Like many of you noble lords and ladies, I have been thoroughly sucked into the period costume drama slash soap opera Downton Abbey, with its potboiler plot lines (Cousin back from the dead! Or is he!), breathtaking pace (pretty sure World War I was over in half an episode) and brilliant Maggie Smith one-liners.
What’s amazing about a drama as well-received as Downton Abbey is the sheer simplicity of its moral universe. The good characters are good and the bad characters are bad. That’s that. No one learns lessons, no one evolves (with the possible exception of Miss O’Brien), no one is especially complicated. Carson will always be dignified and Thomas the footman will always be a jerk. We don’t exactly spend a lot of time plumbing the depths of souls.
What’s even more amazing to me is the extent to which the good characters are measured by their devotion to an aristocratic universe that is usually vaguely unseemly and sometimes outright reprehensible. The good members of the staff are those who are wholly devoted to the maintenance of a system in which their employers live in opulent, lazy and unearned extravagance while they are lucky if they have the free time to find time to date, let alone reproduce.
But whatever, we love it! Who’s ready for a fancy dinner?
How in the name of Kemal Pamuk do they pull this off? (I mean. Aside from the fact that everyone and everything looks fabulous.)
For one thing, the makers are fantastic at finding the seams in characters’ competing desires and priorities and bringing them out in a heartwarming way. We all know that Maggie Smith’s character is an unabashed devotee of aristocratic privilege and tradition (Dowager Countess: “What is a weekend?”), but she is also, at heart, the biggest advocate for the unity of the family.
So (mild spoiler), when we find out that she is the one who sent the money for Lady Sybil and her low-born Irish husband to travel back for Lady Mary’s wedding, we are pleased and surprised that she set aside her distaste for his horrid apparel in favor of having her granddaughter present. Love of family > tradition.
A similar dynamic also works with the Earl of Grantham. Nearly every plotline on the show: He tries to adhere to tradition and the ways of the past, which ends up upsetting his daughters, and he caves to their wishes after a touching conversation. Love of daughters > aristocracy.
We like to see characters do the right thing when presented with competing options, and the creators of Downton Abbey are really skilled at creating situations where characters’ honor are tested.
This ends up getting a little odd when it comes to the staff, as the ones who are good are the ones who are self-effacing enough to succeed in a world where doing the right thing involves preserving a world that sucks up their humanity lest the people who live upstairs have to lift a finger. We are charmed by the butler Carson’s prideful attention to detail and Mrs. Hughes’ polite competence (occupational competency > personal life) without being horrified that their entire lives revolve around the needs and desires of a group of people who have done less work in their lifetimes than the staff do in a day.
The third season started last week and there were hints that the newly arrived American Martha Levinson, Lady Grantham’s mother, would shake up the moral compass that underlies the show, and there seems to be some dawning awareness that perhaps one should do something with one’s life besides employ a staff with an acquired fortune, judge local flower contests and host fancy parties.
And this is why the show faithfully keeps up with one of the important characteristics about a great setting. It’s not just the beautiful surroundings. In a great setting, change is underway that impacts the character’ lives. The aristocracy, and Downton Abbey itself, seems to be headed for a reckoning.
We’ll see, anyway. Something tells me the Dowager Countess will win in the end. As she herself said, “Don’t be so defeatist, dear. It’s very middle class.”