Monday, July 1, 2013

TV Review: Downton Abbey

Written and created by Julian Fellowes. Seasons 1-3: 2010-2012

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. – W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming


I have often thought about that generation of Englishmen who broached the twentieth century. How many must have expected their privileged jubilee to carry on, how many that their antique virtues and traditions would preserve their world. Not even the soberest of them could have foreseen their culture's imminent twilight or its harbinger, the First World War. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is the pole of Downton Abbey, where things go on much as they have for hundreds of years. The tenants farm the land, the townsfolk sell their wares, the servants keep the estate, and the Crawleys keep up appearances. Don't snicker too much: Robert, his wife Cora, and his Dowager Countess mother, Violet, have their hands full keeping up appearances, i.e. doing damage control in the wakes of the Crawley debutantes, Mary, Edith, and Sybil. In fact, though he loves them dearly, no father since Lear had such luck with the suffragette, the backstabber, and the tart. How proud a father he must be, cleaning up after his daughters so they don't become the Crazy Crawleys of Downton.

Aristocratic pretentions aside, Downton Abbey could have proceeded down such conventional soap opera paths, neatly laying out fodder for gossip while stringing cardboard characters along a pointless plot. Downton avoids these pitfalls by using the plot to depart from the archetypes of the pilot and actually develop the characters. We see Mary (left, center) evolve from a sneering prima donna who delights in cutting remarks and outshining her sister into a humbled spinster after a furtive fling with an exotic houseguest, to a tortured fiancé. Finally, she marries the presumptive heir to Downton, including the dwindling Crawley fortune, and she's eager to preserve what in her youth she had dashed off with indifference. Her husband, a distant cousin and middle class lawyer who's poised to inherit the estate due to Robert's lack of a son, follows a circuitous path to nobility. At first he promises that aristocratic life won't change him but slowly and surely, as he grows to love the family and appreciate life on the estate, he too wishes to preserve Downton.

Mary's youngest sister, Sybil, provides a contrast to her sibling because she does, in fact, throw away her noble life by running off not just with a commoner, not just Downton's mechanic, but a republican Catholic socialist. Robert's inability to dissuade his daughter from marrying Branson is the first sign that life isn't going back to the pre-war ways. It doesn't help that Branson is stubborn and abrasive, never choosing simply to decline an offer or remain silent but at every opportunity feeling it necessary to articulate his opinions about injustice. Yet Sybil transforms her husband from an angry rebel with a boulder on his shoulder and nothing at stake in life, into a husband, father and, while not in name, a Crawley. In an amusing scene, he meets Dowager Countess Violet, his wife's grandmother, who has invited him to dinner. After he voices his opposition to dress coats, the symbols of oppression, she promptly ignores him and has the butler dress the man for dinner; he can argue politics with Robert as much as he wants, but he's showing up properly dressed to dinner with grandma. After his wife's untimely death, he realizes that the family still cares about him and his child, and that he can fulfill his ideals by helping Downton's tenants instead of burning down the houses of noblemen.

All three men, Matthew, Branson, and Robert ultimately adjust to their postwar lives, moving from impotence to torpor to unity. They each, however, must concede what is now out of their control. Matthew can't control the fact that Mary is willful and sardonic, Branson can't control the fact that Sybil still loves and needs her family, and Robert must admit that he can neither control his daughters anymore nor run Downton alone. Finally, none of them can control the fact that they're all family now, Matthew and Branson by marrying into it, and Robert by adopting them as sons. There's a moving scene at the end of season three where the three men, having each found his place in the new world of Downton, rejoice together after a house victory in Downton's annual cricket game.

That's half the story, and while the other half live downstairs at Downtown they do so with no less interest and intrigue. Can we begin with anyone other than Carson, the Lord of the Staff? Every bit Lord Grantham's counterpart, the Head Butler Carson is the joyful keeper of traditions, or as he would say, standards. He deplores disorder and staves off any hint of slackening standards by a stern demeanor which holds earls, ladies, doctors, lawyers, and virtually everyone in check. He's a sort of walking constitution, making everyone upstairs and down think twice about whether their whim du jour is worth breaking tradition. Carson's not wedded to the past though, just rooted in it. However much he grumbles about newfangled gadgets, he doesn't mind that the "world change us," just not too much or soon or for the worse. He upholds the traditions and abhors poor form not as a Gradgrind but because he loves and respects the Crawleys, his family, and everyone's behavior on the estate points back to its lord and lady.

The house staff might be an even tougher lot to wrangle than their noble lords, though, with varying plots to replace, promote, embarrass, and court one another. Yet here too there's meaning and not simply vulgar utility. Anna and Bates both move from islands of maturity to friends who take solace in each other's forbearance, to agonized lovers, to parted spouses, and finally to reconciliation. The perpetually scheming Thomas and Mrs. O'Brien move from being allies to enemies until they both are transformed, O'Brien by a tragic crime, and Thomas by a love and a death.

All of these downstairs threads are interwoven through the goings on of the Crawleys with every manner of eavesdropping, flirting, framing, and miscommunication possible. It's quite a feat to jump around from thread to thread but writer-creator Julian Fellowes manages it so well you scarcely notice the switching. Likewise he's adept at tightening the tension on some and slackening it on others, always pleasing and confounding our expectations to keep us poised for more. Just as everything seems to be going wrong, one resolves, as everything seems to go well, something awful happens. Yes, you could probably condense all three seasons into one movie, but there's an apparent, persuasive reality to the character who unfolds over months and years and not within the confines of two or three hours. Certainly there is much which might be cut, from flower shows and missed connections to false alarms and untimely detours, but when so well done it's less bloat than too much of a good thing. Besides, who would want to give up any of the Dowager Countess' balloon-bursting quips, the endless taunting between O'Brien and Thomas, or Carson's regal decorum?

For a show which is a frank riff on the soap opera and miniseries model, Downton Abbey transcends both, the former primarily insofar as it situates its characters in circumstances to which they'll need to adapt, but also by allowing its characters to act not based on what they just did, but based on everything they've done. Downton exceeds the miniseries model by letting its characters change and not relegating them to the stiff conceptions the series started with. Most importantly, Downton exists in the larger context of a world in change and examines the transition from one where everyone knew where they stood to one in which you must constantly adapt.

This slow shift is subtly handled and the most revealing part of Downton. In the old world, the lord gave the orders and everyone followed. Yet Robert's wife and daughters no longer obey his word as law. The girls run off with different men, to varying ends, and they take what jobs they like. Two parallel scenes tell the tale: Robert and Carson each forbid their charges to be in the presence of a young prostitute whom cousin Isobel is letting work at the house, and each in turn is duly ignored. Dark times.

Yet the prewar days seem more and more distant. Before the war, young men and women felt they had to attract one another. Men had to be dapper, informed, and successful, while the women had to be charming, graceful, and deferential. Both had to be genteel. After the war and the suffrage movement, the young simply come as they are, under the premise that no one should judge or be uncomfortable just for "being themselves," as cousin Isobel says. It's the opposite of Carson's policy of strict standards. Finally, as the years roll on, the characters slowly drop the pretenses of discretion. Where once discretion reigned a supreme virtue, now candor rules and everyone more freely says what they feel when they feel it. The coarsening of manners and the liberation from tradition have gone hand in hand, with the result that instead of joining and partaking in company, everyone is aggressively themselves. Except with Carson, of course, the holding center at Downton.

Downton's not a dour place, though, and there's plenty of joy in children, romance, and the familial bonds which do endure. There's also plenty of fun in cheering for your favorite characters, from the daffy head chef Mrs. Patmore and her loyal little assistant, Daisy, to the honorable Bates, to poor Lady Edith, the middle child perpetually trying to raise herself out of spinsterhood. We even get a few running jokes, the best being the accidentally sloshed Mr. Molesley. In fact there's a rather Dickensian quality to the characters in their daily joys and plights, and ultimately it's these colorful, imperfect people we seek when we so eagerly return to Downton Abbey.


  1. I enjoyed this review immensely. I have been watching some of Downton Abbey lately and I was rather conflicted about what to think about the show. In some ways it does seem like a posh soap opera, but I like to think there is more substance to it. As one actor from the series said in an interview, "It's not about sex, it's about love and romance," and I do think that's true.

  2. Hello! I wasn't expecting the series to do quite so much with the characters, finding new scenarios which reveal and/or change. They also really do carry the weight of their choices. That's especially true of the romances: look at how much Mary, Ethel, and Tom suffer for their "indiscretion." And look at how Lavinia's (what a great name!) suffering and love saved the whole family. The treatment of love is on the one hand romantic in the sense of sweeping energy and pageantry, and on the other hand simply traditional. There's very little hanky-pankey, and none that's not followed up by some serious consequences. DA even makes room, shockingly, for love which is not sexual: Carson and Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and William. Before writing the review I was worried I'd simply been swept up in the drama, but I do think indeed there's some substance here.

    Thanks for sharing, and I do enjoy your blog!