8
Sep
2011
Marathoning
Downton Abbey
Rachel
Marathoning explores what happens when you remove the serial quality from a television show or film series and instead become a habitual binge-watcher. Is something lost when you watch every episode of a show in a single weekend? Is something gained when you explore a set of movies that originally spanned a decade in one night? How do you wrap your brain around an entire body of work without diluting it, or drowning in it?

2010, created by Julian Fellowes
Starring: Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michelle Dockery

Episodes: 7 (Series 1)
Marathon time elapsed: 2 days

I love a period drama just as much as the next girl. Probably more actually. So I'm a pretty prime audience for PBS' Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey. The intrigue! The costumes! The accents! How delightful. But Downton isn't just about indulgence for the typical period drama enthusiast; the series really works for anyone who loves a character-centered show, at which point the historical context just serves as a fringe benefit. Although now that I've been thinking on it for a while, it is a possibility that I enjoy Downton Abbey and British period dramas (and, generally speaking, British humor as a whole) because of the delicate way British people insult and criticize each other. If you don't look closely, you won't even see them doing it. But they are, and they're doing it better than most people.



Downton Abbey tells the tale of a noble British family on the wane, tied up by rules of land inheritance and the inconvenience of daughters and the cost of maintaining appearances regarding standards of living that are unaffordable. Maggie Smith plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, whose son, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), is the current Earl of Grantham, after marrying the American Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) for her money. Although their marriage is one of convenience they fall in love and have three daughters, Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay). The family is shaken by the arrival of the attorney Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and his mother, former-nurse Mrs. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), distant relatives who take up a primary residence at the Downton estate. And to support the family is a large cast of servants: Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), ailing but lovable cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Lord Grantham's Valet and former war comrade Mr. Bates (Cal Macaninch), Lady Grantham's evil lady's maid Mrs. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), the despicable social climbing footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the taciturn second-footman William (Thomas Howes), Head housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the misguided kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera), and the politically radical chauffer Tom (Allen Leech). I take the time to mention them all here because really, they're all great, and this column would run on for ages if I took the time to hold them each up as much as they deserve

There are two lines that perfectly instill the drama of Downton Abbey, and while I'd typically throw them up top as an epigraph, they need some context. First is Lord Grantham's statement to Matthew soon after he arrives on the property: "You do not love the place yet. You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that will crack in the frost. I see my life's work." This perfectly explains Lord Grantham's complicated relationship with the place, his view of himself as "a custodian, and not an owner," and his seeming complacency when it comes to Mary's disinheritance. Paired with the declaration my Mr. Charles Grigg, a former stage companion of Carson who crops up in an early episode, "The day's coming when your lot will have to toe the line just like the lot of us." Because no matter how much the upper crust attempts to insulate themselves in their lofty (and drafty) stone manors, the tide of change sweeping across Britain and the continent, which would eventually pull the entire Western World into an atrocious and debilitating war, proves undeniable.

The great thing about Downton Abbey is that the show manages to recreate the complicated, rule-intensive world of Britain's landed aristocracy in its waning period with a cast of characters that, for the large part, actually feel like human beings. This means, of course, that you don't always like them, but they aren't difficult to understand, and at points they're frightfully relatable, from Carson's desperation to keep his job at Downton to Mary's inbred pretention to Matthew's hesitation to sacrifice himself and accept the trappings of the rotting society to which he has ascended. Mary has her moments of humanity and Matthew his days of affectation, and that's what makes them people, after all.

The Britain of Downton Abbey is one on the brink of social collapse, and we can see it. Lady Grantham assumed her title because of her personal fortune, and it's a fact that has apparently been made very clear to her and everyone else in the family. The antiquated rules of land inheritance mandate that the land pass to a male heir, so Lord Grantham's three daughters will be passed over in favor of a distant cousin. The symbolic decline of the family is palpable: the two heirs that would have been suitable to the Crawleys (one of whom was begrudgingly betrothed to the eldest daughter, Lady Mary) both die on the Titanic, a gaudy display of the fatally haughty ostentation of the upper class of the period. The idea of work seems so despicable to the nobility that when Matthew Crawley shows up, they're all so disgusted by his profession (he's a lawyer, mind you, which isn't something to sneeze at) and his continued desire to work.

But what makes Downton interesting is that, as much as we'd like to hold up Matthew as a shining beacon, he proves just as dismissive of the classes below him, causing us to reevaluate not just his behavior, but that of the noble Crawleys as well. Matthew (and, for the most part, the viewers) can't understand the loyalty of the servants, the investment they have in the respectability of the household, and the pride they take in their jobs, but when you really think about it, they are the most admirable of the whole lot for their steadfast, earnest service, their dedication to their jobs, and their perseverance in staying afloat in a world that tries continuously to hold them under water. The overwhelming sense of complete class immobility is devastating and completely anathema to the American dream that any typical US audience would be engrained with. It is the sharpest indicator of a completely different time and place, where everything was based on birth and not skill or action, and your station in life was simply based on your luck in the genetic gene pool rather than any actual talent or grace possessed on your own.

Don't get me wrong: the servants aren't all virtuous. Thomas, the cutthroat footman, and O'Brian, Cora's lady's maid, seem to be evil incarnate, and their unholy alliance is as terrifying as it is hard to trace. And, unlike many other servants, they seem to insist that a career in service is nearly akin to slavery, and that they will fight tooth and nail, and claw their way out of subjugation. However, such insistences are diluted by the clear pleasure they take in lording power over other servants and manipulating (and, at points, demeaning) the people they work both for and with. But they represent the balancing extreme of servants like Carson, who at points seem more invested in the old ways than some of the members of the family. And they show, from the other side, how this system is crumbling as the candle burns at both ends: the upper class is falling, the lower class is shifting out of its original caste, and major global events are about to turn them all upside down.

When Matthew considers dismissing his butler upon arriving at Downton, Lord Grantham asks,
"Is that quite fair, to deny a man of his livelihood when he's done nothing wrong?" This proves to be the lesson that Matthew must learn, of course. This world exists, whether he wants it to or not, and if he moves forward with his radical means of modernization, he's going to make dozens of people out of work and out of home. And so Matthew accepts the service of his butler Molesly, and the man is able to respect himself again, take pride in his work, rather than feeling demeaned. It is the beginning of Matthew's assumption of his position, which he does with ease after the initial stalling, and the ultimate harbinger of the change that is sweeping through Downton.



I would be remiss to spend the majority of my time discussing characters on anyone by the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, played by the impregnable Maggie Smith. If all old British ladies were as amazing as Maggie Smith and her characters (Minerva McGonagall for life!), I have no issue understanding how a tiny island nation somehow managed to conquer the world. Always ready with a quippy one-liner ("I have plenty of friends I don't like) and a perfectly nuanced expression, Dame Smith steals every scene she's in, although that's not at all a surprise.

The rivalry that plays out between the Dowager Countess and Mrs. Isobel Crawley, in addition to being absolutely hilarious, is also indicative of the social struggle occurring during the era. Its hard to fathom why the Countess would hate Mrs. Crawley and her eagerness to help and heal, as much as she does. Determination is seen as a negative attribute, and Mrs. Crawley's desire to work is seen as severe overstepping, even in the criminally negligent country hospital that the Dowager Countess stewards. And the Dowager Countess is willing to sacrifice other people's lives and happiness to serve her own ends and maintain her own position. The Dowager Countess and Cora are so afraid of encroaching modernity that they would deny a dying man effective treatment for his disease because they're terrified of how such a coup will upend the system in which they've entrenched themselves. Their uneasy union is shown most strongly in Mrs. Crowley's assumption of the role of chairwoman of the local hospital, meant to share the previously symbolic responsibilities of the Dowager Countess's president. Of course, the Dowager Countess never set foot in an exam room, instead preoccupied with name and status, whereas Mrs. Crowley, formally trained as a nurse, actually serves a purpose at the hospital.

But, because Downtown Abbey always encourages us to, we must look at it from the other side. Women like Mrs. Crawley completely negate the lives that women like the Dowager Countess and Cora have lived. Everything they hold dear, everything they've invested in and dedicated themselves to, is trivialized in the face of an honest living. They are aware, if only subconsciously, that their positions are precarious and their status almost completely artificial, so they struggle ever harder to hide those facts and maintain their material importance, again complicating the viewer's loyalties and making us think again about our judgments and dismissals.

And so I've reached the part in the feature where I try to defend binge-watching Downton Abbey rather than being a normal human being and watching it over a span of time equitable to a season. With a period drama like this, however, the primary benefit is complete immersion. Mentally you enter the world the show establishes, of corsets and political turmoil and antiquated tendencies and repressed emotions. It makes you more adept at navigating the intricate series of social edicts that controlled the characters' lives, and makes you (or at least, me) more understanding of the strain that these things that seem so frivolous in modern life put on the people who had to bear them daily. Marathoning also makes the development of relationships a little less glacial, and wears down the measures of propriety that keep anyone from ever saying what they mean or feel. The establishment of feelings between certain important characters, and the deferment of those feelings, strung out so much in the context of the diegeses, would be completely unbearable if stretched out over actual weeks as well. But maybe I just lack impulse control, proving that, as much as I might find the world of Downton Abbey fanciful, I would never survive with my reputation intact.

The Small Things

-William and Daisy. That is all. You'll understand when you watch. Or really, just William. Daisy just brings out the best in him.

-I love the sexual tension between Carson (the butler) and Mrs. Hughes. I'm typically resistant to the easy pairing off of characters such as these two, but the chemistry between Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan is genuine and restrained in a way that seems patently British. Although Mrs. Hughes' encounter with a former (and desperate to be present) love interest in Episode 4 is heartbreaking. Similar thoughts apply to Bates and Anna.

- I wouldn't want to be guilty of playing like old English law and passing over the second and third Crawley daughters (ha! See what I did there?): Edith and Sybil. Edith suffers from severe Jan Brady syndrome, and Sybil plays a good young rebel, with her intrepid progressive thinking and easily inspired bleeding heart.

-lol at Daisy's density in heeding Mrs. Patmore's warnings that Thomas "is not a ladies man."

-The way that Mrs. Patmore rails against Daisy, blaming her for absolutely every little (and sometimes big) thing that goes wrong is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking.

-We see the extent of Mary's harshness (and Ethel's bitterness) in Episode 5, and I can't help but think that, as the seasons go on and the stakes get higher, the consequences of the rivalry will become even graver.

-I could just make this entire section a list of quotes from the Dowager Countess, but I'll limit myself to one, from Episode 4: "One can't go to pieces over the death of every foreigner. We'd all be in a state of collapse every time we opened the newspaper." And also the following clip:



Notable episodes:
Episode 1, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 7

Need another binge? Check out more Marathoning here


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