Deconstructing Downton Abbey


Ever since my sister Becky introduced me to this Masterpiece Theater drama, my life has revolved around Sunday nights.  Downton Abbey, brought to us by the only kind of liberals I root for—the programming managers at PBS—is, for the uninitiated, a ‘veddy’ British, high-brow, Julien Fellowes (of Gosford Park fame) soap opera.  The drama features A) an early 20th century aristocratic family living in this enormous house with about 10,000 rooms to clean and B) the people who clean them.

It’s delightful.

There are two sides to the Downton Abbey world—the upstairs world and the below the stairs world.  It’s the upstairs world that puzzles me, and in a minute, I’ll tell you why.  But it’s the below stairs people who deserve all the kudos.  Even though they are much heartier, smarter, and practical at life, they remain fascinatingly adroit at taking care of the upstairs people.

And they manage to pretend to like it.

First, there’s Carson—he’s the butler, and he runs the show at Downton.  Carson is British to the core, a man of strong principles with even stronger opinions on how life should be lived.  When he walks into a roomful of his lieges, they all stand.  Impressive, for a servant.

Then there’s Mrs. Hughes—she’s the housekeeper, and I’m pretty sure that in the back of her mind and in the back of Carson’s mind there’s a hookup in the works.  We’ll just have to see.  But since both of them are rather long of tooth and, well, not very attractive, it’s not a coupling I care to witness.  And you know if they’re British they have really bad teeth.

Then there’s lady’s maid Anna and the valet Bates.  They’re married; however, their marriage began on rather shaky ground since shortly after they were married, Bates was arrested, tried, and convicted of killing his first wife.  Don’t worry—Julien Fellowes made it look as if she had it coming.  Anna doggedly played Nancy Drew and found a way to get him freed from prison, and now they’re happily together, except for the memories of that visiting valet in the Season 4 premiere who raped Anna during a house party.  Ugly stuff.

Thomas is the under-butler, and he’s what the British would call a “nah-sty piece of work”; he’s what my dad would have called, “a real shithead”.  He’s forever stirring the pot and making trouble for everyone, upstairs and downstairs, seemingly to assuage the suffering ache in his loins resulting from his suppressed homosexuality.  But don’t feel sorry for him.  No one likes Thomas.  What’s frustrating about Thomas is that he never seems to get caught being devious.  How stupid are these upstairs people?

Why do the upstairs folks puzzle me?  Aside from their stupidity, they can’t even dress themselves!  Hell, my kids could dress themselves at age three—they could even pick out their own clothes!  Not only can these grown men and women not dress themselves or comb their hair, they can’t even fix themselves a snack, clean up their rooms, open a newspaper, or serve themselves food at dinner.  One would think that with the dearth of such appallingly simple life skills, the upstairs people would suffer from an appalling lack of facility, as well, but no.  They evidently hold all the power because they’ve managed to convince the below stairs people to do all of this stuff for them!

I know, I’m mystified, too.

The upstairs people are all related—there’s Robert, Lord Grantham.  You can also call him ‘Earl’.  He’s the heir of Downton, but his sperm count apparently didn’t include any little guys with XY chromosomes, so he was left with three daughters.  This caused quite a hullabaloo since the law in England at that time said that a woman was incapable of inheriting property.  I should think so—hell, they can’t even tie their own shoes, let alone run a farm.

Cora, Lady Grantham, is Robert’s wife, and she’s an American with a boatload of money (that her ineptly equipped husband lost in some really bad investments—again, one who is incapable of buttoning buttons probably shouldn’t be handling money).  You’d think that Cora, as an American girl, would have enough pluck in her to know how to part hair in the morning, but again, Cora is just as feeble as the rest of the clan.

Of the three daughters, one has died in childbirth—the remaining two don’t much like each other.  This is because Edith, the younger of the two surviving daughters, spilt the beans on her bigger sister Mary when Mary foolishly succumbed to the exotic charms of one Kemal Pamuk, the visiting Turkish ambassador.  However, in Mary’s defense, if you had seen the actor who portrayed the Turkish ambassador, this would make perfect sense.  While it’s true that Mary lost her cherry to the hot Turk, the Turk didn’t fare as well.  Mary’s virginity coupled with her feigned resistance proved to be too much for Mr. Pamuk and the poor guy expired on top of her.  The most obvious downside to this was that Mary’s very first walk of shame included her lady’s maid Anna and her mother Cora helping her to drag the freshly dead but happily satisfied corpse back into his bedroom.  Ma-mah was not pleased.

Talk about beginner’s luck.

Edith, easily the least-liked character, suffered the indignity of being literally dissed at the altar.  But in all fairness, she had practically begged this poor old one armed bugger into marrying her, so she really shouldn’t have been surprised.  After that fiasco, Edith got “modern” and started writing for a magazine in London and fell in love with Michael.  Michael, however, has a wife (Edith can’t catch a break), and even though he has agreed to move to Germany to get a divorce (apparently Reno wasn’t yet opened for business), he hasn’t written to Edith in awhile which has Edith’s knickers in a twist because…

…she’s apparently carrying his bastard child!  Oh, the humanity.  Post-Edwardian karma.  Shouldn’t have told on your sister, Missy.

Rose is a new character who has managed to breathe a little bit of life into the Grantham household; however, last night’s make out session with a very attractive bandleader may have been the bit of writing that has Julien Fellowes jumping the shark.  FYI:  All of the Granthams are white folks, in case you were wondering.  And this is set in, like, about 1922.

My favorite among the aristocracy, though, is Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham.  It is she providing the drama with its witticisms and color.  She’s what I aspire to be when I become an old yady.  And I love her voice.

There are other mystifying elements to Downton Abbey, like the fact that even though all they ever do is eat, all of the females look as if they haven’t had a decent meal since before The Great War. And the boredom, the everlasting boredom these women must endure!  I guess getting a j.o.b. is not in their wheelhouse.

But I’ll keep watching.   We’ve got the Great Depression and another world war to look forward to, after all.