This post contains spoilers through the February 12 episode of Downton Abbey.
As part of the ongoing debate over Downton obsession, Reihan Salam’s theorized that we like the show because it gives us elites who have higher aspirations than the ones we’ve got today. After this episode, I’d amend that somewhat and suggest that Downton Abbey is satisfying because it puts characters who seem to have earned reprimands in their place through the lens of class. The show actually exploits our ingrained class prejudices by aligning them with character development.
Take Thomas, for example. I am not any particular fan of everyone’s manipulative gay former servant, but I thought what happened to him this week was genuinely tragic. I’m with O’Brien that going into the black market is an awfully risky move, but I sympathize with Thomas to a certain extent. What legitimate enterprise would let him get to a place where “I should have enough to go into business properly”? As progressives, our instincts should be to support Thomas in his attempts to rise above a position he believes he’s too clever for — something he may have legitimately proved in his management of Downton Abbey during its period as a convalescent home. When he finds out “I been tricked. I been had. I been taken for the fool that I am,” that ought to be a moment of profound sympathy. Because Thomas has never been given the tools to make his way in legitimate business, he’s particularly vulnerable to such deception. And yet, the show suggests that having concrete ambitions just made Thomas worse. “You made such a point of not being a servant anymore, our ears are ringing with it,” Carson grouses, when Thomas asks if he can stay longer at Downtown. His redemption comes when Carson is felled by Spanish flu, and Thomas takes up his duties, acting as — and retreating into the role of — the perfect servant. The show provides a double message: service is Thomas’s place both because he’s born to it and not to anything else, and because he’s been awful in the past it’s proper penance.
And while I don’t think it’s as overt — or perhaps even as intentional — there are more examples of that kind of setting people back in their proper position, but in a way that suggests it’s more the result of their character than the constrictions of class. Ethel, after busting her way into lunch with the grandparents of her child, can’t come to an accommodation with them that would allow her to stay in her son’s life while also getting financial support for him from them. Cora falls ill with Spanish Flu shortly after she announces she’s going to help Isobel out with her refugee project. Anna stands up for herself with Mr. Bates, telling him “If she can do it, so can we. I have stood by you through thick and thin. Mr. Bates, if we have to face this, than we will face this as huband and wife. I will not be moved to the sidelines..denied the right even to be kept informed. I will be your next of kin. You will not deny me this.” But she’s rewarded for her persistence by seeing her newly-minted husband hauled off to jail. Lavinia, who’s always been more of a plot device than an actual person, is dispatched in a properly ladylike fashion, dying of a broken heart.
The only people who are allowed to transcend class boundaries are Branson and Sybil. And then he’s allowed to move one step up, from chauffer to journalist, a limitation in keeping with our sense that he’s a bit pushy, while she’s required to move many steps down — Lord Grantham is clear that he’ll only help them a little. Because we wouldn’t want to incentivize nobly born young ladies to embrace the idea that things are better when they’re independent and have meaningful things to do with their lives, or as Sybil puts it, “ I don’t want to get used to it. I know what it is to work, to have a full day, and be tired in a good way,” now would we? Violet’s explanation at the end that “The aristocracy have not survived by their intransigence,” and the solution that follows, is the epitome of Downton Abbey’s politics: Branson can be ennobled in character, but not in substance. The nobility may change styles, but their grip on their privilege remains quite firm, thank you.