I admit it, I watch Downton Abbey. It’s totally a guilty pleasure, equal parts soap opera and fashion show (those dresses! those hats!). The most interesting thing that happened in one episode was some pigs getting dehydrated (thrilling conclusion: they got some water). One time a character got into a fight with a pantry and lost. I have watched literally hours of people being passive-aggressive to each other at dinner. I so enjoy hearing rich people complain about flower arrangements that I have watched these gripping episodes multiple times. Send help.
What I find so deliciously enjoyable about watching rich people whine about their lives of leisure is that Downton Abbey has a way of messing with your moral compass. You’ll be puttering along, wondering if Tom Branson is really going to be so bold as to bring scandal to the family by fraternizing with a house maid, and suddenly you realize that Tom is a human being with the right to bang whoever he wants to bang, and all this agonizing about proper fork placement and cufflink etiquette had momentarily distracted you from realizing how deeply fucked up the Granthams’ view of their fellow man really is.
Because the show tricks you into rooting for the aristocrats, who deserve love and sympathy because they are so terribly rich and beautiful, and the servants who accept their lot with stoicism, who deserve pity because terrible soap-opera things keep happening to them. The show’s villains below stairs aren’t greedy, they’re progressive. Everything they want is perfectly normal, and they deserve happiness just as much as anyone else in the house. When they resort to unethical behavior, it’s because the proper path to success and happiness has been cut off for reasons beyond their control.
Take a look at Thomas, the slimy bastard you love to hate. He wants a career with a clear upwards trajectory based on competence. Instead, he’s stuck with an employer who bases his hiring decisions on who he happened to be buddies with in a war that happened when Thomas was a child. Bates sure is a nice dude, but Thomas is right: a man with a bum leg actually can’t perform all of the duties required of a valet. And who has to pick up the slack? The footmen. Yes, Thomas could have handled that situation better, but he’s cheating at a game that was rigged from the start.
Thomas wants to not die in a gruesome, and largely pointless, war. Totally reasonable behavior right there. World War I was a conflict of unprecedented scale and horror, and he sees battle sooner than anyone else in the series. When he comes back, all he wants is to have his own business instead of depending on the whims of a family who throw money away on stupid schemes and rely on favoritism when it comes to job offers and promotions. But once again everything blows up in his face, because he wants a taste of upwards mobility and thus by the rules of fucked up Downton logic he must be ground down for our amusement.
And of course, Thomas wants some romance in his life. But he’s gay, so the behavior that everyone else in the house gets rewarded for gets him a visit from the police. The characters who come out of that drama looking like heroes are the ones who are magnanimous enough to agree that maybe, just maybe, kissing a dude should not be a crime punishable by imprisonment and ruination. That’s a damn low bar to clear for heroism. Alfred never faces any consequences for calling the cops, Carson never gets his comeuppance for calling him foul, and Thomas has to get punched in the face to get a fleeting moment of positive attention from his coworkers.
Let’s take a look at the other characters who want just a tiny bit more than their lot and incur the wrath of Downton. Jimmy is the lazy whiner of the group, the foil to Almost Perfect Footman Alfred. Here are the worst of the faux pas that Jimmy has committed, to general condemnation:
- He took a break and sat down in a nice chair.
- He was told by his employer that he should take the day off to enjoy himself, and got peevish when his boss decided that he should work unpaid instead.
- He takes care of his appearance, since his appearance is why he was hired in the first place.
- He expected a long-term romantic relationship to involve a bit of heavy petting instead of chaste hand holding and movie viewing.
By Downton standards, he’s a cad. By normal human being standards, he’s a perfectly average dude.
Edna Braithwaite wants to do some social climbing. It’s not the most admirable quality, but given how hard it is for all the other characters in service to catch a break, can you really blame her for wanting to fuck her way to the top–or at least the comfortable middle?
Mrs. O’Brian wants to do the job she’s paid for, not to sub in for other maids’ jobs at random. She wants some job security, so she doesn’t have to worry any time she hears a scary rumor. When she’s bored with her work and sick of the social circle that’s been forced on her, she wants to be able to switch jobs without her employer taking it as a personal betrayal. Does she get any of those things? Nope. Was soap assassinating a fetus the correct response? Nope, but it’s the one thing she does that actually works out OK for her.
The show distracts you with dinner jackets and estate taxes and garden parties until you’ve forgotten that this is a story about people who perform pointless rituals for shitty pay to keep up appearances for a family who can destroy their lives at a whim. They aren’t allowed to leave the house without permission if they want to keep their jobs. They can’t have sex at all unless they’re properly wed, and they have to beg their boss’s permission to marry. Trying for a middle-class job gets them condemnation at best, and ruination at worst. If they slip up, they’ll be turned loose with no reference in a world where people of “low character” have to turn to crime or prostitution to survive. Those consequences aren’t just implied–this happens in the show to a maid who commits the grievous sin of hopping in bed with the wrong dude.
All the Granthams have to do is be gracious and maintain their massive fortune, and they can’t even pull that off most of the time. And they’re supposed to be the heroes? Fuck that. I’m rooting for the scheming social climbers. They know what’s up.