Since the deaths of the two most outsider members of the Crawley clan in the third season of Downton Abbey, I have grown more and more skeptical of Julian Fellowes’ soap opera of manners. And yet, there I sat, tuning in to the premiere this past Sunday, and cringing while I tweeted about how embarrassingly bad it was, with particular emphasis on two plots involving the sex lives of its characters. (Counterpoint to the entire piece you’re about to read: “Bad Downton is better than no Downton.” This aphorism arrived from my mother, via text, after the episode in question.)
To me, the parallel plots demonstrate how the show has progressively done more and more of a disservice to the “downstairs” folks. In general, the Downton servants are always easily slotted into one of two categories: smart and evil (Thomas) or loyal but somewhat simple (Daisy, Mrs. Patmore). Anna once seemed to be the only one with an emergent personality and brain, but plot developments have turned her into such a beleaguered martyr that she now exists to protect Lady Mary and wring her hands about fate.
Yet Mr. Carson and Miss Hughes, the two heads of the below-stairs household, once read as competent and smart despite their quirks. They fell in love, which was nice, as they’d always had a rapport — and it fulfilled the wishes of those of us who still weep even thinking about the unrequited love in The Remains of the Day. Their plot seemed to have resolved in a sweet way, but then Sunday night arrived. Mrs. Hughes is worried, you see, that being married means being, you know, expected to do that. She is old, probably a virgin, and has pre-wedding jitters. So, with poor, awkward Mrs. Patmore as her go-between, she sends out feelers to her fiancé, and gets this response from Carson: “I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains on Earth.” She hesitates, but the wedding is still on. Caron’s words are touching, but the plot is absurd.
For five seasons, the young women of Downton, who are supposed to be shielded from sexual experience by their unmarried state and social class, have been defying the rules and sowing their wild oats. The servants, guests, and neighbors have been involved in all kinds of peccadilloes. Mrs. Hughes and Carson have seen people come and go, fired people for seductions and pregnancies, and presumably have had their own desires over time. Do we really believe that these two characters would be so buttoned-up in their attitudes that they would approach the birds and the bees with no more sophistication than a 12-year-old? Couldn’t Fellowes have given them some other, less degrading anxieties that fit their good-servant personalities? In the same episodes, Daisy rightly chastises a jerky landowner for mistreating tenants, and ends up feeling so lucky she doesn’t get fired.
The innocence and ignorance that Fellowes often attributes to his servants violates the dignity of these characters, implying that they’re overgrown children, while the upstairs folks are in the role of parents. The best part of Comedy Central’s Downton parody, Another Period, is its lampooning of the show’s upstairs-downstairs relationships. Downton‘s attitude is particularly highlighted by Lady Mary’s plot in the recent premiere. Whenever she’s not vigorously riding her horse on a hunt, she’s being blackmailed for having extramarital sex, threatened by another saucy upstart from the working classes. (Fellowes absolutely hates working-class women.)
Thoroughly modern Mary decides to just let the gossip be distributed and her reputation ruined. Thankfully, her father rescues her, and here’s the big shocker: despite his discovery of her previous liaison, you see, her shrewdness in dealing with it has somehow convinced him that she’s “tough enough” to run the estate. He’s actually proud of her. We’re clearly meant to admire the worldly sophistication of these two snobs, illogical though it is. And it contrasts with the bumbling machinations of Patmore, Hughes, and Carson, which are played for sweet and sympathetic laughs, but laughs nonetheless.
Knowing how conservative Fellowes is in real life doesn’t help, though his biases hurt the show in ways that go far beyond politics; his favoritism towards the snobbier members of the clan, from the Dowager Countess to Lord Grantham to Lady Mary, gets in the way of good storytelling. The three of them never face the same humiliation he foists on the servants and the other characters, like Lady Edith, who are less emblematic of the status quo. Furthermore, the loyalty that the Crawleys show to their servants, and vice versa, is not only unrealistic — it’s also predictable and tiresome. It ensures that all the major tension arises from an external source, which is inevitably either some hair-brained scheme by a blackmailing member of the lower classes or the long shadow of the law (a storyline which almost always involves Bates being threatened by the noose and everyone at Downton being worried about Bates). The show’s traditionalist leanings have gotten in the way of fresh and realistic storytelling, which helps to explain why even most of its loyal viewers admit that it has gotten, well, bad.