Who doesn’t love being in the Downton world, peeking in on the lives and loves of the lowliest and the lushest? We’ll keep coming back, knowing full well that Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew will just go round and round in their courtship for another season or two, and the same goes for Bates and Anna. The appeal can’t all be glamor and scandal though, can it? Is there substance behind the gorgeous veneer and dirty deeds of Downton? This fan has wracked the brain trying to parse out the alchemy of such a powerful narrative drug.
Even the likes of The Nation Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Inquiry has taken a stab to dissect Downton. John Heilpern from the lefter than left Nation explores the intricacies in his article “‘Downton Abbey': Escapist Kitsch Posing as ‘Masterpiece Theatre’:
In spite of all this—and so much more—I was surprised to learn that the TV rights to Downton Abbey have been sold in over a hundred countries. I didn’t know there were a hundred countries. But the phenomenal success of the series does not prove that the whole world is nostalgic for the snobbery of the British class system. It proves only that the whole world loves a soap opera.
When it comes to culture with a capital “K,” however, anglophile Americans do not acknowledge that England lost the War of Independence. They swoon over Downton as a superior soap opera—as any old Masterpiece Theatre import is invariably claimed to be a masterpiece. But Downton is escapist kitsch, obviously. It is saying, We all have our problems underneath. And more insidiously, it thus presents the comforts of a pandering parallel universe in which everyone—scullery maid or countess, common hoi polloi or aristocratic toff—is the same, only unequal.
Mary McNamara tries her own take in the LA Times with her piece “Critic’s Notebook: An American’s take on ‘Downton Abbey'”
But then, “Downton Abbey” is a modern television show, and modern audiences can no longer sympathize with anyone in the master or even “Mister” role. Atticus Finch may be the last American hero to get away with it; even Frodo and Sam’s employer-servant relationship was almost entirely obscured by their friendship in the film version of “The Lord of the Rings.”
Indeed, from the moment we met Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), last season, it was clear that Fellowes would not be wielding the stinging class satire of his own “Gosford Park” or even the strictly upheld divisions of “Upstairs Downstairs.”
Finally, The New Inquiry’s Aaron Bady with his coverage “The Earnestness of Being Grantham” inches closer to this admirer’s sentiments:
“‘Downton Abbey’ – the house – is a museum and a show-piece, a theme-park for a single American tourist, and Downton Abbey – the show – is a behind-the-scenes narrative about its maintenance.”
If we understand his essentially ornamental (and mystifying) purpose, then, we’ll have a better understanding of why Grantham spends two seasons threatening to do all sorts of things and then never actually doing anything. A real aristocrat would have known how to deal with an impertinent Irish chauffeur, for example, and he might have even, occasionally, made good on any of the other proposed actions he loudly proclaims himself about to maybe take and then doesn’t. But Grantham never does anything because that’s not what he’s for.
In Downton, the class divide is bandied about, danced around, and flirted with but never taken up with any real seriousness. The Grantham’s are unbelievably benevolent, shipping off the house cook to London, ensuring Mrs. Patmore gets the best eye surgery available to fix her ailing vision. Talk about a health care plan! Fellows isn’t concerned about anything too political. He’s not writing to raise consciousness or advocate social justice for the under-privileged, but what is modestly laudable about Downton, what Bady begins to hint at with his psychological profile of Grantham is that Downton Abbey, at its very core, is wholeheartedly and unabashedly dedicated to the heroine’s journey, or, really, the poly-heroine’s journey.
As the show’s historian pointed out in an interview the male servants are “the peacocks of the estate.” The men are enticing, as attractive and noteworthy as the majestic trees standing on the lawn (are they yews?). As pretty to look at as the crystal in the dining room, their agency is as tensile and active as Cousin Violet’s jewelry. They glint while the women heave and ho. Think of it. Matthew’s biggest storyline is that he could have children and then he couldn’t and then he could again. There’s no revelatory, earth-shattering transformation for him, but Lady Mary gets caught on her knees praying. Like her sister Edith, we didn’t think the eldest Crawley daughter had a pious bone in her body. When the wounded came crowding the house, she fell into line with little protest, and when Matthew was transferred over, his manhood supposedly shattered, she carried his chamber pot to and fro like it was a vase of peonies. Her character arc has been dramatically prismatic.
Then there’s Bates. Sanctimonious stick-in-mud, and stoic Bates who might have or might not have killed his wife. He’s got such a poker face, its probably not possible for him to crack up in giggles. His expressions are as rigid as his character. This guy’s set in stone, murderer or not. We know what he’s thinking before he does.
The real action heroes aren’t the men of Downton Abbey, not poor William who came and went like a lost puppy, not Thomas, who spins his wheels, and certainly not Lord Grantham, who suffers from a typical mid-life crisis with coattails and a snifter of brandy. His character is all about the the goodness of his heart and the grandeur of his estate. Yawn.
Cora, on the other hand, has shown she calls the shots, willing to take risks and fall flat on her face. She’s set on going to Ireland after all to meet her first grandchild whether her husband comes or not.
These women of mettle have a clear trajectory we’ve followed anxiously and devotedly from season one to two. Daisy’s imminent transformation has been more dramatic than Mr. Carson’s will ever be. There’s no teaching that old dog new tricks, and the bromide seems applicable to most of the male counterparts, who pale in comparison to the supposedly “gentler sex.” At Downton, the roles have been reversed, and the gentlemen are truly just that, gentle and tame.
Battle-weary warriors Cousin Violet and Cousin Isabel are racking up one victory after the next in contest with one another. Whether it’s the former steering family members as if they were pieces on a chessboard, making one sly move after another to keep the family name safe and the family members safer, or if its the latter shuttling from Manchester to Highclere to France because she “must go where she’s needed.”
However as much as these women dare to shed old skin and embrace the always impending new age, they still play it safe within the realm of domesticity. None of them, save for widowed Violet or Isabel steps outside the traditional role of wife or lover. Our heroines may rebel kissing farmers, bedding and accidentally killing off foreign diplomats, eloping with Irish dissidents, or saving the world one wounded soldier at a time, yet unanimously they keep close to the love paradigm.
And this could be Downton’s greatest downfall and greatest appeal. PBS’ Masterpiece is “the haven for literary love paradigms,” where Austen and Dickens junkies clamor to get their fix for lovers flirting on horseback or storms brewing in tea cups, Julian Fellowes’ latest concoction is the new drug in town. Its an old formula, a special kind of chemical magic that’s worked well since the 1700’s. Like all countryside estate novels, Downton celebrates a past that never was. Idling in a dreamscape where a woman defies society by riding side saddle, or dares to drive a car, and speak her mind at dinner parties. Because the story takes place in the countryside almost anything goes, just read Shakespeare’s comedies. The country-side demands that wilder natures come out of hiding, but the wildness is tamed at the end of the day.
If a novelist or TV show writer wanted to instigate real change, upsetting the social hierarchy, the story would take place in a metropolis like London, where Dickens has his street urchins coming out on top or Gaskell’s stand-in for Manchester, aka Milton, where Margaret was sent to rouse the labour with her will-to-power.
Countryside estate stories are about preserving and celebrating a romanticized past, maintaining the status quo of gender roles, and keeping the classes in harmonious order, as Tolkien does in his epic trilogy LOTR. The fair remain fair, and the dark are nothing but dark, and the righteous and true will have his ladylove be it Arwen or Mary, only after being tested to prove he’s righteous and true, of course.
Here, though, Fellowes does a complete reversal of Dickens’ and most fairy-tales, preferring Austen’s story slant instead. He creates two-dimensional men. Carson and Lord Grantham combined can be so goody-goody they’d have Little Nell and Little Dorritt racing to keep up with their preciousness. Rather, the Downton women are charged with the task of proving themselves righteous and true. Whether its Daisy, the lowest of the low, struggling to have her say, or Cousin Violet grappling with every new fandangle of technology that pops in her path, or Sybil and Mary defining what it means to be “liberated” in their own way. The men, for the most part, are set. We know what stuff they are made of. But the women, oh those women! What will they do next?
Waiting anxiously for season three, which can’t come soon enough.
What are your hopes and fears for the next twist of events to descend on the Crawley’s? Have we got it wrong and given the men the short end of the stick? Share your thoughts.