The (Un)Making of the English Aristocracy: ‘Downton Abbey: Season 3’

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Ironically, while chronicling the end games of British aristocratic power Downton Abbey has been cast into something of an entertainment empire unto itself. In addition to proving its popularity within the UK and the U.S., it has also become the most-watched drama in Denmark, the number one scripted series in the Netherlands, and leads foreign viewing imports in Australia, Norway, Belgium, Israel, and Iceland (The New York Times, 6 January 2013, Arts Section, 21). The sun apparently still never sets on the British empire.

Due to its mesmerizing draw and growing viewership, Downton Abbey has drawn increasing criticism. A.A. Gill complained last year in The Sunday Times that Downton Abbey represents “everything I despise and despair of on British television: National trust sentimentality, costumed comfort drama that flogs an embarrassing, demeaning, and bogus vision of the place I live in” (23 September 2012). One could easily import this critique against Downton Abbey’s’s U.S. distributor PBS, as well, as it has abandoned screening experimental and politically nuanced work like that of Frederick Wiseman, Nam June Paik, Jon Alpert, and Susan and Alan Raymond for the allure of higher ratings that temperate, middle-class series and specials bring. As a result, an inane parade of British reruns like Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By floods PBS’s airwaves with a periodic Ken Burns documentary punctuating the break to prove that the Americans can be just as vapid, too. Downton Abbey, so it would seem, has simply become an updated version of a conservative mindset that has increasingly colonized public television to scour it of anything politically challenging or that smacks of originality.

Furthermore, Julian Fellows, Downton Abbey’s creator, has come under increasing criticism for his support for the Conservative Party and unrepentant admiration of upper-class ideals. According to David Kamp, his political outlook and overarching control of the show colors its “sympathetic melancholia” for the waning aristocracy and its bygone values (Vanity Fair, December 2012, 176). All of this might be true—the general conservatism of PBS and Downton Abbey itself, but it does not negate the fact that the show provides one of the few places on television that attempts to explicitly navigate class issues before the eyes of millions of viewers. Although it overall champions an upper-class perspective, it nonetheless reveals the chinks in their armor as well as exposes how the machinations of melodramatic form quarantine more politically troubling undertones that show tangentially presents.

Much ink has been spilled concerning the show’s simmering upstairs romance between Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and downstairs courting between Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), as well as with the relationships of some of its other main stars like Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), Lord of Downton Abbey, his wife, Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), and his mother, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). But in order to peek behind the show’s surface of simply being about “nice people”, as Fellows asserts, and get into some of its underlying politics one must hazard into the garage to investigate Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the mechanic turned Lord due to his wedding Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), perhaps the most interesting of the Crawley sisters.

Early in the series, Branson represents the discontent worker. Unlike most of the servants below-stairs who often over-identify with the Crawleys and other aristocrats, he remains bitterly aware that his servile relationship with the Crawleys hints at a greater national oppression of British occupation of Ireland. Unrepentantly Irish Republican and socialist, Branson, for the first two seasons, usually remains outside the Crawley’s house, visually signifying his desire to remain socially and politically outside of their world. Yet his job reluctantly enmeshes him into their web along with his growing attraction for Lady Sybil, the most politically independent of the sisters who attends suffragette rallies when not busy hosting the aristocracy in her crinoline.

Season three, however, fully draws Branson into the Crawley’s hold. He exhibits brief resistance in episode one by refusing to wear a morning coat, telling Violet that he sees them “as the uniform of oppression and I should be uncomfortable wearing them.” He stands at attention as Violet looks on in amusement. A brief pause ensues before she asks, “Are you quite finished? Good. Please take off your coat. Molesley, do help him.” Branson looks away with a resigned look on his face as Mosley (Kevin Doyle) proceeds to undress him for his morning coat.

The sequence’s humor partially relies on the deflation of Branson’s masculine resistance to Violet’s feminine indirect attack. He stands erect ready for battle as Violet sits relaxing in her chair by the fire. The ease at which she derails Branson speaks to a deeper truth about the show as a whole: beneath the masculine posturing by the Downton men in general like Branson, Robert, Matthew, and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the women often dictate the outcome behind the scenes through whispers, innuendo, and misdirection. Although the Crawley sisters along with Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) at times directly assert themselves, one can argue that the most successful influence comes indirectly from Cora, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and most particularly Violet who mislead the men to believe they are in full control while the women scheme behind their backs and/or plant seeds of doubt in the men’s minds.

Much of the men’s power ultimately rests on subterfuge. For example, Robert Crawley appears to be the Lord of the manor. But it is Cora’s money that has sustained Downton Abbey. Robert’s preening about the estate championing English tradition has been purchased by nouveau riche American wealth that he can feign to disdain but is secretly indebted to. Similarly, Branson trumpet his radical beliefs but his lifestyle is now fully enmeshed in the ways of British colonialism.

The sequence’s humor also exposes how imperialism most effectively insinuates itself not through the end of a gun but weaving itself through the mundane customs and mores that permeate daily life. Branson’s resistance against wearing a morning coat actually is insightful by hinting at how the personal is political. But this can be easily dismissed by Violet as mere pretense of nationalistic pride since family must always come first. The show insistently asserts that the personal trumps the political, which is exactly what melodrama often does; it subsumes the political into the personal. So instead of viewing the scene as Branson does as an allegory of British oppression, Violet and the show itself instead personalizes bigger issues by quarantining politics into personalities.

The third season increasingly entangles Branson into the Crawley’s melodramatic plots and visually engulfs him into Downton’s structure. For example, Matthew confides to Branson that he holds an inheritance that can save Downton from going bankrupt, but that he has reservations in accepting it under false pretenses. Branson replies, “It’s strange for me to be arguing about inherited money and saving estates when the old me would like to put a bomb under the lot of you.” He continues to suggest that Matthew accept the money if it will preserve his marriage with Mary since “you’re meant to be together.”

Not only does the exchange clearly expose how true love trumps Branson’s politics, but his reference to the “old me” further emphasizes how politics are directly tied to personalities. Branson can shed his socialist and Irish Republican identity like a snake to fashion a new aristocratic personality that drinks brandy with Matthew over a fire while chuckling over his past desire to bomb colonialism into a distant memory. Tellingly, the series never travels to Ireland since its presence might overly complicate the colonial, melodramatic politics occurring at Downton Abbey. Conveniently, it has forced Branson into political exile so Ireland will permanent remain just a distant nightmare teeming with barbarians and socialists.

SPOILER ALERT: Branson also becomes visually engulfed by the estate. He increasingly drops out of the plotline throughout season three. After Sybil’s death through childbirth, Branson becomes saddled with fatherhood and grief. This is most clearly seen during the end of episode five: a crane shot majestically rises to an image of Branson cradling his baby behind one of Downton’s windows. His body is off-center, suggesting his marginalization not only in the frame but also at Downton as a whole.

The next shot follows of Downton’s edifice stretching across the frame with Branson isolated and imprisoned behind one of its windows. It’s a poignant image that reveals his isolation and pain, which contrasts against the plot’s desire to easily assimilate him. The stone edifice of Downton suggests the weight of tradition and oppression that smothers Branson and attempts to confine the Crawley sisters into roles of a bygone age. This can never be explicitly stated in the show’s narrative since it would ruin its melodramatic allure and escapism. But it at times manifests itself through its visuals.

Although overall the show successfully assimilates Branson, doubts are raised again during its Christmas finalé. But rather than having Branson internally second-guess his class position in Downton Abbey, the show instead manifests Edna, a saucy new hire below-stairs who voices Branson’s own doubts. His isolation is emphasized once again as he eats alone at the far end of a banquet table after the rest of the Crawleys have left for their Scottish retreat. Edna flirts with him and asks if he would like to eat with the help. After Branson’s refuses, she questions, “Are you ashamed of who you are? Is that why you won’t eat with us?” Enda represents the return of the repressed, the doubting side of Branson that neither he nor the show can directly address.

Instead, in typical melodramatic fashion these doubts must be incarnated in another in order to ultimately safely purge them. Rather than portraying Edna as extending friendship to Branson, the show positions her as disrespectful outsider and trollop. Mrs. Hughes voices her reservations about Edna to Branson by warning him to not submit “if someone is trying to make you feel awkward” and to “be your own master and call your own tune.” By having another well-trusted working-class character raise concerns, the show safely suggests that the condemnation of Edna must be true since Mrs. Hughes is pure of intent.

Yet Hughes’ warning for Branson to be his own master could equally apply to him to stop kowtowing to the Crawleys’ ways and get back to Ireland. The show can’t entertain this idea and instead immediately shows Edna wanting to shirk her duties to instead go drinking and socializing with Branson at the local pub. She is quickly sacked along with all the doubts she brings. Ultimately, only strumpets suggest that the lines between upstairs and downstairs can blur. Mr. Carson in episode one asserts the show’s overall stance: “If he wants to play their game, he’d better learn their rules.”

Furthermore, the show aligns itself with the above-the-stairs characters through its visual aesthetic. Normally, when above-stairs, the camera either remains static or moves in a smooth steady direction. Below-stairs, on the other hand, the camera becomes handheld, always repositioning on the characters. In some ways, the camera movement reveals the energy and action and sheer immense amount of work by those below-stairs to the point that even the movements of the camera operator become stressed. Whereas above-stairs the characters’ seeming security and privilege become embodied in the steady frame. But often when below-stairs and above-stairs characters meet, the camera remains static, revealing how the working-class enters into the upper-class’s worldview. This can in part be seen as a somewhat realistic aesthetic relating of the dynamics of class power that confine working-class desires and freedom into the frame of the rich. But it also suggests the show’s overall framing that tends to prioritize an upper-class way of life.

This is not to suggest that Downton Abbey does not problematize upper-class life. As mentioned before, the women seem to be somewhat more in control of the men since they are in general more willing to change with the times than the men. Although Violet champions English tradition before Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Cora’s upstart American mother who dismisses it as nothing more than antiquated frivolity, she sides with the women when refusing to follow Robert back to the manor since they are being served by a former prostitute. Sybil and Edith Crawley actively pursue careers outside of aristocratic expectations. Mary has sex before marriage in the first season. Rose (Lily James), the 18 year old cousin to the Crawley sisters, emblemizes the quintessential upcoming flapper who attends jazz clubs in her bob hair and short dresses.

Meanwhile, the men hunker down in outdated traditions. Matthew is willing to let the family go to pot since he feels an inheritance he might receive could damage his honor. Robert at first refuses to listen to the ways in which Downton might become a self-sustaining estate since it affronts his gentility with base concerns over money and work. Mr. Carson is the most reactionary of them all by reluctantly allowing the servants time off when the Crawley’s are absent, refusing to believe a former prostitute could be a servant, rejecting that class lines can be crossed in the form of Branson, and viewing the appearance of an electric toaster as equivalent to the firebombing of a house. He is a strict upholder of tradition, partially because his livelihood is dependent upon it. But also because perhaps his distant past as an actor haunts him, realizing that beneath the roles there is nothing else. Once the roles start eroding, so goes tradition, stability, and steady employment with it.

Occasionally the show exposes the absurdity and calamity that such tradition brings. Attempting to assert his patriarchal right to direct the estate’s finances, Robert ends up losing all his money in a bad investment. Similarly, and more personally, Robert’s insistence upon using a more well-renowned doctor instead of the local country doctor for Sybil’s birth proves itself a fatal mistake. Through her grief Cora correctly assesses Robert’s egotistical weakness: he believed in the wrong doctor “because he [the doctor] is knighted and fashionable and has a practice in Harley Street. You let all that nonsense weigh against saving our daughter’s life, which is what I find so very hard to forgive.” The only way to remedy this is by increasingly marginalizing Robert, which Downton Abbey does by the second half of the third season.

Robert’s way of life has become increasingly out of touch with a 20th century world. His inability to deal with modernity and late capitalism leads to his and the family’s retreat to Scotland at Duneagle castle at the series’ finalé. Idyllic shots follow of the fog rolling in across the bog and lush green plains. Interior shots accentuate the wealth that clutter their hosts’ tables in epergnes, goblets, and china. The human forms are repeatedly dwarfed among such expansive wealth and beauty.

Later, however, we learn that Duneagle’s owner Shrimpie (Peter Egan) is bankrupt with the estates soon to be parceled out to the highest bidders. Duneagle’s wealth and luxury are illusory. The ornately dressed tables ultimately overcompensate for the poverty that actually lies beneath their crystal, silver, and silk. One further wonders if Shrimpie’s desire to overcompensate for economic poverty and loss of self-esteem in pageantry and riches might be somewhat analogous to viewers’ relationship to Downton Abbey as a whole.

Are we overcompensating by immersing ourselves in a world of wealth and luxury in order to temporarily forget the lack of control and increasing economic instability of our twentieth-century lives? Although the aristocracy has its problems in Downton, the vitality of the show’s women and some of the younger generation servants seems to suggest that such problems are solvable. The past is knowable and thus foreseeable—unlike our futures.

Downton Abbey might not necessarily represent a perfect world, but it does assert a knowable one, and this provides refuge from the uncertainties that plague us in our everyday lives. Just as Downton Abbey’s majestic structure offers illusory protection from the modern world for Robert and the rest of the aristocracy that needs shielding, the show provides contemporary viewers with temporary respite from the complexities of our own world by drawing us into a fictionalized past where simplified melodramatic conventions can easily parse out the good from bad, and ultimately suggest that at bottom most people are indeed good. The DVD offers an additional two hours of extras to further indulge in our fantasy to learn how the costumes were made, the sets constructed, and the actors interacted.

Furthermore, maybe Downton Abbey also offers us a model for our own futures through its women. Instead of becoming a relic of the past, which Robert increasingly symbolizes, we can learn from Cora, Violet, Mary, Sybil, Edith, Martha, and Mrs. Hughes to confront the uncertainties of our future and adapt accordingly. We must gradually jettison tradition in order to survive and hopefully thrive. The future might not have the imagined grandeur of past, but it promises one thing that the past lacks: life.

The “sympathetic melancholia” that David Kamp attributes to the show might be more true than initially supposed. It not only speaks about the show’s relationship to the falling aristocracy, but also to viewers’ desire for a seemingly knowable way of life that seems completely absent in the present. But also accompanying this “sympathetic melancholia” is Downton Abbey’s assertion that those who change with the times are the most likely to survive. The only way to survive, however, is jettisoning the very roles of stability that protected yet confined us in the first place. At its best, Downton Abbey suggests both the allure and suffocating limits that such roles provide.

RATING 8 / 10