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.”
Jennifer Major says
"What is a weekend" was the BEST line in television in the last 5 years. The utter absurdity with which the DC could survive life not knowing the freaking days of the week and their significance could only be delivered with the seemingly naive, yet shrewd brilliance, of Maggie Smith.
And IS Bates a killer???
Bates drives me crazy. I want to do the whole Tom & Jerry frying pan thing with his face.
Carmen Webster Buxton says
The other thing I think Downton Abbey shows is, strong characters trump almost everything else. If you can make the reader/viewer care what happens to the characters, it doesn't matter how original (or unoriginal) your plot is.
Nathan Bransford says
No way Bates is really a killer. That's not the show we're watching.
I'm not so sure that none of the characters evolve. It's a slow evolution to be sure, and in little ways, but that's very like life.
Examples might be Tom making his radicalism a lower priority than Sibyl, Sibyl taking the plunge and moving to Ireland, Lady Mary learning a bit of generosity towards others… Can you imagine Lady Mary from early in Season 1 being kind to Lavinia? I think you'll find Thomas evolves too, later in Season 3.
Ellen Hummel says
Funny, I was thinking the same thing when I was watching DA last night. Strong characters and exquisite and finely detailed setting each do their jobs to hook the viewer, but the thing that struck me was the dialogue – sharp, compact language that not only reveals each character but also paces the action so the plot just zips along. Nothing profound, but each word is true to each character, and it's efficient. (And I agree about Bates, though he is kind of creepy.)
Robena Grant says
I think the hook is the accents. We love that they use words like vulgarity, and said with a quirk of an eyebrow. The way a conversation can be halted with a severe glance. That haughtiness that takes us to another place, another time, a world we've only imagined. Do we care that the characters don't evolve? Not hardly. : )
I've read a couple of wannabe-Downton books, and the difference between them and the real thing is (as Ellen says) is the dialogue. Maggie Smith has some brilliant lines, and the interplay between the characters is hard to replicate.
I would argue that Mary has evolved considerably since the first season. The consequences of her fatal (hah) fling with Pamuk changed her (for the better). Edith, more subtly, has also become less selfish. I can't imagine her ratting her sister out with a tell-all letter anymore.
I think the show is about change being forced on the family over time. They are forced to accept Matthew– a lawyer with a practice (and later a soldier), not a gentleman. They are forced to change by the war– Sybil becomes a nurse, Edith runs the hospital and is credited with seeing to the day to day needs of the injured. Only Mary, her father, and mother don't take on jobs/work. Matthew didn't give up his practice because he got married. Your claim that none of them work is wrong. I'm sure by the end of the next season we'll see more modernization forced on them.
Lauren Monahan says
Hmmm…still haven't gotten hooked on the DA craze, but thanks for the post. Aside from all the other astute observations, you gave me some Monday morning filler lesson plan material on setting. Fantastic lesson for AP Literature prep. Thanks!
Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina says
Your analysis is spot on. Normally I don't like soap operas (and DA is a period soap opera), but the conflicts make up for the lack of depth and the fact that the characters don't change much. Of course, when you think about it, the upper class didn't have to change week-to-week, which is probably why they are so unprepared for the real changes coming.) 🙂
I really don't think Downton Abbey is about change. At least, not in the character-evolving sort of way. I believe it's about accepting the change – that inevitably happens to each of us – with grace and dignity. I think that's part of the reason the show is so popular: we all wish we had the elegance and decorum to face the turbulence of life with poise.
Neurotic Workaholic says
I think the best scenes are the ones with the servants; I like them a lot better than the rich family members. One thing I didn't like was how almost all of them dismissed the guy who claimed to be the long-lost heir (not the cousin that Mary fell in love with, but the other one that they thought died). I mean, yes, his face was so injured it was unrecognizable, but still. I also think that the actors are really good, which makes up for the soap-opera storylines.
I'm surprised that no one has mentioned what i believe to be one of the main themes driving the series – the changing roles of women at the turn of the 20th century. So yes, I'd have to disagree as well Nathan that the characters don't evolve. They evolved dramatically from the beginning of Season 1 to the end of WWI and then struggled with their new found independence (and jobs) possibly being reversed when the men returned from the front. No longer are they willing to spend all their time sitting around looking pretty or getting dressed up in order to sit around looking pretty. The Dowager Countess is there to comment on the changes that many viewers would otherwise not realize were major cultural shifts induced both by the communist movement and the war. If the show didn't portray these aspects of the feminist movement it would be deadly dull.
Mirka Breen says
Love this post. You called it, Nathan.
Nostalgia for a world that never was can get away with a lot.
Beth Christopher says
Love Downton, and loved this post! I agree with Whirlochre. Bates drives me crazy, too, and I think it's because everyone has lumped him in the "good" guy camp. I want him to have fed his witchy ex-wife a heaping slice of arsenic pie.
Yvette Carol said:
I think Julian Fellowes is a brilliant writer. I loved what he said when he was asked, 'how' he comes up with all this great stuff for Downton Abbey. He replied, "I just start writing and let the words dribble out onto paper." 🙂
I just caught this post. Don't know how I missed it. It's one of the few I've seen written about Downton Abbey as it can relate to writers.
I am so addicted to this show I set the DVR so I won't miss it…lol.
I find it fascinating to study the way characters are handled with regard to such a simple, and yet so complicated at times, storylines. In many ways, it's a good deal like Upstairs Downstairs, only at a later time in history. I think Upstairs Downstairs was focused on the Edwardian period and the first World War caused them to change and rethink a lot of the old traditions.
But they do move things forward in DA, which is vital to all plots, and in such a simple way you don't even know they are doing it.
Sheila Cull says
How cute. Especially when you said, "…Aside from the fact that everyone and everything looks fabulous.)"
A smile. Thank you Bransford.
I honestly think this show is gripping us because we are starving for propriety. There is little sense of order in our chaotic world. There is something comforting about people speaking politely when they would like to take their garnett broaches and shove them down one another's throats. There is something exciting about watching people control themselves instead of going on killing sprees or being obnoxious and shocking to get three seconds fame on youtube. I think you are right about moral ambiguities- we are tired of them. We get nothing but ambiguity. We would love a little clarity, a little self-responsibility, and a lot more humanity.