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The Perverse Pleasures of ‘Downton Abbey,’ Where Progress Is The Enemy

The Perverse Pleasures of 'Downton Abbey,' Where Progress Is The Enemy

Key to the enjoyment of “Downton Abbey” is the fact that the way of life it depicts is long gone, leaving us free to admire it in all of its antique-linen-and-silver-dinner-service gorgeousness without having to think too hard about its implications. It’s a sneakily complicated truth that Julian Fellowes’ series is unabashedly romantic about its portrayal of nobility and the serving class that supports it, and has maintained this ably for three seasons now by having the estate of its title constantly under threat. First there was the entail that might have taken Downton away from the family, then there was the war and its fallout, and this round there’s been the matter of the bad investment and general mismanagement. Downton is, even in the era of the show, past its prime, a thing out of time and unnecessary, a beautiful tribute to tradition that doesn’t really have a place anymore. One of the show’s most subversive aspects is that it counts on your wanting Downton to survive and thrive, which means that your sympathies are often placed against those who represent a push toward modernity, progress, equality and a slightly more sensible house. 

In last night’s episode, butler and steadfast supporter of the old ways Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) quizzed footman-in-training Alfre (Matt Milne) on the different types of silverware on the table. “Teaspoon, egg spoon, melon spoon, grapefruit spoon, jam spoon…” he struggled, stuck on what Carson eventually revealed was a bouillon spoon, a specialty instrument required because bouillon, unlike soup, is consumed from a smaller dish. A terrifying prospect having to identify and use different spoons for every dish, and yet in “Downton Abbey” there’s never any doubt that there’s charm and power to the ritual. One of the things that makes the show as homey and comfortable to settle into as a cup of hot chocolate is that to watch it is to give your implicit assent to the glory of its lords and ladies and the benevolent fondness and paternalism with which they regard their staff, accepting that things work well this way, or, when they don’t, are at least sumptuously miserable.

There have been multiple turns this season where the show has put the audience in the precarious position of rooting against the forces of progress and balance. There’s been the dashing Matthew Crawley’s (Dan Stevens) refusal to make money in the genteel way of the upper class — to inherit it — because of the guilt he feels over the reasons he was left the fortune by the father of his former fiancée Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle). Left enough cash to save Downton from the ill-advised business dealings of his father-in-law Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Matthew vowed instead to give it all away against his new wife Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) protestations. First he refused to read the letter left him by Lavinia’s father, then when Mary opened it anyway he wouldn’t believe the contents of it until she confirmed that Lavinia had informed her parent of what had happened between them the day of her death. It was a fussy burst of drama that made Matthew’s attempts to turn away the money seem vexatious instead of noble — while he held out, saying it would feel like stealing, we’re left as impatient as Mary by his high-minded ways. There’s an estate to save! There’s no time for ideals! Think of the footmen!

What made this narrative arc, which played out over three episodes, even more perverse is that the danger of losing Downton wasn’t just immediately assuaged by the promise of this miraculous money, the alternative was moving to an equally lovely smaller estate that the family would rename Downton Place. It would be a change to how the family was living before, but mainly a scaling down — they’d still have servants, just not so many, and they still owned most of the village. They’d be letting go of the home they’d held onto for generations, yes, but not taking such a large step down in the world. But it was the prospect of change coming at all, change that we realize is inevitable, that was so ominous. Like Mrs. Hughes’ (Phyllis Logan) malevolently smoking electric toaster, the future is a foreboding thing on the series, a slow slide toward the mundane familiarity of the contemporary world.

The storyline involving chaffeur turned husband to Lady Sybil Tom Branson (Allen Leech) also puts the “Downton Abbey” viewership in a place of looking with dismay at a character who in the context of the show comes across as disruptive to the status quo. His sweet romance with Sybil may have been representative of the breaking of class boundaries, and the family’s tentative acceptance of their marriage has been a compelling narrative arc, but this season his class warring has seemed even more jarring, from his discomfort with life upstairs at Downton when visiting for Mary and Matthew’s wedding to his fleeing back after having witnessed the burning of an aristocrat’s house by fellow Irish Republicans.

“I don’t look at them and see charm and gracious living. I see something horrible,” Tom said, while admitting that he was still sorry when seeing the family turned out in the street. Cowed, having left his pregnant wife to follow behind him, the point of view he represents is, in the context of the show, an uncomfortable one, because charm and gracious living are what we’ve come to bask in, and the new world and the turmoil he represents are far from it. Time will come for Downton eventually, just as success is slowly pulling the show’s cast and creator away to new projects, but more so than any other property on TV “Downton Abbey” manages to make you want to resist it and all the changes it will bring, to contrarily seal everything up just so, just the way things used to be.

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I understand your reading of the series, but I actually see the show as demonstrating some of the more absurd aspects of this world ruled by rigid rules and elaborate ritual. The spoon scene to me was not a romantic longing for the return of the bouillon spoon, but pointing out the silliness of the specificity of this life, and providing another piece of evidence why it was doomed to fall (could the bouillon spoon be just tiny bit of excess that ultimately made this top heavy world too much to maintain?) I also find it fascinating to watch the very people who are victimized by the rigid class system stand as it's guardians (is there a more staunch defender than Carson), and find parallels to our own social and political world where the right wing moneyed elites have systematically recruited the working class and middle classes as it's greatest defenders (rank and file GOP and Tea Party voters). I think it's also important to acknowledge that rooting for the immediate dissolution of the Downton Estate is to ignore that the entire economic life of the region depended on the estate, that part of the Crawley families life is their responsibility to employ not only the massive household staff, but the welfare and livelihood of nearly everyone in the surrounding countryside. It's a system doomed to failure in the face of the 20th Century reforms and the Great Depression about to come, but it is a system that can't simply be wiped away in a single action without having a devastating impact on the lives of the most vulnerable people in the area.

I think it is possible to engage in a romantic attachment to the undeniable beauties and glamour of house, it's art, it's furnishings and the life of it's owners, but still understand that it is unjust and about to come to an end as a real way of life. Don't forget that all the young men who have come into the family are reformers. I see Isobel, Matthew and Tom not as intruders, but as agents of change, who because they have married into the family, are forces that the Downton Crawleys can't simply ignore. It is through them that the management of the estate will change or face extinction and that the injustices of both the class system and colonialism can be seen in deep relief by a family who might never examine them otherwise.


Nice piece, but I, and my family, might be atypical viewers if, in fact, most people truly enjoy the artistocratic style of living enjoyed by the Crawleys as you indicate. We always cheer on the "downstairs" folk and relish the tense moments when characters like Branson push the Crawleys toward a very uncomfortable line where, if they cross over, they will find themselves in a world that they're only happy to witness at a very safe distance from their library as they drink sherry. I find the changes coming to England and to Downton Abbey's family — both upstairs and downstairs — all exciting. It makes for gripping television! But there's very little, nothing in fact, that I find that is actually genteel about the deep class divides which might make typical viewers side with the Crawleys. If anything, I'm on their side only insofar as they're willing to accept the inevitable changes visited upon them! (Especially with regard to Irish independence! Love that Branson…) One of my favorite moments from all three seasons is the brief moment when Edith's letter is noticed in the paper by Robert, and both Matthew and Branson express support for her. Feminist bros-in-law — now there's some progress!

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