Downton Abbey

I’m not big on watching television. We only ever had cable during the Olympics – and even then we only got it for one Olympic games. But I do like watching some shows later – when I can decide when I’m free to watch them, skip parts, or finish later. Some of my favorite ‘movies’ once aired on TV, like Hornblower, Barchester Chronicles, and Wives and Daughters.
I also generally don’t get excited about things that are popular. I saw lots of people talking about Downton Abbey on Facebook and was put off from it by the fact that it was so popular. Then there was a review of it in WORLD and on the Gospel Coalition, and I thought maybe I’d see what I thought. Mommy watched a few episodes of it on the plane on the way to Italy and so on the way back I watched a few, too.
After the first two episodes, I really wasn’t sure what to think. I liked the characters, but as far as plot went, I thought it was slow-moving and not all that intriguing. Still, perhaps it was like Barchester and Cranford, where the main draw was characters. As I’ve finished the first season, I’ve found that to be true. In a way, it’s good, and in a way it’s bad.
I like it because it’s much more like normal life – about people, not huge events. My favorite part about writing and reading is the characters. I find it fascinating to come up with or decipher the things they like and don’t like, how they respond, why they say certain things.
On the other hand, it’s very dangerous because it keeps you drawn in even when there are many things you feel uncomfortable with. It’s because of those things that I can’t recommend Downton, even though it’s very well made and enjoyable to watch (for the most part – there are many things that disgust me in it, but I’ll get to those).

The political undertones (which become more and more prominent as the season progresses) were also fascinating. Socialism is a big political agenda – multiple episodes deal with the idea of the oppressive upper class. There’s also a fair bit of feminism involved in later episodes. I thought it was interesting how they introduced it so slowly, and via characters you love and identify with so it’s harder to see the worldview and the outworkings of the ideology. That’s dangerous – but very interesting. I like the balance that the Crawleys bring to this, though – they’re upper class but using their wealth for good and not being too proud to interact and be friends with the poorer folk.

Perhaps more dangerous and less interesting were the more moral issues. Downton is set in 1912-14, yet it feels very uncanny because although it’s in the Victorian era, the morals are much more modern. My quick, blunt summary of what Downton is about would be “lying daughters, abdicating fathers, and sibling rivalry.” There’s less going on of that sort down in the servants’ (though the servants aren’t without their drama, especially not Thomas), but the way they – and everyone – lives in the same house for so long yet are so distant from each other was saddening.
If I had known episode 3 was going to color the rest of the episodes so much, I probably wouldn’t have started watching. I stopped about ten minutes into that episode and moved on to episode 4. Later I read the synopsis because I wanted to know what had happened so I could understand what was happening. In short, the immoral worldview about marriage was put into practice and led to lying to the father (whose responsibility the issue was, according to scripture), and still more sibling rivalry and keeping secrets from other suitors (though I do appreciate Mary’s thought that she needed to be honest with Matthew).
I hated the whole way suitors were considered because of money or class, rather than character, and how that tainted the whole purpose and end of marriage, tainting the picture of Christ and the church.
The other thing that disgusted me was the rivalry between the sisters, especially Mary and Edith. It’s sickening how they blackmail each other and vie for attention from suitors, trying to prove that they’re better than each other and one-up each other. I’m more thankful than ever for sisters who are among my best friends and who help me and build me up, not tear me down.
There are characters I love – and there were some I loved and then am not so sure about (like Matthew, who at first was my favorite). Mrs. Crawley has kept most of her honor, though her conversation sometimes smacked of feminism and socialism. William is probably my favorite, though Daisy has kept my attention throughout the whole season. I liked Sybil until her rebellion was shown, and Edith until she began blackmailing her sister. I like Mr. Bates but don’t agree with all of what he does. Except for Thomas, I think all of the characters have aspects about them I admire, but some are more admirable than others.
It’s a lesson in human nature, I think. In most shows and movies we don’t see much of human weakness in a way that makes us confused about characters (Little Women is the only movie I’ve seen that I can think of off the top of my head that’s realistic in their characters). Yes, the hero has a flaw and in the end he overcomes it. But to have a show full of sinners is rare. I’m not excusing the sin in Downton . There are ways to show sin nature less explicitly. But it’s convicting, too. You can make all sorts of excuses that most people really aren’t that bad, but that’s not true at all. Downton doesn’t lie about the fallenness of men. It’s very honest about it in a way that’s so frank it’s hard to swallow sometimes.
Yet you can say that although we’re all just as depraved as Thomases and Granthams and Pamuks and everyone else in the show, the reason my family isn’t full of fathers abdicating, children lying, and sibling rivalry is the grace of God. It’s nothing in us that keeps us from one-upping and blackmailing each other, rebelling against our parents, or anything else that happens in Downton. The difference is that the Spirit of Christ is in us, so that we walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh.
That’s one main thought I came away from Downton with. The other was from Proverbs, and every episode ended with me thinking this:
“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is
than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” (Proverbs 15:17).
The Granthams have fattened ox – land, money, servants, beauty – yet there is hatred so much it often made me sick. Those belonging to the body of Christ may have a dinner of herbs, may have scars from the battle, may have the same weaknesses and struggles as everyone else – but there is the love of the Father we have received and love the fruit of the Spirit with our small dinner.
That’s better any day.

{P.S. – if someone wants to fill me in on what happens in the second season, please do. I’m not going to watch it, but I’d love to find out what happens}

3 thoughts on “Downton Abbey

  1. Lostariel says:

    I know what you mean. Even the wrong ideology is interesting to me, though, simply because we understand the characters’ motivations for thinking the way they do. It seems realistic. But it IS hard to get into the characters. Fortunately Bates and Anna caught my attention from the start. I wasn’t sure what to think about Matthew, but after he started listening to Robert, I loved them both. William and Daisy were sweet; Thomas and O’Brian were pure evil. I liked Sybil and Branson, although I can’t say I approved, and I hated Mary and Edith with a passion appropriate to their being fictional characters.
    As for season 2… in many ways roles were reversed. I didn’t like Bates as much, besides the fact that they dragged his arc with Anna out for far too long. It seemed as though Matthew and William weren’t around as much, and when they were they sometimes made me sad and sometimes angry. Daisy became endlessly fascinating. I was largely able to ignore Thomas, thankfully, and O’Brian became tolerable. Mary and Edith… grew souls. THEY HAVE SOULS NOW, KYLEIGH. And there are a couple of new characters. Sybil and Branson continued to be interesting and likable even though I still didn’t approve. The main problem with season 2, for me, was more a matter of pacing. Years pass between episodes; it felt more disconnected.
    If you want more specifics on plot points, there’s always the Web.


    • kyleian says:

      I felt like Mary was beginning to have a soul at the end of the last episode, when she started crying.
      Daisy was the first one to catch my attention, her and Matthew (though Matthew wasn’t in right away).
      I’m off to go read more on the plot.
      Thanks for your thoughts on it. 🙂


  2. pen2sword says:

    That is kind of how I felt about Downton… But strangely I couldn’t hate Mary. I felt like Mary was, underneath her cruelties and serious moral flaws, just a really lost person who felt trapped and abandoned by her family. And Edith felt forgotten by everyone, being the plain sister who could never have what she wanted because Mary always stole it one way or another.
    But my favorite character of all was Carson. I loved him! When they got the phone… and when he hugs Mary at the end… And I think he is part of the reason Mary still has goodness underneath, because she has this one person in her life who cares about her like that. Her parents care about her, but they’re more detatched, showing their love for her by trying to get her married and set up for life. But what she really needs is someone to hug her and see her as a person, not a piece in a scheme.
    Well, now you can see why I enjoyed the show: I love analyzing characters. Especially on TV, where the writers can’t do anything inside the characters’ heads– it all has to be through dialogue and actions. I try to learn from that for my own writing.


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