SHE DIDN'T HAVE TO DEFINE HERSELF BY AN IMPETUS CLASS-STRADDLING CRUSH... AND THEN ONE  EPISODE LATER THEY WERE SUDDENLY RUNNING AWAY TOGETHER FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON WHATSOEVER. IT WAS UTTERLY DISHEARTENING.

-THE PACING OF THIS SEASON NEVER ONCE MADE SENSE. YEARS GO BY IN SOME STORY-LINES AS SEEMINGLY DAYS GO BY IN OTHERS (HOW OFTEN WAS BRANSON JUST SITTING IN THAT FUCKING GARAGE?). THIS MAY SEEM LIKE A "LOGIC" HANGUP BUT THE PROBLEM IS EXEMPLARY OF SCATTER-SHOT PLOTTING THAT SEEMED TO DEFINE THIS ENTIRE SEASON. THE FIRST TWO HOURS ARE IMPOSSIBLY RUSHED. OTHER HOURS ARE IMPOSSIBLY PROLONGED. SOME PLOT-LINES GET CYCLED AND RECYCLED TO THE POINT WHERE IT SEEMS LIKE WE'RE JUST BANGING OUR COLLECTIVE HEAD AGAINST THE WALL. THIS PACING BECOMES MOST CRITICAL WHEN YOU COMPARE IT AGAINST THE PERFECTLY PACED, ORGANIC QUALITY OF THE FIRST SEASON. THEY FEEL LIKE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SHOWS.

-THE "PATRICK" EPISODE NEVER MADE SENSE (ESPECIALLY GIVEN ITS CONTEXT IN THE REST OF SHOW). HONESTLY, THE WHOLE PLOT AND PRESENTATION WAS UBER-BATSHIT.

-LAVINIA AND MATTHEW'S RELATIONSHIP NEVER MADE SENSE. IT WAS AN OBSTACLE AND NOTHING MORE. ALSO, IN AN ENTIRE SEASON'S WORTH OF MATERIAL, THE ONLY THING THAT HULK CAME TO KNOW ABOUT LAVINIA WAS THAT SHE WAS THE BIGGEST DOORMAT IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

-THE EARL/MAID PLOT-LINE NEVER ONCE MADE SENSE. IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST DISINGENUOUS THINGS THE SHOW HAS EVER OFFERED. BEFORE THERE WAS A CONCRETE REASON FOR ANYTHING, THE SHOW USED OBTUSE CAMERA LANGUAGE TO IMPLY A CONNECTION BETWEEN THAT WAS NEVER REALLY THERE (NOR HAD A REASON TO BE). THE RESULT? THEIR COMING TOGETHER REEKED OF UTTER INSINCERITY. A COMPLETE TONE OF "FALSENESS." AND WATCHING HUGH BONNEVILLE GO THROUGH THE MOTIONS OF THOSE SCENES WAS ALMOST SOUL-CRUSHING.

-THE PLOT-LINE FOR BATES/ANNA NEVER MADE SENSE. LAST SEASON WE WERE TREATED TO THE UNDERSTATED EXCELLENCE OF THEIR QUIET, BLOOMING AFFECTION. AND THIS YEAR? WE ARE TREATED TO... WELL... NO ACTUAL ORGANIC CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AT ALL. SURE THEY GOT MARRIED AND DID IT, BUT BATES AND ANNA ACTUALLY DON'T CHANGE IN ANY REAL SENSE. THEY ARE JUST THE CONSTANT PARAGONS OF GOODNESS, CALMLY FIGHTING AGAINST AN EXTERNAL, BULLSHIT CIRCUMSTANCE. WHICH MIGHT BE "COMPELLING" IN A SIMPLE ROOTING SENSE, BUT IT SURE AS SHIT ISN'T INTERESTING.

-OH, AND THE COMPLETE REVERSALS OF CHARACTER NEVER MADE SENSE. IN THE FIRST SEASON, MAGGIE SMITH'S COUNTESS DOWAGER WAS SO INTERESTING BECAUSE SHE WAS A CURMUDGEONLY OLD FART WHO WOULD SURPRISE YOU WITH A FEW HINTS OF HUMANITY (EVEN IF THOSE HINTS OFTEN HAD A TENDENCY TOWARD SELF-INTEREST). THESE MOMENTS OFTEN RESULTED IN THE BEST MOMENTS OF THE SHOW. BUT BECAUSE THIS SEASON IS ALL ABOUT INDULGING THE DAMN AUDIENCE, FELLOWES CAVED AND TURNED THE COUNTESS INTO A CHARACTER WHO WAS NOTHING BUT THAT UNDERCUT HUMANITY. EVERYONE KEPT SAYING STUFF LIKE "OH GRANNY WON'T LIKE THAT!" AND YET SHE EMBRACED EVERYTHING WITH SLY SMILE. THE WOMAN FROM SEASON 1 WOULD NEVER EMBRACE BRANSON. NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS. THEY CAVED INTO THE MOST INDULGENT PARTS OF WHAT MADE THE CHARACTER A BLAST AND UTTERLY FORGOT WHAT MAKE THOSE FUN MOMENTS WORK. AND HULK FIND THAT KIND OF DESPICABLE.

-THE OTHER REVERSAL? HARRIET JONES PRIME MINISTER COUSIN ISOBEL GOES FROM BEING SLIGHTLY RIGHTEOUS, BUT STILL TOTALLY RELIABLE MORAL COMPASS TO BEING THE FUDDY-DUDDY BUZZKILL WHO IS RUINING DOWNTON'S "FUN." HULK FOUND THE WHOLE THING EGREGIOUS. SUDDENLY THE SHOW WAS ROOTING AGAINST HER FOR, LIKE, NO DISCERNIBLE REASON. FUCK HER ACTIVE INTEREST TO TAKING CARE OF SOLDIERS AND REMINDING THESE POSH MALCONTENTS THAT THERE IS ALWAYS MORE THEY CAN DO. HECK, THAT WAS HER ENTIRE POINT IN SEASON ONE, AND THE SHOW SUPPORTED THAT. BUT THIS SEASON WE WERE HONESTLY MEANT TO CHEER ON CORA AND THE COUNTESS DOWAGER AS THEY CONSOLIDATED THEIR SILLY LITTLE POWER IN THE DOWNTON STRUCTURE. AND WE WERE MEANT TO HOWL WITH JOY AS THEY SCHEMED A SUGGESTION TO GET HER TO BRING HER FUDDY DUDDY BUZZKILL-ISM TO THE FRONT LINES... HULK FOUND IT SOMEWHAT DISGUSTING.

-AND WHAT ELSE DID CORA ACTUALLY GET TO DO THIS SEASON? LAST SEASON HER ROLE AND HUMANITY WAS SO PIVOTAL TO THE PAMUK SAGA, BUT THIS SEASON? SHE'S NOTHING BUT A NON-REGISTERING SPECTER OF DISTANCE TO THE EARL. HULK GUESS THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO JUSTIFY THE EARL WANTING TO FOOL AROUND OUTSIDE HIS MARRIAGE... OR SOMETHING... BUT LIKE EVERYTHING, IT NEVER ACTUALLY MADE SENSE. IT WAS A PLOT-LINE ASSUMED AND NOT EARNED. REMEMBER ALL THOSE WONDERFUL TALKS WITH CORA AND THE EARL IN BED LAST SEASON? NOW THERE WERE BARELY ANY. ALL SHE DID WAS GET THE FLU AS A REMINDER NOT TO CHEAT.

UGH.

AND SO WE COME TO CHRISTMAS SPECIAL. HULK FEEL THAT ERIN AND MEREDITH HAVE BEAUTIFULLY COVERED THE EPISODE REGARDING ITS RELATIVE DELIGHTS AND HOLLOWNESS. THE SHOW LAMELY CHOSE TO WRAP THINGS UP ALL HUNKY-DORY (OUIJA GHOST BLESSINGS!) BUT THE SILVER LINING OF THAT IS HOW WE CAN JUST MAKE A CLEAN BREAK AND LEAVE IT ALL BEHIND AT THE START OF NEXT SEASON. THOUGH IT BEGS THE QUESTION OF WHETHER OR NOT YOU CAN CLOSE PANDORA'S BOX SO TO SPEAK. HAS FELLOWES BECOME SO OBSESSED WITH BREAKING THE CHARACTERS INTO THE MODERN AGE THAT HE IS INADVERTENTLY TAKING AWAY THE MOST INTERESTING COMPONENT OF THE SHOW? HULK WORRIES THE ANSWER IS YES.

ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO THE ONE PLOT-LINE THEY DID LEAVE HANGING. AND IT IS THE ONE PLOT-LINE OF THE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL WHICH IN TURN REVEALS A WHOLE SEASON'S WORTH OF NONSENSE PLOTTING, WHICH IN TURN REVEALS JUST HOW STUNNINGLY MANUFACTURED THIS SHOW HAS BECOME.

BUT IN ORDER TO DISCUSS THAT, WE MUST FIRST HAVE A TINY LITTLE DISCUSSION ABOUT HOW PLOTTING WORKS.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN PLOTTING IS FOR IT TO FEEL ORGANIC. ONE CAN WRITE AN ENTIRE BOOK ON HOW TO DO SO, BUT IF HULK HAS TO BOIL IT DOWN, THE KIND OF PLOTTING ONE NEEDS LARGELY DEPENDS ON THE KIND OF STORY ONE WANTS TO TELL. ON ONE END OF THE SPECTRUM, THERE IS A TV SHOW LIKE THE SHIELD, WHICH SPENDS MOST OF ITS RUNNING TIME HECTICALLY TRYING TO UNRAVEL A SERIES OF DEEP PLOTS AND INTRICATE DETAILS. BUT THAT'S THE NATURE OF A SHOW. ITS CHARACTERS SPIN TRUTHS AND LIES WITH THE STAKES OF LIFE AND DEATH, AND IN ORDER TO KEEP THAT VIBRANT THE SHOW NEVER STOPS PUSHING THE PLOT FORWARD AT BREAKNECK SPEED. SO INSTEAD OF SPENDING "DOWN TIME" ON CHARACTER WORK, IT FINDS ITS DEPTH IN SMALL MOMENTS OR A LINE HERE OR THERE. IT INTEGRATES THIS TEXTURE RIGHT INTO THE CHARACTER'S CHOICES. IT OPERATES IN SERVICE OF THE KIND OF STORY IT WANTS TO TELL.

AND ON THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM THERE ARE MOVIES LIKE DAZED AND CONFUSED, WHICH USES A HODGEPODGE OF SCENES AND A MULTITUDE OF CHARACTERS TO EXPLORE THE GAMUT OF LATE 70'S SLACKER-DOM. THE LACK OF RIGID PLOTTING AND STRUCTURE FITS BECAUSE IT IS WAY MORE INTERESTED IN EXPLORING THE HUMAN NATURE OF MALAISE. THIS IS NOT TO SAY THE PLOT IS AIMLESS, IT IS JUST SOLELY ABOUT THE CHARACTERIZATION. THE PLOT OPERATES IN SERVICE OF THE KIND OF STORY IT WANTS TO TELL.

BUT MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, NARRATIVE PLOTTING WILL EXIST IN A MID-RANGE BETWEEN THE TWO EXTREMES. IT DEALS WITH A PUSH-PULL BETWEEN THE LARGER OVER-ARCHING NARRATIVE AND CAREFUL EXPLORATIONS OF CHARACTERIZATION IN A SINGLE MOMENT. THE VERY BEST "REALISTIC DRAMAS" NOT ONLY  FIND A WAY TO BALANCE THESE TWO AIMS, BUT TO INTEGRATE THEM SO THAT THEY ARE OFTEN THE SAME THING. THE BEST EXAMPLE OF WHICH IS, OF COURSE, THE WIRE. THE SHOW KNEW HOW TO PERFECTLY MARRY THE INTERESTS OF PLOT, CHARACTER AND THEME TO THE POINT WHERE THEY WERE OFTEN INSEPARABLE. HOW MANY TIMES DID A CHARACTER MAKE A DECISION TO AFFECT THE PLOT BUT ALSO WAS A CULMINATION OF THEIR EMOTIONAL JOURNEY? HOW MANY TIMES DID THESE DECISIONS HAVE JUST AS FAR REACHING EFFECTS ON THE OTHER CHARACTERS? IT WAS ALWAYS JUST THIS BEAUTIFUL SYMBIOSIS OF CHARACTER INTERACTION AND THEMATIC MEANING. THE LITTLEST DECISIONS HAD WEIGHT AND CONSEQUENCE. EVEN THE SHOW WAS TECHNICALLY ABOUT GRAND TURF BATTLES AND THE INTRICACIES OF BUREAUCRACY, IT EXPLORED THOSE ISSUES THROUGH THE MOST TINY AND INTIMATE HUMAN DETAILS: THE LONG HOURS OF SURVEILLANCE. THE MOUNTAINS OF PAPERWORK. THE COPIOUS AMOUNT OF DRINKING. IT FOUND STUNNING RESONANCE IN THE MUNDANE. IT MADE "REGULARITY" FASCINATING. AND ACHIEVING THIS IS KIND OF HOLY GRAIL OF WRITING. IT'S HOW TO SURPASS THE EMOTIONALLY RESONANT, YET MANUFACTURED EFFECTS OF BOMBASTIC, MOVIE-LIKE PLOTTING TO MANAGE TO CREATE SOMETHING TRULY HUMAN AND RESONANT.

AND THE FIRST SEASON OF DOWNTON MANAGED TO FREAKIN' DO IT BEAUTIFULLY.

THE PLOTTING DID NOT NEED THE GRAND GESTURES OF WAR AND GARISH BLACKMAIL (EVEN IF THERE WERE THOSE THINGS, THEY WERE SMALL-SCALE). THE FIRST SEASON EARNED HOURS OF INTRIGUE FROM WIRE-ESQUE INTIMATE HUMAN DETAILS. A MISSING CASE. A STOLEN BOTTLE OF WINE. EVEN THE INNOCENT QUESTION OF "WHAT'S A WEEKEND?" THE PLOTTING NEVER FELT FORCED BECAUSE IT ALWAYS FELT SMALL AND HUMAN. AND SINCE NO ONE EVER FELT COMPLETELY GOOD OR COMPLETELY BAD, THEN THESE DETAILS BECAME RESONANT TO US. WE CARED BECAUSE THE CHARACTERS CARED. EVEN WHEN THE SHOW WENT IN A COMPLETELY WILD DIRECTION WITH THE DEATH OF MR. PAMUK (VIA FUCKING!) THE AUDIENCE ACCEPTED IT BECAUSE THE REST OF THE SEASON WAS SO SINCERELY COMMITTED TO "NORMALCY" THAT IT COULD TOTALLY BE ACCEPTED AS ONE OF THOSE WILD THINGS THAT "HAPPENS IN REAL LIFE." AND ULTIMATELY, IT WAS NO PROBLEM BECAUSE THE FALL-OUT OF MR. PAMUK WAS HANDLED WITH JUST AS MUCH NUANCE AND HUMANITY.

BUT THIS SEASON? THE ENTIRE APPROACH CHANGED. HULK UNDERSTAND THAT FELLOWES WANTED TO COMMENT ON HOW THE WAR BLEW UP THE ENGLISH SOCIAL ORDER AND RENDERED DOWNTON'S CARES OVER PROPRIETY AS RATHER CALLOUS AND INSIGNIFICANT IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS... BUT WHY DID THE FORM OF STORYTELLING AND PLOTTING HAVE TO CHANGE WITH IT? IN AN EFFORT TO EXPLORE THE TERRIBLE EVENTS OF WHAT WAS "REAL" ABOUT THE WAR, THEY EMBRACED HEIGHTENED STORYTELLING AND THEREBY UNDERMINED THE SHOW'S VERY GRASP OF REALITY. AND WHAT IS EVEN GAINED BY DOING SO? BY EMBRACING THESE VALUES THEY SUGGEST THAT THESE INTIMATE DETAILS FROM SEASON ONE WERE NOTHING BUT TRIVIAL MATTERS. SURE, THIS PROVIDES SOME DRAMATIC CONFLICT IN THE WAY OF SHOWING CHARACTERS WHOSE ENTIRE WAY OF LIFE IS BECOMING OBSOLETE, BUT THEY INADVERTENTLY SPITTING IN THE FACE OF WHAT WE FOUND SO INTERESTING ABOUT THE SHOW! IN AN EFFORT TO BE AS GRAND, COMPELLING AND BOMBASTIC AS WARTIME ITSELF, THEY RENDERED THE SHOW STRANGELY INHUMAN. QUITE SIMPLY, THEY MADE IT LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE.

WHICH BRINGS US TO THE POINT: THE BATES MURDER PLOT WAS ONE OF THE MORE DISINGENUOUS, MANUFACTURED THINGS HULK HAS EVER SEEN FROM A GOOD TV SHOW.

AND HERE IS EXACTLY WHY:

FROM THE VERY ONSET, THE STORYLINE WENT AGAINST CHARACTER LOGIC TO PLACATE THE PLOT ITSELF. VERA SHOWS UP AND SHE'S JUST SO DAMN MEAN THAT BATES, THE SINGLE MOST RESTRAINED PERSON IN HISTORY OF THE WORLD, GRABS HER AND CALLS HER A BITCH. NOW, HULK WAS STILL GIVING THE SHOW CREDIT AND THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO EXPLORE HOW THIS IS THE ONE AREA WHERE BATES HAS A TEMPER, BUT IT NEVER GOES FURTHER THAN A KIND OF RUEFUL ADMISSION THAT SEEMS OUT OF PLACE. THEY NEVER REALLY ADDRESS THE COMPLEX OR HOW IT CAN EVEN BE POSSIBLE FOR THE CHARACTER. WHICH MEANS BATES BEHAVIOR NEVER REALLY SEEMS TO MAKE SENSE. THINK ABOUT IT. BATES WAS READY TO GIVE UP ANNA SO MANY DAMN TIMES FOR A HOST OF CHIVALROUS REASONS, BUT WITH ALL THESE VERA-RELATED CIRCUMSTANCES TURN HIM SUDDENLY INTO A CALLOUS JERK WHO WON'T GIVE UP ANNA AT ANY COST? HE WAS ALWAYS SO WILLING TO GIVE HER UP AT MANY COSTS. THINK OF THE GRATING INCONSISTENCY HERE. WE'RE NEVER GIVEN A TANGIBLE REASON FOR WHY HE WOULD MAKE ANY OF THESE CHOICES, WHICH REVEALS A MUCH MORE UNFORTUNATE TRUTH: BATES ONLY GETS ANGRY (I.E. ACTS OUT OF CHARACTER) WHEN IT'S CONVENIENT TO THE PLOT.

BUT LET'S SWITCH GEARS AND AND LOOK AT HIS WIFE VERA, WHO IS THE ONLY TRULY DESPICABLE CHARACTER THE SHOW HAS EVER OFFERED. EVEN IN THIS MELODRAMATIC SECOND SEASON, DOWNTON IS AT LEAST STILL GOOD AT AT GIVING EVERY CHARACTER SOME FORM OF ROUNDNESS AND COMPASSION. BUT NOT VERA. SHE IS ONLY EVIL. SHE MIGHT AS WELL HAVE HAD A BROOMSTICK. AND WORSE THAN THAT, WE NEVER GOT TO KNOW A DAMN THING ABOUT HER. OR GET A SENSE OF HER HISTORY WITH BATES. WHO IS THIS WOMAN? WHY IS SHE LIKE THIS? HOW DOES BATES EVEN FIT WITH THIS PERSON? WHAT FEELS REAL ABOUT ANY OF THIS? INSTEAD SHE'S A BOOGEYMAN PUT ON EARTH TO SIMPLY PROVIDE A THREAT TO OUR TWO FAVORITE, MOST MORAL CHARACTERS. SHE IS THE CONTRIVED OUTSIDE THREAT AND IT'S THE CHEAPEST KIND OF WRITING IN MELODRAMA.

AND THUS, THROUGHOUT THE REST OF THE SEASON, SHE PLAYS THE ROLE OF THE OBVIOUS HEAVY. AND EVERY TIME THAT CONFLICT RAISES ITS UGLY HEAD, IT COINCIDES WITH BATES MAKING THESE UNCHARACTERISTIC ASIDES AND LAME DECISIONS, ALL OF WHICH WERE WHOLLY UNREASONABLE, ALL OF WHICH FEED INTO MORE AND MORE RIDICULOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, ALL OF WHICH LEAD TO A LURID MURDER SCENARIO, ALL CULMINATING IN BATES' ARREST. ARE WE ANGRY BECAUSE THIS HORRIBLE THING HAS HAPPENED TO ONE OF OUR FAVORITE CHARACTERS? OR IS IT BECAUSE IT FEELS SO FORCED AND STUPID? NONE OF THIS COULD HAVE OCCURRED WITHOUT THE MOST RIDICULOUS OF CONTRIVANCES AND INCONSISTENCIES LEADING UP TO IT. BY THE TIME THE TRIAL OF MR. BATES FINALLY ARRIVES IN THE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL, WE ALL REALIZE THAT THESE CHARACTER INCONSISTENCIES WERE THERE FOR THE EXPRESS PURPOSE OF SOMETHING WHOLLY TROUBLING: PLOT CONVENIENCE.

IN ORDER TO ACTUALLY INCRIMINATE BATES (GIVEN A COMPLETE LACK OF EVIDENCE REALLY) THEY NEEDED A SERIES OF INTERACTIONS WHICH WOULD MAKE HIS CHARACTER SEEM LIKE HE COULD HAVE KILLED HER, RIGHT? PREFERABLY INTERACTIONS WITH A VARIETY OF CLOSE PEOPLE INVOLVED? IT'S THE ONLY THING REALLY. WHICH REVEALS THAT ALL THESE MOMENTS WERE NOTHING MORE THAN A SERIES OF PLANNED EVENTS THAT WERE NOT IN PLACE TO ENDORSE ANY LARGER TRUTH ABOUT THE CHARACTERIZATION OF BATES, BUT MERELY TO PROVIDE FODDER FOR THE INEXPLICABLE MURDER TRAIL. A GESTURE WHICH WOULD BE TOUGH TAKEN ALONE, BUT IS RENDERED EVEN MORE DESPICABLE THROUGH THE ASKING OF ONE SIMPLE QUESTION:

HOW IN THE SAM FUCK DOES THE PROSECUTION HAVE ACCESS TO ALL OF THIS INFORMATION?

SERIOUSLY... HOW? HOW DO THEY KNOW BATES SAID TO THE EARL? WHAT MRS. HUGHES OVERHEARD? ARE WE TO BELIEVE BATES ADMITTED EVERY SINGLE CASUAL ASIDE THAT IMPLIED HIS GUILT? IF THAT'S TRUE, IT IS COMPLETELY INAUTHENTIC MOVE AND LIKELY HAPPENED OFF-SCREEN SO THAT THE VIEWER DID NOT THROW THINGS IN APOCALYPTIC RAGE. SO ARE WE TO BELIEVE ANY OF THIS? IN THE END, THE ONLY ONES TRULY PRIVY TO THIS INFORMATION  IS THE FUCKING AUDIENCE. AND YET IT IS BROUGHT UP AS SOME KIND OF STORYTELLING MACHINATION TO MAKE IT ALL "COME TOGETHER" AND FEEL "CONNECTED." IT IS NEITHER OF THOSE THINGS. IT IS A LIE.

EVERY SINGLE, STUPID, OUT OF CHARACTER OR LOGIC MOMENT FROM BATES' STORY-LINE THE SEASON WAS THERE FOR NO OTHER PURPOSE THAN CONTRIVING AN EQUALLY STUPID CONCLUSION IN ITS OWN RIGHT.  A LIE AFTER LIE AFTER LIE, TO ULTIMATELY PROPAGATE THE BIGGEST LIE OF ALL.

AND THAT'S WHY IT COMES OFF AS ONE OF THE MOST MANUFACTURED PLOT-LINES FROM A GOOD TV SHOW IN HISTORY. A SERIES OF ILLOGICAL, BULLSHIT CIRCUMSTANCES THAT ARE MEANT TO DO NOTHING MORE THAN "MAKE US AFRAID FOR OUR HEROES." IT'S THE KIND OF WRITING HULK WOULD EVEN ROLL EYES  AT IN A LAW & ORDER EPISODE. HONESTLY, IT'S THE KIND OF MANUFACTURED BULLSHIT THAT THROWS ALL OF HULK'S CONFIDENCE IN FELLOWES AS A WRITER INTO QUESTION.

... AND BECAUSE OF THAT HULK HOPES BATES ACTUALLY MURDERED HER JUST TO GIVE US SOMETHING TO CHEW ON. AND IF THAT ISN'T CYNICAL THAN HULK DOESN'T KNOW WHAT IS.

... UGH.

... HULK KINDA JUST GOT DEPRESSED.

IT MAKES HULK WONDER... WHAT IS THE POINT OF COMPLAINING LIKE THIS? WHAT IS THE TRADE-OFF IN ARTICULATING A PROBLEM VS. JUST GETTING DEPRESSED BY IT? ESPECIALLY ABOUT SOMETHING WE REALLY LIKED? IS IT WORTH IT? BELIEVE IT OR NOT IT'S A FAIRLY COMMON PROBLEM IN CRITICISM. NOW, YOU ALL KNOW HULK AND HOW HULK REALLY WANTS TO PROVIDE A POSITIVE OUTLOOK IN THE WORLD OF TV AND MOVIES, BUT WHY MAKE AN EXCEPTION HERE? IS IT THE HIGH STANDARDS OF THE SHOW? IS IN THE NAME OF BEING PRODUCTIVE? JUST WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO HARP ON THIS ONE ISSUE?

HULK THINKS IT IS IMPORTANT IN THIS ONE PARTICULAR CASE BECAUSE THIS IS A BIT MORE THAN A SHOW DISPLAYING SOME UNWELCOME TENDENCIES AND THE CRITIC JUST OVER-EXTRAPOLATING FROM THERE. HULK ARGUE THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A SHOW ON TELEVISION TO DISPLAY THIS KIND OF TONE-SHIFT SO RAPIDLY BEFORE (UNLESS YOU COUNT BAYWATCH NIGHTS' SUDDEN DECISION TO GO FROM SILK STALKINGS-RIP-OFF TO "X-FILES BY THE COAST!"). AND EVEN IF HULK TRULY FEEL BAD ABOUT THE ROUGH, CRITICAL LANGUAGE USED IN THIS ARTICLE, IT WAS ULTIMATELY IN THE NAME OF TRYING TO PROVIDE SOME USEFUL DIAGNOSTICS GOING FORWARD.

WHICH MEANS THAT THIS IS REALLY ABOUT YOU, THE PROVERBIAL AUDIENCE MEMBER AT HOME, TRYING TO ARTICULATE WHY THIS SEASON JUST WASN'T AS GOOD FOR SOME REASON. THIS IS ABOUT UNDERSTANDING WHY A SHOW WILL GO FROM EMMY WINNER TO BEING A FLUFFY PERIOD SHOW THAT PEOPLE LIKE. THIS IS ABOUT THE PROVERBIAL FAN WHO IS PERHAPS TRYING TO BE A WRITER THEMSELVES, WHO WANTS TO UNDERSTAND WHAT MAKES DRAMA, PLOTTING AND TONE COME TOGETHER IN HARMONY.

BUT, EVEN IF HULK NOW HAS SOME CURIOUS DOUBTS, LET IT NOT SOUR US ON JULIAN FELLOWES ALL TOGETHER. THE MAN HAS WRITTEN BUCKET LOADS OF BETTER WORK THAN MOST OF US CAN DREAM. PERHAPS HE MERELY SUCCUMBED TO THE WAR-TIME LURE OF BOMBASTICISM AND WANTED TO HAVE A LITTLE FUN IN THE CLASSICAL TRADITION, AND PERHAPS NOW WILL NOW COME PLEASANTLY BACK TO EARTH.

BOTH HE AND THE SHOW HAVE EARNED OUR TRUST, SEASON-WIDE FAILURE OR NOT, SO HULK STILL GONNA WATCH. AND HOPEFULLY YOU WILL TOO.

HOPE ALWAYS SEEMS BETTER THAN DREAD.

<3 HULK

Film Crit Hulk's photo About the Author: FILM CRIT HULK WAS CREATED IN A CHAOTIC LAB EXPERIMENT INVOLVING GAMMA RADIATION, TELEPODS, AND THE GHOST OF PAULINE KAEL. NOW HULK HAVE DEEP AND ABIDING LOVE CINEMA.
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