Okay, I was hooked throughout six seasons on Downton Abbey. Yes it was, till the end, a bit of a soap opera. Normally, I hate or can’t remain with soaps, The Good Wife an example. There were moments in past seasons when I got close to abandoning ship, questioned whether I could make it into or through the next episode. Something kept me. No it wasn’t perfect and some have suggested suffered from having a single writer — Julian Fellowes — throughout. Excuse me, Lord Julian Fellowes. How fitting.
Well it’s all over now, perhaps. He’s musing about a film. All of us loyal viewers, here and in the UK from whence it came undoubtedly have our favorite characters even some that we’ve learned to love or empathize with — Thomas. Many found Lady Mary cold and imperious. I always saw her as caught up in the must be or should be, the one on who bore the burden of carrying on, which is what Brits across classes are expected to do, like it or not. Just, the way we do things around here.
Downton took the Crawley’s through the halcyon early 20th century days, though the “Great War” and into that transitional period before the twin shocks of a Depression and World War II. Fellowes opted not to take us beyond 1925. One can’t help but wonder how they would have weathered what was to come. It probably wasn’t necessary because the series basic story, or perhaps message, had already been told. For me, it was summed up in the last spoken lines of the two most senior and emblematic family members: Isobel and the Dowager Violet Crawley. These two women played by great actors (and friends) Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith express Downton’s core tension better than all others. “We’re going to the future not back to the past,” Isobel says. To which a resigned but deeply disappointed Violet replies, “If only we had the choice”.
Their summary exchange is set against New Years Eve, our annual celebration of the future that Isobel embraces, and that Violet would be happy to forgo. In the end Downton is all about that tension — holding on to the known way and being pulled toward and adapting to change. It plays in the first decades of the nineteen-hundreds but still resonates powerfully almost a century on. It’s the same tension we are witnessing close up in the harshness and crosscurrents of our current politics. The days of places and practices like Downton may be behind us in the literal sense. Moreover, we don’t see them as part of the American experience. But is that true? Downton is all about two worlds that rarely intersect, certainly not on equal terms. Even their basic calendars are out of sync as tokened when Violet, in an earlier season, bewilderingly asked cousin Mathew, “What is a weekend?” The 1%, to put in modern terms, has always lived in a totally different place and still does.
We are not of them, but they do fascinate us. It wasn’t only the British who were besotted by Princes Diana and now yearn for glimpses into the lives of Kate and William. It may mystify us that those most neglected by people like him have made Donald Trump their hero, insisting that he understands and cares for them. It shouldn’t. We have long misread such connections with the ultra successful or wealthy born, perhaps hoping that something of them — their good fortune — might rub off on us. At the very least, we can, if only for the moment, live vicariously in their lives. I’d guess (with no research to back it up) that viewers of Downton more likely identified with Robert and his Crawley’s than with Carson’s cohort below ground. Their story was primary, while the characters in service, albeit likeable and sympathetic, played the perennial supporting role. We may have wanted more for them, but honestly were more engaged with Edith’s struggles, in rooting for her “success” as if anyone could need more than even the most “deprived” Crawley. When Anna gives birth in Mary’s bed at the series end, our minds were yelling “yes”, but somehow we knew that it was out of sync with the Downton way. A gift of the moment that shouldn’t be read as a precedent, as settled law.
We pride ourselves on living in an egalitarian democracy where at least some of us can reach beyond the bounds of our origins. Examples of rags to riches, figuratively or literally, abound. We also know that for most people, opportunity is more a hollow dream or myth than a reality. That has long been the case. Perhaps we don’t have Lords and Ladies, but we certainly have a stratified society. The Billionaire Class against whom Bernie Sanders rails is not new, nor is their role. The late Ann Richards famously spoke of George Bush’s silver foot in his mouth, and Mitt Romney seemed tone deaf as to how most of us live. But both Roosevelts were born to and lived in wealth, something that enabled Jack Kennedy to move further and faster than he might have as, say, the son of a Boston cab driver. I’ve know people who were brought up by nannies — the way of the Crawley family — and who somehow always remained detached from or bemused by mothers, not to mention fathers, changing diapers. President Obama has said that he will particularly miss Air Force One when he leaves office. That special privileged existence is alluring and even modern day Horatio Alger types quickly get accustomed to a rarified and separated Downton life, even if updated slightly for a different time. John McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he and his wife owned and I'm sure Michael Bloomberg has lost count.
Why was Downton Abbey such a success? It spoke to the continuing struggle between past, present, and future. It was dated only in setting. Somehow, and that’s true for so much of fiction written or performed, we knew those people. Perhaps it would be a stretch to say we identified with them, but if not collectively we found parts of them individually within ourselves. Was there anything to be admired in the ways of either upstairs or downstairs? Absolutely not, much of it was deplorable. But calm down. It was only a television program, a bit of engaging playacting. And you know what, writing about it is a very refreshing departure from commenting on that latest news from our deplorable election campaign. I don’t know about you, but this blogger badly needed a break.