Sunday, March 4, 2012

A subplot example

A few months ago, I posted about ways to test subplots to be sure they work in the overall context of the story. (That post is here if you want to refresh.) I thought we ought to try working an example of this process. We're going to use Downton Abbey for a couple of examples because, first, I've actually managed to watch it (a claim few shows can make this winter), and second, it is rife with subplots.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't watched Downtown Abbey, you should still be able to follow the analysis. I will include information about plot and characters in this post, but this means you might run into some spoilers. I don't usually include spoiler alerts with this kind of post because I think spoilers are native to this kind of analysis, but I know several people who haven't watched the entire second season yet, and I know they're trying to wear blinders. So there you go.

Quick DA Summary:
DA is the story of the people who live in an English country house during the early part of the 20th century. This group is headed by Robert Crawley, Earl Grantham, who has an American heiress for a wife, a delightfully sharp-tongued dowager mother, a trio of marriageable daughters, and no sons to inherit the estate. Season one, episode one begins with the heir presumptive (James Crawley) and his son (Patrick Crawley) going down with the Titanic. This creates an inheritance issue. The next male heir is a somewhat tiresome attorney from Manchester who has had little contact with his aristocratic third cousins. This inheritance issue, and the resulting attempts to assimilate the new heir into the family and home, form most of the conflict for the first season and a good bit of the conflict for the second season.

Season One Inheritance Issue:
The question of whether Manchester Matthew will inherit the earldom is entirely resolved by the end of season one. The family cannot break the entail so that a daughter will inherit the property, and the Countess's surprise pregnancy ends in an accidental miscarriage of her change-of-life baby. As I said, most of the first season conflict stems from this issue, but it is resolved by the end of the first season. The second season revolves mainly around the effects of World War I and the daughters' ongoing attempts to find husbands.

Season Two Subplot:
This brings us to one of the strangest subplots I've ever seen, and the analysis on this one is straightforward enough that we can use it as a simple example of subplot analysis. For the duration of the war, the big house is converted to a convalescent home for officers wounded at the front. Just past the midpoint of season two, a heavily scarred burn victim arrives on the scene. Our first introduction to this character comes when Lady Edith, the middle child in every sense of the term, catches him examining personal items in one of the family's remaining rooms.

This gruesome person claims to be Patrick Crawley, presumed dead in the first episode of season one. He claims he was rescued from the Titanic wreckage and taken to New York. He says he now speaks with a Canadian accent (though his accent is more rust belt than Canada, imo) because he had amnesia and forgot he was English and moved to Canada. He convinces Lady Edith that he is actually Patrick, and she spends a good twenty minutes or so trying to convince the rest of the family, too. However, after making inquiries, the Earl discovers that this man is a Canadian who knew the dead heir and probably gained numerous personal details about the family through the course of that friendship.So, the mystery is solved, the imposter slinks off, and Matthew's right of inheritance is no longer under threat.

The Subplot Test:
Okay, this brings us to the subplot test. The first test of a subplot is whether it has an impact on the development of the main plot. In this case, because Matthew's right to inherit was all buttoned up by the end of season one, this late-season-two subplot revisits that issue without changing the outcome. Matthew was the heir in the moments before the imposter's arrival, and he was still the heir after the imposter left. That did not change. So the subplot fails in that respect.

But that is only the first step of the analysis. It's not enough to examine the impact on the plot. We must also examine the impact on theme, character, and other story elements. In this case, there is a scene in which the family gathers in the parlor to discuss the problem. All of them except for Lady Edith are championing Matthew's right to inherit. This marks a distinct change from season one, when the inheritance issue was actually important to the plot and various family members disputed Matthew's rights. This isn't an anchor scene -- the scenes that mark the beginning and end of the subplot -- but it struck me as a potentially important scene. If the purpose of the imposter subplot was to show this change within the family dynamic, it succeeds because of this drawing room scene.

But the analysis doesn't end there. Now we have to go back to the main plot to see if this point is already being made there, and if not, can it be made in a more direct way there. And the thing is, this issue was also resolved in season one. By the end of season one, Matthew and all the other characters have accepted his role. His champions have won, and his detractors have not only surrendered, but changed to his side. Through the early/middle part of season two, every action shows Matthew as not only the heir, but a welcome and pivotal member of the household. So the subplot is unnecessary to demonstrate this change, which is already being accomplished through the main plot.

There is one other aspect we must consider. At this point in the main plot, Matthew has been injured and is in a wheelchair. His ability to father children is in doubt, and this throws the succession into doubt once again. The imposter arrives before Matthew recovers, and in the drawing room scene, Matthew says it might be better if the imposter inherits because at least he can have children. The question, then, is not whether Matthew should inherit, but who should inherit down the line. If Matthew is the heir and impotent, then the inheritance is cloudy. If the imposter is the heir, he could presumably father a line of children.

This is a somewhat shaky question, though, because the imposter is also severely injured and we don't know whether he can fish with that tackle. Even if the equipment works in the functional sense, there is still the possibility that he would be unable to have children. Or that he would have only daughters, which is what started this whole mess in the first place. So I never really bought the notion that the imposter could guarantee a line of sons to follow him -- maybe he would have sons, and maybe he wouldn't. This means that the story choice is not really Matthew + no children versus imposter + sons. It's more like Matthew + no children versus imposter + ordinary inheritance issues. Think how different it would seem if the imposter turned out to have a legitimate son already. Then this generation-skipping transfer issue is even more pronounced, but it would have failed in other respects.

In any case, it's quickly a non-issue because Matthew can walk again and, we assume, the third leg also works again. So the subplot is used (poorly) to raise the tension level in a season two issue (whether Matthew can have children) by re-raising issues that were resolved in season one (whether Matthew should inherit at all). I thought it was clumsy and unnecessary -- an unusual off-note from an otherwise excellent writer. The imposter could be somehow relevant to season three, but really, I don't care to see the imposter again. Do you?

Can you think of other ways the imposter subplot might have been made important to the story? How would you have revised this?



Beverly said...

I think the former relationship between Mary and Patrick and Edith's jealousy, as well as Patrick's recognition of Edith's love could have been drawn out more to complicate Mary's current love of Matthew (does she just HAPPEN to love the heir, whomever he may be?) and poor Edith's lack of love. Could an alliance between Edith and wounded Patrick been useful? I think so!

Excellent post!!

Hillary Jacques said...

An excellent post. Thank you!

Alicia said...

I was sort of hoping it really was Patrick (cuz I think Matthew's a drip :).

So maybe he really is Patrick, in which case the subplot might come back in S3.

CharmedLassie said...

Brilliant post.

This was the worst episode of both seasons for me. Like you said, it didn't add anything to the overall story apart from showing the solidarity that has developed. It may have been intended as a plot for Edith and, yes, I did feel sympathy for her in that situation but the sympathy had been building up from the beginning of season two anyway because she was becoming much nicer.