I confess, my tastes generally run to “manly-man” kind of stuff: I like watching professional football, I’m a big fan of John Wayne, favor action or military-oriented films. I particularly dig movies that major in themes involving father/son relationships (A Perfect Word, Hellboy, The Road, Blood Diamond) and male friendship (Gladiator, Far Side of the World, Warrior, Shawshank Redemption).
Yet, I also confess, I tear-up pretty easily when literature or cinema plucks at my heart-strings. And I’m an unapologetic Downton Abbey fan. I began watching the five-seasons-long British drama out of curiosity — What’s the deal with this series my wife is so crazy about? — and wound up being really snagged.
Poised to embark on its sixth season stateside, Downton follows the trials and tribs of the blue-blood Crawley family and those who cross their aristocratic paths, circa World War I. The BBC-produced drama portrays an era nearly a century removed from today’s, in a place an ocean away from American shores. While the story-lines treat the notion of change brought upon its characters by “the Great War” and surging modernization, they also make decidedly clear life unfolded much differently back then — and, intentionally or not, they don’t necessarily suggest those differences were all somehow backwards or undesirable. There’s much, in fact, for a free-spirited, contemporary Yank to deplore about the unfamiliar worldview and society depicted in the Crawley’s UK existence — but there’s equally as much to recommend it, especially considering the pustulating basketcase which is Western Civilization 2016. Let’s call the latter category “Downton Abbey Values”:
— Shame over misdeeds plays a big role in Downton Abbey (DA): True villains and scoundrels turn up over the so-far five years of DA’s comings and goings, and some never lament their sordid acts. Others, however, experience and express genuine embarrassment and regret over what they’ve done wrong. One character, Mrs. Baxter, attempting to rehabilitate herself from a felonious past, openly admits to distant, reckless crimes — zero excuses — and offers no attempt to hide her personal contempt toward them. Although by the time she lands at the Crawley manse she has, honestly, turned a page in her conduct, handed a second-chance, there remain pangs over her previous foolishness.
In the guilt-free 21st century, that scene is positively shocking. In case you haven’t noticed, the concept of shame isn’t politically correct nor particularly popular in our anything-goes, don’t-sweat-it generation. Who needs forgiveness? Everything is cool! Downton, on the other hand, unabashedly underscores: Some disgraceful behavior merits, and ought to elicit, a genuine sense of same.
Blogger Matt Walsh recently agreed in a booming headline: Clearly, We Need More Shame And Judgment In Our Society
— Regarding certain undesirable behaviors, DA’s attitude, consistently, is: Get a hold of yourself, man! Do what’s right. Make the best of a difficult situation.
Self-pity? Not celebrated. Victimization? Rarely facilitated. The prevailing attitude is: in light of existing circumstances, delighting or vexing, what’s the honorable and prudential course? One of Downton‘s central characters, for instance, is an especially nasty homosexual (Thomas) who attempts to “cure himself” via medical quackery that ends up causing him great physical distress. When Thomas visits the local doctor, the medical man tells the tormented patient: “My advice to you … would be to accept the burden that chance has seen fit to lay upon you — and to fashion as good a life as you are able.” Though the segment does elicit some sympathy for Thomas’ abject misery, the physician’s forthrightness is startling. Lavender-crazy contemporary pop-culture not only thumps us over the head, tirelessly, with the enlightened glories of the “gay” lifestyle, but routinely portrays homosexuals as wittier, wiser, kinder and happier than poor, beset, repressed heteros.
Not Downton Abbey. It allows for the option, at minimum, that such a sexual proclivity might be neither normal nor fulfilling, and that those who are wrestling with it need to buck up and circumspectly press on in the teeth of their challenging, deeply-personal dilemma. Perhaps the intended American audience — likely fashionable, PBS-favoring, “morally evolved” socialites — recoil in horror at such an exhibition of unsweetened “intolerance”. For my part, I wanted to jump out of my chair, whooping it up: You mean every stirring and desire — including of the sexual stripe — doesn’t, automatically, earn one a get-away-with-irresponsible-behavior card?
— Corollary to the above point: notions of “duty” and self-control serve a pivotal role in DA. In one exchange, Lord Grantham, having received potentially dire news, utters, grim-faced, “We have to keep going, no matter what happens.” For all the pampering luxuries enjoyed by the Crawleys, some of them, at least, very much cultivate an accompanying burden of responsibility — a heart-felt stewardship, true noblesse oblige. Again, Lord Grantham, in an earlier, moving elucidation to his eldest daughter, outlines the obligations the clan carries toward those servants, estate-dwellers and townfolk who depend upon them. That perspective shapes his overall outlook and frames many of the decisions he later takes as the series progresses.
Over half-a-century ago, Spider Man was introduced to the superhero cosmos with the motto: “With great power there also comes great responsibility.” More significantly, a couple of centuries before that Jesus testified, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Downton Abbey gets that.
— Downton‘s Socialists (“Liberals” in the modern parlance) aren’t uniformly, glowingly superior to the rest of bourgeoisie humanity. Sure enough, one of the series most beloved characters is widowed Tom Branson — an Irish proponent of egalitarianism, dirigiste government, the Russian Revolution, “working” men, etc. Still, even this Fenian radical develops doubts about parts of his original, hate-the-rich bigotry — marrying into this upper-crust family which embraces him as one of their own after his brief union with their daughter is tragically truncated; a relationship, by the way, of which they originally took a disapproving view.
The worst specimen of that day’s supercilious, pseudo-Marxist scolds is a finger-wagging school teacher who shows up at Downton dinners parties just long enough to demean and hector her affluent hosts. Get that? They’re feeding her, entertaining her — i.e., she’s dipping into the fruits of their hospitality — and she responds by insulting them. Yep — sounds a lot like many a standard-issue Democratic Leftist.
— Downton confirms: no special group of people is exempt from humankind’s unpleasantnesses; no class is unexceptionably sinless. Peccadilloes abound among the show’s generic white males, of course; yes, among the affluent, as well. But some of the most reprehensible players are women (!) and DA’s working men and women don’t escape exposure, either. Even — as previously mentioned — the series’ homosexual butler is shown an appalling creep.
Life mirrored, once again: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” “There is none righteous, no, not one.”
— In Downton Abbey society, some things are simply — always — right; others similarly wrong. The right is actively and purposefully acknowledged and encouraged; the wrong exposed and shunned. Can certain aspects of life be arbitrary, grow outdated, demand periodic change? Obviously — but Downton reminds us change shouldn’t be pursued frivolously — “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — and foundational principles must endure. The plethora of civilizational rules and mores promote what’s good, repeatedly rebuff what’s detrimental, fortifying indispensable moral boundaries.
G.K. Chesterton once urged that a fence not be leveled until it’s been ascertained why it was erected in the first place. Along those lines, Robert Frost memorably reflected, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Cultural fences — sturdy community standards, revered ceremony and convention — often provide a preservational service for so much of what is best about civilization.
A particularly affecting episode in Season two occurs when Lord Grantham summons the entire family and staff to gather at 11 AM, November 11, 1918 — marking the moment when the grueling war was, officially, coming to a close. He offers a smattering of somber words; then, together, they observe a moment of prayerful silence — after which, everyone is dismissed back to their workaday concerns. Unpretentious, unadorned, surprisingly touching.
The fiercely guarded etiquette and habits of the Downton Abbey household, of its greater Edwardian culture, were developed as a hedge against precipitous change. As David Harsanyi writes, “[T]raditions, which often come with a couple thousand years of intellectual experience, tend to defend long-established mores against the vagaries of culture and ideology.”
Watching this Golden-Globe-Winning series, one can end up yearning for some of those “stodgy” customs which, because they reinforced those elements that are best in life, made life just a bit better.
— Not surprising for an early-twentieth-century” period drama”, Downton cherishes marriage — historic, man-woman marriage — and frowns upon anything that devalues it.
“It just hit me, I’m now a part of two families,” enthuses one Downtown newlywed (Atticus) in last season’s finale. “It’s called ‘marriage’!” responds Rose, his beaming bride.
Consequently — I might be mistaken about this, but I think not — every incident of what Crawley and Co. would consider “illicit” sex (intimacy outside of marriage, adultery, homosexual advances, etc.) winds up badly.
One DA plotline involves elderly Dowager Violet Crowley gloomily reminiscing over a youthful near-affair: events she admits, intervened and saved her from a scandal-ravaged future of losing her reputation, marriage and children, rescuing her from “a life in the shadows”. No soapy sanitizing of what would have been selfish, hasty, hormones-driven self-destruction.
Matrimony is crucial — the single sanctioned repository for sexual intimacy. For the observant fan, Downton seems to subtly pass along the lesson: casual whoopee doesn’t magically confer ontological fulfillment; in fact, it frequently complicates matters.
I know, a revolutionary concept nowadays. Good on this fine program for having the crust to imply as much, anyway.
— A final kudo to this Julian-Fellows-produced vehicle: Although Downton Abbey frontally addresses down-to-earth — “grown-up” — topics comprising jealousy, crime, sex, gossip, evil in general, there’s rarely anything vulgar or salacious about it. Great art, I think, contemplates not just feel-good, happy-clappy subject matter, but dark, even uncomfortable, material, as well – but does so tastefully, communicating without corrupting. This series nails that objective, too.
As Downton Abbey‘s final American season launches Sunday, January 3, I’m hoping it doesn’t upend all the compliments I’ve offered for it’s first five — that kind of thing’s been known to happen among popular entertainment. Anyway, those who’ve never partaken of it’s charms might want to give the series a shot. They might enjoy themselves — and learn something along the way, courtesy of the Crawleys.