Pray to the British nobles, holy, wise and clean. (My thoughts on Downton Abbey, late as usual.)

30 Jul

1.

I’ve watched all three seasons of Downton Abbey. And I’m convinced that what started out as a historical melodrama has evolved into a modulated assault on democratic values. This British import is the most serious threat to our democracy since Shay’s Rebellion. Or New Coke.

Downton has, over three successful seasons, moved into more and more disturbing territory, while on the surface becoming nicer, gentler, softer. The first season is unaccountably strong, with bickering sisters and a family crisis, good screenwriting and a very fine visual style. The look of the show was close to other BBC productions, only tighter, brighter, more beautiful. The first season seemed like a great British modern novel, a la Evelyn Waugh, focusing on a way of life in decline. The first World War was around the corner, and the values of the nobles seems static, outdated and close to ruin.

Then the war comes. The second season, weaker than the first, engages in a type of historical re-enactment, attempting to show the effects of the war on the various British classes. The plotting took a hit, and the writing took on a whiff of odious melodrama and there were some lame twists and manufactured crises. And, most heinous of all, the nobles emerged as the heroic figures.

The third season, although entertaining, has plunged into a putrid celebration of the British ruling class. The servants bicker, scheme, or in many cases, love their masters. The nobles are pure of heart, and take care of their servants out of a deep sense of noblesse oblige.

The working people who are happy with their station are the show’s heroes: Mr. Carson, Bates and Sara. The working people who strive to move up in the economic ladder—the American characters, if you will—are seen as scheming, untrustworthy and distasteful.

The emphasis on distaste cannot be overstated. The show has split its cast into two types: couth and uncouth. Having bad manners is the worst of all sins. So when a distant cousin is introduced as a pleasure-seeking party girl flapper, she is shown as tawdry and cheap. Nevermind that she’s the one character that most 21st century people should empathize with: she wants to be who she wants to be, not who the family dictates. We should be rooting for her—live life on your own rules!—but we don’t. We applaud when she’s forcibly brought back under her family’s control.

The British nobles have been whitewashed, starched, pressed and folded. They’re portrayed as wise, generous, empathetic and even concerned with the dispensation of their largesse.

2.

The first season appeared to be a sort of satire on the landed gentry by maintaining an insular world. This moral relativity is what makes The Godfather such a fantastic film. But The Godfather undercuts the romanticism of the gangster lifestyle with extreme violence and heart-breaking betrayals, revealing Michael Corleone’s allegiance to the idea of fealty, loyalty and honor over his actual family in the second movie. The Godfather isn’t an affirmation of the gangsters; it’s a repudiation of a vile and pernicious system. (Coppola wanted the films to demonize capitalism.)

But appearances in this case are deceiving. Downton isn’t satire, it’s a 21-gun salute. The insulated point of view isn’t in service of anything; the show’s creators actually believe the drivel they are selling. Worse, they are trying to recast an oppressive system of control into a pretty nifty time. The servants are lucky to be wage-slaves to Downton. They should be grateful for low wages and one day off a month.

Lord Grantham, the patriarch of the estate, serves as the show’s main hero. He’s the one character who sees the sweep of history and, after some bombastic speech-making, evolves to the new era. Which is preposterous when history tells us that he would be the least adaptable. He strides through the various scenes, a touch testy but big-hearted and attuned to the feelings of others. His main character flaw seems to be that he cares too much for people. If only he were tougher on the rabble.

Lord Grantham, the gracious, sweet-smelling lord over the foul rabble.

Lord Grantham, the gracious, sweet-smelling lord over the foul rabble.

The always-excellent Maggie Smith plays the grand dame of the family. She’s caustic, conservative, and has never worked a day in her life. She’s also the wisest, most insightful character in the show. She’s fun to watch and she has all the best lines, but in real life she would have been a miserable leech, siphoning off money she didn’t earn to live a lifestyle she doesn’t deserve.

The two bitchy, snobby daughters aren’t punished for their cushy lives or haughty cruelty. They have drama, of course, and the show keeps them in agitated states. But it’s the youngest daughter—who tries to learn some basic cooking skills and runs away with an Irishman named Bransen—who the show punishes, by killing her off on the day her daughter was born.

3.

Bransen is the essential character in trying to understand the show. He is obnoxious, prone to speechifying, an extremist. (The show’s treatment of the Irish is enough to undue the Good Friday peace accords. ) His brother is something straight out of Shakespeare, a pasty-faced hunchback with no social graces. His appearance mirrors his slovenly moral laxness. Unlike the coifed and always dignified Lord Grantham, the Irish brother is crooked of tooth and short of stature. Bransen is shown as unreasonable, difficult, and annoyingly set against the ruling classes. He is, like the other Irish characters on the show, revealed as an ill-mannered firebrand who want change to happen too quickly. Nevermind the casual destruction of his country—including a manufactured Potato famine that starved a third of the population—and the English arrogance and the vicious treatment of the Irish people. He needs to relax! Bransen just needs to eat a crumpet, sip some tea, and chill!

Bransen, the hero of the show, if he could just let go of all that Irish nonsense.

Bransen, the hero of the show, if he could just let go of all that Irish nonsense.

It’s only when he begins dressing and acting like the English nobles does he become heroic. He’s the Irish equivalent of an Uncle Tom, and the show fawns over his transformation. In episode six of the third season, he catches a fly ball in cricket, a moment that is supposed to be exultant and telling. Telling indeed; once Bransen embraces the colonialist game, he is thus embraced by his oppressors. And now he can be happy.

Ugh.

4.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

The show’s central villain is Barrow, an attractive schemer who always has some intrigue in the fire. Barrow’s intrigues are almost always aimed at increasing his station. He attempts to buy up extra supplies, for example, during the Great War so that he can sell them on the black market. He also sabotages his fellow footmen so that he can move up to Grantham’s valet. He is a good character, but there’s a problem. The show has inextricably linked his villainy to his sexuality. He’s gay, and his nastiness is seen as symptomatic, not incidental, to his homosexuality.

The show's main villain, a dandified homo out to punish the hetero world.

The show’s main villain, a dandified homo out to punish the hetero world.

So we have the uppity women who don’t know their place; the angling servants who refuse to accept their station; the sexual pervert who punishes others for their happiness; and those radical Irish who won’t just accept the beauty of being subjugated by the wealthy English. Juxtapose this working class motley crew with those sterling, beautiful and wise-cracking nobles, who keep everyone employed in a stunningly beautiful estate.

Does the show’s only villain have to be gay? Does his gayness have to play such a large role in his evildoing? Do the nobles have to be, well, so fucking noble?

5.

Contrast all of this with 2001’s Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes’s collaboration with director Robert Altman and arguably Altman’s third or fourth best film. In Gosford, the high born drive much of the intrigue. They are snobby, dismissive, entitled and vile. The servants scheme, too, but the movie reveals the amount of damage the rich scheming can do. The servants are petty and spiteful. The masters are vengeful and vain, self-centered and immensely destructive. They abuse, dismiss and discard the working people. They are the sharks in a fishtank, and they control the food supply. There’s a reason the kings and queens of old were fat while the farmers and peasants were thin. Gosford understands an essential fact of this vile system: the working people had to wear two faces; the royals were always their miserly and vicious selves.

The aristocratic model involved bloodlines, lineages, primogeniture, and often absurd rules of inheritance. The system is by design a way of keeping land and resources under strict familial control. Americans are supposed to be sickened by this societal model. It’s the foundational building block of our country, that everyone is the same.

And yet, the show—which mocks our whole system of governance—is immensely popular. And the critical response seems to focus on the show as a guilty pleasure, instead as an insidious and false celebration of an evil way of life. A pox on those soft-derriered posh Brits and their knock-kneed American cousins. Give me the Molly Macguires.

6.

King Leopold committed genocide in the Congo. Queen Victoria oversaw genocidal practices in India. France strip-mined the Ivory Coast, Portugal gutted Brazil, Spain brutally subjugated the native peoples of Central America.

The royals were rich because others were poor. The royals remained in power by subjugating those who wanted equality instead of (a horrid and stultifying) stability. Behind Downton’s gentle glowing veneer is a vicious propaganda of the worst kind. I keep hoping the show will come to its senses and have some of the wide-eyed rabble rise up and rid themselves of their oppressors. Pitchforks and molotovs and guillotines, dear servants; the future can be yours.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: