Going Downton Abbey

a soap opera in period clothing

“I feel like I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel”—Maggie Smith as Violet, on modern technology.

Like Brown alum Laura Linney, I too was enamored with Downton Abbey. I was captivated by the last vestiges of an old order, by the unrealized sexual tension threatening to surface at any moment, by Maggie Smith’s dry, sardonic commentary. After the first episode, with all those long, sweeping shots of the grounds and servants scraping with a “Yes, m’lady,” I was hooked.

Though I denied it as long as I could, though I sat up every Sunday to catch the next episode on PBS.org, halfway through the second season I had to stop lying to myself: Downton Abbey was a soap opera. Yes, a well-disguised one, aired on public television, winner of a Golden Globe, tying in such historical events as the sinking of the Titanic and the 1918 flu pandemic (it’s practically educational!). But don’t be fooled by the period costumes and Mary Crawley’s porcelain complexion—at heart, this show’s just another Days of Our Lives (As the Turn of the Century Turns?).

From the first episode, we’re presented with a classic inheritance dilemma. Lord Grantham’s heir has perished on the Titanic, leaving everyone wondering; Who will inherit the estate? Certainly not the female Mary Crawley, although she is the oldest child. It seems as if inheritance will go to the dashing Cousin Matthew, and the family tries to understand his profession as a practicing attorney (what kind of person actually works for a living?). The solution seems obvious: match Mary with Matthew, disregarding all possible congenital defects of future progeny. But it looks like this is going to be a hard sell for snooty miss Mary.

This seems like a wonderful foundation for rich narrative development—love, money, and the pervading presence of a stark class divide. But by the second episode, shit gets real, and fast. This Turkish diplomat Kemal Pumuk, a friend of a friend, comes to visit Downton for a foxhunt. He’s pretty damn fine, and by the laws of television hotness, it’s clear that he and Mary are going to get it on by the end of the show. What isn’t clear, though, is that Pumuk is going to die in Mary’s bed—whether this happened before or after reaching climax is ambiguous. After this one night stand, all precautions are taken to protect Mary’s fragile reputation, but this one’s bound to bite her in the ass at some point.

Aside from Sudden Post-Coital Death Syndrome, here are some other crazy plot twists in Downton, most toying with the question of inheritance: Lady Grantham, age way-too-old, gets pregnant (new heir?); baby has lifespan of one episode after a miscarriage; WWI happens, and Matthew’s paralyzed from the waist down (this means everything from the waist down), but he has a dumb, devoted fiancée to take care of him; Downton turns into a hospital for England’s wounded soldiers, and one of the men claims to be the lost heir from the Titanic, with amnesia and a Canadian accent; Matthew feels a tingle in his legs; Matthew can walk in the next episode; the Spanish Flu comes to Downton, killing Matthew’s fiancée; Mary and Matthew get together.

And this is just what’s happening upstairs. Downstairs, it’s the servants’ realm. The valet Mr. Bates and Anna the maid are madly in love, the audience roiling in their unrealized sexual tension. The conniving Ms. O’Brien, and the evil, not-so-closeted gay footman Thomas are always hatching plots to take over the serving world. Bumbling cook Mrs. Patmore yells at scullery maid Daisy, for almost accidentally poisoning Lord Grantham and things like that. Silly Daisy! All the while, creator Julian Fellowes smacks his viewer on the head, with his story of “us” and “them,” the rich and the poor, upstairs and downstairs. Because this is the way things have always been done, will always be…or will they??

As Downton develops in its ridiculous nature, fabricating even more outlandish plot twists (I wouldn’t be surprised at this point if sister Edith develops clairvoyance or Matthew discovers an identical twin), I’ll keep watching—because I care. Though this world is on the brink of change, inevitable now that WWII is fast approaching, one hopes for Downton Abbey’s preservation, the fortune, the title, the well-mannered servants and the perfectly orchestrated dinners. It’s a nostalgia I didn’t know I had, for a time I never even remotely knew.

I’d also like to continue playing this drinking game:

Drink:

  1. Whenever there is a blatant reference to class divide. (Note: this occurs frequently.)
  2. Whenever someone is announced before leaving a room.
  3. To unrealized sexual tension.
  4. Whenever anyone pours tea.
  5. Whenever anyone discusses cuff links.
  6. Every time Matthew is disinherited.
  7. To homosexual over/undertones.
  8. Whenever someone dies.