Downstairs at Downton Abbey

Well, that’s it for Downton Abbey. I’m not exactly sorry to see it go; this second season was so much soapier and sillier than the first season. A badly burned veteran shows up on their doorstep, claiming to be the long-assumed-dead former heir to the estate? Everyone gets in tizzy — will Matthew be disinherited? Will Edith finally get reward for her long-suffering love for him? Is he who he says he is? And then, well, he leaves at the end of the episode, and that’s that. It’s ridiculous. If you’re going to do the soap opera thing of people returning from the dead, then do it properly, dragging out the storyline, leaving just enough holes open but just enough convincing details to make you not sure what you think. Or at least let him be clearly an imposter but to seduce the audience anyway, since Matthew is such a drag. But to introduce him only to dismiss him immediately? Idiotic.

But what I really hated Downton Abbey for was its condescending dismissal of class politics. Branson, the Irish chauffeur who drove Sybil to her suffrage rallies in the first season and who endlessly spouts class revolution, goes through one belittlement after another. Despite the fact that he hates the English — with good cause, given his brother’s death in the Easter Rising, an innocent bystander killed by an English solider — Branson’s big hope to shame the English is to proclaim himself a conscientious objector in front of the entire community when he’s called up to war. Alas, poor Branson has a heart murmur, and so can’t enlist. Instead he has to settle for a back-up plan, one that presents itself when a general comes to dine at Downton Abbey. Short of staff, the head butler accepts Branson’s offer to help serve dinner. Through dastardly music and ominous cutting, we know that Branson is up to something and we, like the always-decent lady’s maid Anna, imagine that it’s assassination. But, no, it’s nothing so actionable. Branson’s plan is to pour a pot of slime on the general because, you know, that will show him not to mistreat the Irish. Nothing like a heap of shit to change the course of history.

As it turns out, of course, Branson isn’t really a revolutionary. He’s just love-sick for Sybil. There are no class differences, only passions of the heart. I suppose it’s something that he does get to marry Sybil and move back to Ireland. The other class transgressors get punished fiercely — Ethel sleeps with one of the wounded soldiers, gets pregnant, is cast out, and is finally humiliated by the soldier’s horribly snobby parents. And Thomas, poor Thomas wants nothing but to make something of himself, and by the end of the second season, he’s reduced to begging for his place back as a footman in the house. We aren’t really meant to feel sorry for Ethel, I don’t think. She’s so whiny, she offers nothing of interest to the audience, and we can see her fate a mile off. I do feel sorry for Thomas, but I have to work pretty hard at it. The one gay character, he starts off the first season as someone whose unhappiness in his lot in life is clearly tied to the repressive regime of heterosexuality to which he must conform. But that character arc gets dropped pretty quickly and he becomes more homogeneously petty and rotten. When he’s brought low in the second season, having been out-conned by another con artist on the black market, he sobs and you again get a glimpse of his desperation. But then he has an idiotic scheme to steal and return Lord Grantham’s dog, so as to earn his trust to become his valet, and we’re back in soap opera land.


Jean Marsh as Rose

Obviously, although I was endlessly annoyed with Downton Abbey, I couldn’t stop watching it. But I did, near the end of the second season, find myself so put out that I tried finding a cure for my blues in that classic of the servants/masters series, Upstairs, Downstairs. I have, at the moment, only seen the first five episodes of the first season (broadcast originally in 1971 in the UK and in 1974 in the US), so all my observations might turn out to be totally wrong. But from the get-go, it seems much less invested in the lives of the upstairs family, and so much more open to the possibility of treating the class dynamics in a much more interesting fashion. The first few episodes focus nearly exclusively on two maids, Rose and the young woman we know as Sarah. We don’t actually know what her name is, though the credits always refer to her as Sarah and it’s what everyone calls her. When she first shows up, she insists that she’s French and has some French name that Lady Marjorie decides is ridiculous for a maid, and so she’s renamed Sarah. The most astounding episode I’ve seen is the third one, “Board Wages,” set in August 1904. The upstairs family and the upper servants are all off on holiday, and the junior servants — including Sarah and Rose — have a party at home, dressing up in Lady Marjorie’s gowns and drinking gin in the parlor. But then the son of the family comes home unexpectedly, and hearing them pretending to be ringing for a servant to bring them more drinks, he takes on the role of their servant. It’s dreadfully clear, however, who holds the power in the relationship, and as James brings them champagne and insists that they address him as they would a servant, he also keeps them locked into the parlor and forces them to drink even when they are asking to stop. It only gets worse from there — the servants escape when he forgets to lock the door, but then he stalks Sarah in her underclothes as she’s trying to return Lady Marjorie’s dress to her closet. The constant threat of violence isn’t casual and even at moments when he and Sarah seem to be approaching a conversation between equals, it’s still there. Sarah ends up leaving the house at the end of that episode, and Rose’s heartbreak at losing her friend is more moving than any of the soap opera tears I saw on Downton Abbey.

If you haven’t seen Downton Abbey, the first season is on Netflix Instant, and you can just save yourself the heartbreak and stop when that’s over. If you’ve already seen all of the show and need to get your skepticism on, read Gavin’s piece on breaking up with Downton Abbey.

The first season of the original Upstairs, Downstairs is also on Netflix Instant, and I absolutely recommend watching that — especially while I wait for the 2010 remake/sequel to hit Netflix streaming. I’m sure it will be gorgeous and glittery, but I’m less sure about the rest of its value.

Sarah Werner has two sons, at least one job, and too many books to read. As a result, Netflix Instant is her constant companion. She blogs about books and reading and is known to a corner of the twitterverse as @wynkenhimself.

2 Responses to “Downstairs at Downton Abbey”
  1. goofus says:

    i just recently did the opposite and watched all the episodes of the original upstairs downstairs on netflix and absolutely loved it. so naturally i thought i would jump into downtown abbey and enjoy it just as much, but i am finding i hate downtown abbey.

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