Now that the finale has clinched “Downton Abbey’s” third season, it’s time to reconnoiter. The show’s popularity owes much to soap opera suspense, expert acting, lavish nostalgia, and writing that sometimes borders on subtlety. Oh, and a walloping big publicity budget. But there's more to its popularity than that.
For Americans, the show offers the forbidden pleasures of hierarchy to a culture officially fixated on individualism and democracy. In reality, the US protects an absurd and greedy new aristocracy. The gap between super-rich and the working poor has reached the lunatic proportions of the Gilded Age, while wages at the bottom have been stagnant for decades. Despite an epic financial crime wave in recent years, for example, no billionaire bankers have gone to the big house, even though the US locks up more people than Russia or China, many in for-profit prisons. But those losers are disproportionately poor and minority males, many nailed for nonviolent drug offenses. Last I heard, the Supreme Court turned down the appeal of a California nobody whose “third strike,” stealing cassette tapes from a convenience store, could keep him on ice for most of his remaining life.
But that’s just today's disappointing reality. In the world of “Downton Abbey,” the Earl’s newly married valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) is wrongly imprisoned, persecuted by a vicious low-life con, and then rescued by his faithful wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and the Earl, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), whose high-level intervention in the government also thwarts prosecution of his Irish rebel son-in-law Tom (Allen Leech) and his misguided homosexual first footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier). That's the kind of earl you want
In this Britain law may be unjust, but thank the Lord—M'lord, that is—for backstage lobbying that can set things right.
In ordinary life if you talk back to the boss, you can be “terminated.” But in the great house, hierarchy is as cooperative as socialism. At critical moments there, forgiveness homogenizes alpha dominance. The magic word is "transference" or hero-worship: our compulsion to idealize and identify with powerful others. We fetishize "stars," leaders, and lovers—and even houses and cars. Identifying with them, we share in their larger-than-life vitality and heroic purpose. We bask in their protective aura. After all, we celebrate Einstein less as an abstruse genius than as the twinkly moptop granddad who's tamed the vast, dark, annihilating cosmos that otherwise might terrify us.
In the everyday world, transference can be gut-wrenchingly ambivalent. You worry that your hero won’t live up to your worship, or will betray you, or that you’ll prove inadequate and be rejected. “Downton Abbey” soothes this anxiety by renovating the fairy tale of Angophile paternalism. (At the Czar's palace in St. Petersburg during perestroika I once overheard a Soviet family warbling that “They say the Czar was kind to the poor.”) At Downton, the Earl resists modernizing the estate to protect its poor tenants, at least until he learns that such sentimental values have cost the Marquess of Flintshire his estate in Scotland . Then he comes to his senses.
The news tells you and me that from Korea and China to Wall Street and Lagos, corruption is epidemic. In Downton, by contrast, power is a lovably naive teddy bear. Robert, the earl, loses the family fortune in an investment gone bad (shades of Madoff!). But fear not. He’s rescued in spite of himself by his son-in-law, the modernizer Matthew (Dan Stevens), though the loot comes from a gratuitous and very Victorian legacy.
True, M’lord has his blindspots. Initially Robert dislikes his noble son-in-law for his claim to the estate. But the therapeutic lesson is that he adapts. Yes, his prejudices do contribute to the death in childbed of his daughter Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and the social death of the unwed mother and redeemed prostitute Ethel (Amy Nuttall), who was once his servant. But as in many a TV show, including the1950s "Father Knows Best," the patriarch's limitations let others share in his alpha aura when they help or correct him. The same could be said of the butler Carson (Jim Carter), who rules the servants' hall and nods to benevolent monarchy by quoting Shakespeare’s Henry IV with a rueful sigh: “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown.” The women’s share of authority lies less with wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) than with Robert’s mother the endearingly imperious Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), to whom even he defers.
This formula can make Downton feel like an equal opportunity aristocracy. So from time to time, the screenplay sacrifices someone, usually a woman, to restore order. Lady Sybil marries beneath her for love—then dies giving birth. When a new maid, Edna, makes a play for the widowed Tom, she gets the boot. Though Edna protests she's "as good as him," Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) the motherly housekeeper replies that "There are rules in service." The rules go way back, and not only to police social climbers. In ancient Rome as in the American south, the rules became knotty trying to police class boundaries, since slaves tended to become awkwardly human to their owners, while owners often intimately used slaves.
But while the series toys with the romance of class mobility and intimacy, in fact Downton Abbey makes service look satisfying. Yes, the actual back-breaking drudgery is kept offstage and the starvation wages hushed up. But more importantly, the servants dramatize the childlike submissiveness of us humans. They enjoy the regulated security of belonging to a “family” looked after by good-natured parents who are close enough to be reassuringly protective, but also distant enough to allow for a little thrill of autonomy. And as on Facebook, you know a little bit about everybody's private business, but at a safe distance, with no unsanitary consequences.
Audiences get to have it both ways. We can enjoy imagining ourselves as graciously supreme individuals, presiding over heroic values and florid styles effortlessly prescribed by the august Victorians. But we can also take pleasure in identifying with the servants as children in what amounts to a tolerable, even pleasing welfare state that actually works. In imagination you can be Mitt Romney's billionaire hedge fund lords and also a contented version of the 47%.
To be fair, the series deliberately sets out to dramatize historical change: the sublimation of Victorian aristocracy into its hustling hybrid modern form. As in Elizabethan England and pre-revolutionary France, improvident aristocracy and upwardly mobile money have shared their respective virtues. The cold marble manse has turned into a museum, and old money is less visible. But it flourishes backstage, while the servant's service economy still struggles for a living wage. Because in the US and the UK the outcome has been oligarchy rather than democracy. “London,” where the Earl lobbies for the favors that rescue his “family,” is now the corporate state. And still unaccountable, milking colonies, and looking out for privilege. Who will reform it? Not kindly earls or servants who count it a triumph to put their feet up when Mr Carson’s not looking.
Public broadcasting has a "conservative" knife at its throat whenever it blunders too close to grown-up truth. It's audience is apparently more or less educated, older, law-abiding, and not frighteningly brave, You can see why PBS wants to broadcast from the great house.
It’s a pipedream, Downton Abbey, but it has a thing or two to tell us in spite of itself.
1. If you can find it, watch "The Legacy," Michael J. Moore's (not that Moore) very moving documentary about two fathers of murdered daughters and California's brutish "Three Strikes" law.
2. Cf. the middle novel of Joyce Cary's first trilogy, To Be a Pilgrim, in which the young relatives of an elderly and rauchy barrister work at saving an old estate. This is the trilogy that includes The Horse's Mouth and, especially if you like "Downton Abbey," deserves to be rediscovered and relished.
3. Cf. Lawrence Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (1965) and the original French "Beauty and the Beast," which prepared daughters of merchant wealth to marry into the aristocracy.
DISNEY'S DOWNTON: the castle of the Beast.