|Can Branson continue to dance with Duchesses or is it time for him to move on?|
It’s taken me four seasons, but I think I’ve finally cracked the Downton Abbey code. All season long, I’ve complained about series creator and writer Julian Fellowes’s seemingly contentious relationship with modernity. I’ve wanted the show’s characters to progress, to really embrace the culture of the 1920s. Following the end of World War I, women earned the right to run for Parliament and some women gained the right to vote, having proven themselves just as capable of running the country while the men were away at war. Women were also staking their initial claims on sexual independence, having finally gained the upper hand in no small part due to the deaths of almost five percent of the British male population. Finally, the age of the landed gentry was coming to a close. As Mr. Blake makes clear throughout the fourth season, many of the old estates are struggling, burdened by the rising demands on their income.
The 1920s were a time of great change. Women were gaining power, personally and politically. Blacks and other racial minorities were gaining some semblance of freedom if not real equality. Even gay rights were coming to the forefront, as Britain’s first gay pub opened in 1913 and several gay artists were living openly. Obviously, 1920s Britain was not a bastion of equality, but it was moving in that direction. And yet, Downton remains a stalwart against progress. The world changes around it, but the estate and its occupants do their best to remain stagnant.
Stagnancy may just be what Fellowes is going for, though. It’s very easy to see his version of Downton as a fixed point in time.* To him, the British estates represent the peak of the British Empire, and it is this legacy that the Downton stakeholders are attempting to maintain. While the most staid members of the estate (Robert and Carson) are willing to begrudge at least a little progress, they still stubbornly insist that Downton remain a cultural icon of the Golden Age of the British aristocracy. Just consider the way that Carson treats the Levinsons’ American butler. He’s willing to accept that, in America, “my employer is Mr. Levinson, not me.” But the only logical response for Carson is to declare that “in this house you both are.” The world may change, but Downton must remain set apart: a cultural icon and representation of the past unsullied by the muddy waters of progress.
* For those unfamiliar with Britain’s other main cultural export to the United States, Doctor Who, a fixed point in time is an event that cannot be changed without creating vast, cataclysmic consequences.
The key part of being a fixed point in time is that, when you violate it – when you try to change things – all hell breaks loose. We’ve seen this time and again in Downton Abbey, dating back to when Lady Mary first invited Kemal Pamuk into her bed in the third episode of the series. His subsequent death made clear very early on that any violations of the sanctity of the social mores at Downton will have devastating repercussions.
The rest of the Crawley ladies have likewise been the recipients of Downton’s karmic chaos. Edith is involved in a perfectly happy, if on-the-down-low liaison with her editor until she brings him and their unconventional relationship to Downton. Within two episodes, Michael is missing in Germany and Edith is pregnant with their illegitimate child. “Women shall not date married men,” declares Downton.
Sybil demonstrated the only real way to be socially progressive in Downton: she left. She took her unconventional relationship to Ireland so that she could escape the unflinching world in which she grew up. Of course, once she decides to return home to give birth to her “half-breed” child (the nanny’s words, not mine), all bets were off. And the price she paid for breaking decorum was her life. It seems like Branson should have suffered a similar fate, but he seems to have avoided any punishment by completely shedding his old life to don the outfit of the elite. Gone are his socialist revolutionary politics. In their place, he has substituted white tie dinners and dancing with Duchesses. Sure, he seems to bristle at the prospect of a lifetime of aristocracy, but at this moment he acts like no less a Crawley than had he been born one.
The way, then, that Downton so effectively ruins those who would bring progress to it leaves three characters in particularly precarious positions as season four comes to a close. Lady Mary seems to be the safest, for while she’s definitely pushing the limits of what women are allowed to do in the aristocracy, she is still a member of the landed class and her work at Downton is being done largely as the caretaker of the estate’s true heir, George, her son.
Edith and Branson are not in so protected a position however. Edith has made the questionable decision to have a local farmer raise her child, with only the two of them ostensibly knowing the truth. But let’s be real, here. The number of people who knew Edith was pregnant is at least a half dozen and there’s no way she’s going to be content to just let her baby grow up down the road without checking in every once and in a while. At some point, she’s going to get caught and questions will be raised about why she’s visiting a stranger’s child. The potential savior of the situation would be the return of Michael Gregson,* but that seems like an increasingly unlikely proposition at this point, especially given the reputation of the Brownshirts he allegedly encountered.
* Dowton Abbey is a soap opera, after all. No body, no death.
Finally, Branson’s position lies somewhere in between those of Mary and Edith. He’s obviously quite fond of the young socialist teacher. But sneaking around Downton, even if it wasn’t really “sneaking,” is not a good way to get in the house’s good graces. Who knows if this is going anywhere, but Branson’s unease about how quickly he has assimilated into aristocratic life has been palpable all season long. It seems unlikely that he’s going to be able to withhold his true feelings for long, so it’s really more a question of whether he’ll leave Downton to pursue his progressive politics or if he’ll stay and tempt fate.
So four seasons and more than a decade in, this is where we stand.* The world is moving on from feudal England, but the estates are making their final, valiant stand against progress. What will define Downton Abbey in the seasons to come is whether it will invite that progress in or if it will force anybody seeking change to do it elsewhere and continue to punish those revolutionaries who stay home.
* It’s hard to believe that the series premiere came in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and it’s now 1923.
A couple of spare thoughts –
I feel a little bad about largely ignoring the downstairs staff this season but, really, aside from Bates and Anna, have they done anything of note? Ivy’s been on the show all year, but now that she’s leaving for America, the only things I really know about her are that she was the subject of Alfred’s unrequited love and that she didn’t appreciate it when Jimmy got a little frisky. Nothing much else happened with the staff apart from the continuing misadventures of Molesley.
Paul Giamatti was too self-deprecating by half for my tastes but he was quite good in this episode and I enjoyed his storyline of trying to fend off the broke Lord Aysgarth’s advances on his mother. Also, it’s nice to have actual Americans playing Americans for once, because boy are some Brits doing awful American accents on this show. I’m looking at you, Jack Ross and “Mr. Levinson.”
I also enjoyed how, unlike in Poe’s The Purloined Letter, in this episode, everybody but Bates wants to read the prince’s scandalous letter. There are no boundaries in the aristocracy, apparently.
More Janet Montgomery (Freda Dudley Ward), please. She’s just great.
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