My love affair with Downton Abbey

Originally at:

by Joe Fessenden

Matthew was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. At least he was at the beginning of season 4. (If you recognize the literary reference of this opening, you may award yourself five points.) That fact sets the stage and kicks off the fourth series (the Brit word for a season) of Downton Abbey.

My reader(s) know that I have become quite fond of Downton Abbey. If you haven’t watched it- well, if you haven’t watched it, I assume you wouldn’t be reading this since I said there would be spoilers. Either that or you don’t plan to watch it. Or you don’t mind spoilers. Whatever. It’s not my concern. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it.

I originally found the show accidentally while staying at my bishop’s house for a few days. He had asked me to housesit and catsit for him while he was visiting family over part of my Christmas holidays. I don’t recall whether it was before he left or after he returned, but we were in his den seeing what was on the television, and we stumbled upon it. I honestly don’t know if Bishop found it as engrossing as I did, but I ended up pretty hooked pretty quickly. The next couple days that I was there, I made it through the rest of what was available via Amazon Prime Video, and I have pretty much stayed up to date on it ever since.

I have actually stopped to think a few times why I was so engrossed by it. I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure. There are lots of things that attract me to the show, but none of them are truly unique to it. I’m not a very good American in that I’m actually fond of hierarchy; I guess that fact is apropos to my vocation. It is not just that there is a hierarchy, but also that each person in it is both aware of it, and, as a rule, takes his participation in that hierarchy very seriously. The household has two masters, Lord Grantham and Carson, the butler. Carson answers to the family, but to no one else. Downstairs, his word is law, and there is no appeal available when he makes a decision. I have to admit that he is one of the characters I found most fascinating from the start. As a modern American, the notion of a professional servant is alien to me; yet, in this environment, Carson is not only a servant, but he takes immense pride in the quality and even strives for perfection in his work as a servant. At his side, Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, and Mrs. Patmore, the cook, command their spheres of the downstairs to maintain the illusion that everything that occurs upstairs is effortlessly perfect.

Contrary to the egalitarian prejudices of the modern world, the staff and family in Downton Abbey understand that they have a vocation in life, and they wholly desire to fulfill that vocation to the best of their ability. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, both in the positive and the negative. In the first season, one of the maids desires to take on a profession in office work rather than service, so she procures a typewriter and learns the skills necessary to take on such work. Tom, the chauffeur, can be taken in both positive and negative lights; he is an Irish revolutionary who sees the plight of Ireland in the early years of the 20th century as unjust and rejects the hierarchy of the world in which they live. At the same time, he takes his job seriously, and, on several occasions, he puts his professionalism ahead of his politics. Of course, this unravels when he and the youngest daughter of Lord Grantham fall in love and decide to get married. Tom is stuck trying to find his place while torn between his politics, his upbringing as an Irish farmer, and suddenly, as a member of the aristocratic family.

The show introduces its share of vile characters, too. Chief among these is Thomas, the footman then underbutler, who can truthfully be identified as the consistent villain of the series. Trust me, if you watch more than a handful of episodes, you will hate Thomas. I have to grant it to the writers that they portray him as a truly vile human being, selfish and vicious in (almost) all circumstances, but they manage to avoid him being a caricature of himself. He grooms several accomplices in his villainy through the course of the series, but none inspires his level (or perhaps his depth) of loathing. In short, the show just wouldn’t be the same without him; there’s a strange exhilaration to such total detestation as one can’t help but feel for Thomas. (Again, if you can identify the reference in that last sentence, please award yourself 5 points.)

Finally, I don’t want to end this without some comment on Dame Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham. She is solidly and proudly a symbol of the past glory days of the English aristocracy. I should point out that the Dowager Countess also gets some of my favorite lines from the entire series, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” and “I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.” and “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?” (regarding a swivel chair in Matthew’s office). I’ll let you enjoy the rest from the Downton Wiki.

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