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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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