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DOWNTON ABBEY Takes a Conservative Turn

I admit that I’m an unlikely fan of Downton Abbey.

Period costume dramas involving storylines about unrequited love are not usually my thing. But the show’s examination of plutocrats and socioeconomics are pretty timely.

While the show has always been a bit romantic and even quixotic about the nobility of the British aristocracy, the current seasons seems to have bought into this delusion. And what’s really turning me off is how much it is pitting the servants against us in its messaging.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

What I respected about the Downton in the second and third season is that it dealt with how useless a person like Lord Grantham was becoming in the 20th century.

During WWI he trots around his castle in a military uniform but contributes nothing to the war effort. It’s the servants who go to war and die.

And the one way his family can help — turning their home into a hospital for veterans — they do kicking and screaming.

And then in the third season, every business decision of Lord Grantham turns out to be wrong, resulting in the near loss of the estate.

His understanding of finances is anachronistic (it reminds me of The Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns is reviewing his portfolio trying to figure out why his empire is collapsing when he has solid investments like Confederated Slaveholdings, Transatlantic Zeppelin, and the Baltimore Opera Hat Company).

Now in season four, the show finally has a black character — a jazz singer — who unknowingly to Lord Grantham, is to perform at the Abbey for his birthday.

After witnessing some racism from members of the Crawley clan in previous episodes, we’re expecting a Tony Soprano-esque meltdown from Lord Grantham when he discovers a black person in his house. Instead he shrugs, and dances with his wife.

Now if this wasn’t bad enough, it’s the servants who are the ones affronted by the black singer being in their presence. My issues is not that I believe blue collar workers at the time would be more tolerant than Lord Grantham, but the juxtaposition of their attitudes vs. his makes him out to be the progressive one who is going to set an example for the workingman (there’s even a moment in the episode where he tells his wife that their butler is getting over the shock of it all). It’s the one percent that’s going to show us how to act. 

Or consider the hapless Mr. Molesley. Now out of work and having once been a butler, he’s reluctant to take a demotion to work as a footman (an entry level job). The head butler, Mr. Carson, thinks Molesley is acting ungrateful and holds out hiring him as a punishment.

It’s a strange situation where we the viewer aren’t supposed to be that sympathetic to Molesley because he is being an ass by not taking the job (yet his situation is something that many people in the current economy can identify with), and at the same time Mr. Carson is the bad guy because he’s going to make Molesley beg. So this bit of class conflict that happens among the workingmen.

If there is any doubt about how the Crawleys would act in this situation, in the very same episode there’s another dustup between servants where a maitre d’ flaunts his authority, and Lady Grantham has to step in to set things right.

And maybe what’s most outrageous, is that Lord Grantham has become the most benevolent landlord in all of England.

An ongoing plot point is that he won’t let his daughter and son-in-law (who used to be the chauffer and is a socialist) throw deadbeat tenant farmers off their estate. It’s financially the right thing to do, especially considering all of the financial problems that estate has recently had, but Grantham believes in giving people a second chance — so much so that he loans one of the farmers money to pay the back rent owned to the estate. So Grantham makes bad business choices because he acts with his heart.

The messaging is increasingly becoming that the one percent really are better than us. They’re more tolerant, nobler, and more empathetic — the kind of people we want running things.

Now this is not to say that I’m looking for the show to excoriate the rich and hold up the workingman. I want something with nuance, which I believe was there in seasons 1 and 2.

But Downton has not just taken a black & white view of class, with Lord Grantham depicted as the humanitarian of the year.

What’s next?

Lord Grantham giving everyone paid leave time over the objections of Mr. Carson who believes it will make the workers lazy?

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