I finished season one of Downton Abbey with my husband Wednesday night and immediately wished Netflix offered more. Alas, they don’t, at the moment, have seasons two or three to a show that has riveted my attention and drawn me completely into the lives of the family and servants residing at Downton Abbey. But most remarkable of all was how the show managed a compelling ending despite utilizing a predictable event.
Season one of Downton Abbey closes with the announcement that England is now at war with Germany. As the audience, we know the year is 1914 and that every character has been absorbed the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and the likelihood of war. The concluding news of the season finale is completely expected, so how does it pull off nail biting?
The answer is simple. The show capitalizes on the audience’s knowledge in addition to the characters’ knowledge. No character knows what awaits them, but we do. We know World War I was horrific. We know that it shattered the world and will certainly shatter, on some level, Downton Abbey. And this foreknowledge heightens our worry for the characters we’ve grown to love over a season. We may not know exactly how the war will affect the next season, but we know it will be bad.
Historicals are unique in that they can tap into this. However, to pull it off well, they must establish the audience’s adoration and sympathy for several characters. With this, foreknowledge, ratchets up the suspense, for we fear the pain and suffering that awaits our beloved heroes.
What other examples can you think of where audience foreknowledge increased the tension in a story?