Down­ton Abbey’s fi­nal sea­son points the way to a more equal world

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - Etc. - By Mary Pilon

If the first five sea­sons of Down­ton Abbey—the Bri­tish up­stairs­down­stairs soap opera that will have its sixth and fi­nal U.S. sea­son pre­miere on Jan. 3—were about the struc­ture of class di­vi­sions in English so­ci­ety, the last one is about those di­vi­sions crum­bling. In this sea­son’s open­ing episode (warn­ing: spoil­ers), it’s 1925, and the Abbey is cut­ting staff, leav­ing some in ex­is­ten­tial crises over their pro­fes­sional pur­pose. Mid­dle daugh­ter Lady Edith, a “mod­ern” work­ing woman, has left the fam­ily seat to oversee a mag­a­zine in Lon­don. Lady Mary, the el­dest, whose hau­teur has at times seemed im­pen­e­tra­ble, uses her sta­tus to help her lady’s maid pro­cure bet­ter med­i­cal care. Lord Robert, the Craw­ley fam­ily pa­tri­arch and sev­enth Earl of Gran­tham, asks mere min­utes af­ter the sea­son be­gins, “Who lives as we used to now?”

Part of Down­ton’s ge­nius is that it mas­quer­ades as a pe­riod drama, when in fact it’s a broad cri­tique of the hu­man man­i­fes­ta­tion of eco­nomics—a par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant theme at this point in the English-speak­ing world. Down­ton pre­miered in the U.K. in 2010 and in the U.S. a year later, just be­fore the rise of Oc­cupy. Thomas Piketty aside, class di­vi­sion con­tin­ues to­day as it did 90 years ago. This year, some­one in the top 10 per­cent of earn­ers in the U.K. will make 27 times the in­come of some­one in the bot­tom 10 per­cent. In the U.S., the rich­est 20 per­cent of fam­i­lies con­trol 89 per­cent of the coun­try’s wealth, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Pew sur­vey, putting it among the rich­est, yet most un­equal, coun­tries in the world.

Down­ton was a hit in its home coun­try and be­came a global tele­vi­sion phe­nom­e­non: On its first air­ing in the U.K., it quickly set rat­ings records, draw­ing an av­er­age of 8.8 mil­lion view­ers per episode. A year later, when Down­ton came across the At­lantic and aired on PBS, it be­came the most pop­u­lar drama in pub­lic broad­cast­ing history.

Credit the show’s rich vis­ual style and the comic tim­ing of Dame Mag­gie Smith— whose per­for­mance as the Dowa­ger Count­ess Vi­o­let alone was worth the time spent watch­ing—for the con­tin­ued strong rat­ings in the fourth and fifth sea­sons. Oc­ca­sion­ally, how­ever, cre­ator Ju­lian Fel­lowes seemed to be tak­ing on too much. What are the im­pli­ca­tions of eco­nomic mo­bil­ity, the show asked, and the mech­a­nisms for achiev­ing it? In a world of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies (by 1925, phono­graphs, tele­phones, au­to­mo­biles, and re­frig­er­a­tors have come to Down­ton), how does a la­bor force change? What are the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of those with hefty manors and Ro­man nu­mer­als af­ter their names?

Th­ese are some of the same ques­tions that an­i­mate Down­ton’s lit­er­ary an­tecedents, the great nov­els of Edith Whar­ton, the Brontë sis­ters, and, of course, Jane Austen. The sixth sea­son (which has al­ready aired in the U.K.) points to Austen de­lib­er­ately when, over tea, the Dowa­ger Count­ess and a cousin dis­cuss the strange­ness of host­ing an open house at Down­ton to ben­e­fit the vil­lage hos­pi­tal. “Even El­iz­a­beth Ben­net wanted to see what Pem­ber­ley was like in­side,” the cousin re­marks. The Dowa­ger tartly replies, “A de­ci­sion which caused her a great deal of em­bar­rass­ment, if I re­mem­ber the novel cor­rectly.”

Like its lit­er­ary pre­de­ces­sors, Down­ton has been ac­cused of be­ing mere post-Ed­war­dian fluff, but it’s more sub­stan­tial than that. In­stead of ig­nor­ing real is­sues or film­ing them in sepia, Down­ton has ad­dressed in­ter­ra­cial dat­ing, rape, gay iden­tity, pre­mar­i­tal sex, sui­cide, and post-trau­matic stress, rev­el­ing in their in­her­ent com­plex­ity rather than flee­ing from it. The show leaves view­ers with a sense of op­ti­mism about the fu­ture, a world where the dif­fer­ence be­tween high and low is just a stair­case any­one can climb. <BW>

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