Downton Abbey, the British soap opera about the upstairs-downstairs entanglements of masters and servants at an English countryside great house during World War I, has been an unlikely runaway hit for PBS, which airs the period drama as part of its Masterpiece Classic series. But as season two of the show progressed, fans and critics weren't shy in complaining about a perceived downgrade in quality. (Caution: Spoilers lie ahead.) "At various points, it was wildly inconsistent, consistently maddening, melodramatic beyond reason, and seemingly paced by someone who needs three minutes to count to four, and four seconds to count to a million," says Willa Paskin at New York. Still, Sunday's season finale has some critics arguing that Downton Abbey redeemed itself. The show's central couple — the headstrong Lady Mary Grantham and the heir to the Downton estate, Matthew Crawley — finally got engaged after two seasons of frustrating will-they-or-won't-they developments. Did that save the controversial second season?
Not quite: Mary and Matthew's romantic proposal was "so deeply satisfying… that it almost felt like fan fiction," says Rachel Syme at TIME. But a "magical winter-wonderland proposal" does not totally redeem Downton Abbey for its "devolution into convolution this season." In fact, the episode as a whole typified that very trend. Just as viewers were treated to the long-awaited moment, they were assaulted with absurd and irritatingly distracting subplots; in this case, Lord Hepworth and Lady Rosamund's maid attempted to con Lady Rosamund. Just like the rest of season two, the finale was overcrowded and at times nonsensical.
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Absolutely: This was an "almost perfect finale," says Willa Paskin at New York, and any missteps are forgiven. In fact, we should be thankful that season two was more slapdash than its predecessor. Frustrating or boring plotlines — Edith's affair, the amnesiac heir, Matthew's paralysis — were mercifully tossed aside without fans having to launch Facebook petitions to complain. And the plots that we were left with, like Mary and Matthew's courtship, were incomparably fulfilling. All the season's ridiculousness "had a negligible effect on how lovable, enjoyable, and pleasurable it was" in the end.
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Maybe Downton's inconsistency is a good thing: Arguably, Downton Abbey was always a rather ludicrous series, says Viv Groskop at the U.K.'s Guardian, though season two upped the ante with its transition from plots about missing wine bottles to absurd arcs involving maybe-back-from-the-dead, burnt-beyond-recognition possible heirs. "I am torn between feeling utter betrayal and total delight" about the outlandishness of season two. Wild inconsistency "strikes me as a very Downton place to be." This is an upstairs-downstairs period soap opera, after all, so the melodrama is fitting. Perhaps season two was actually "better because it is worse."
"Downton Abbey on PBS: Season two, the verdict"
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