Series I finale aired Sunday, January 30, on PBS. All episodes streaming at pbs.org through February 22.
I opened my first draft of this post by describing the British TV series Downton Abbey—which I enjoyed tremendously—as a soap opera for Anglophiles. The phrase was meant to be self-deprecating (and not entirely serious), but the more I thought about it, the less I liked that glib remark. The show has its share of melodrama, certainly, but the term soap opera didn’t sit right with me.
The distinction, I believe, is this: soap operas demand not only heightened, exaggerated plot turns but also heightened, exaggerated emotions and characters. And for the most part, that description doesn’t apply to the saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. One particularly jaw-dropping plot twist might be bizarre and lurid (and damn, is it ever), but the fallout from it feels very human, very true, and that’s typical of Downton Abbey. Creator Julian Fellowes isn’t above indulging in a few melodramatic flourishes, but the underlying storytelling always feels grounded in characters too substantial and sincere to allow the show to be dismissed as soap opera.
Unlike much of what turns up on Masterpiece Classic, which aired the show in the United States, Downton Abbey isn’t based on a novel or any other preexisting material—though it does follow in the tradition of such dramas as Upstairs, Downstairs and Fellowes’s own Gosford Park in lavishly depicting the interknit lives of English aristocrats and servants at a single palatial estate. Here the aristocrats in questions are the Crawleys. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), Earl of Grantham, has three daughters—glamorous, sardonic Mary (Michelle Dockery); overshadowed, resentful Edith (Laura Carmichael); and spirited, open-hearted Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay)—but no son to inherit his estate, Downton Abbey. The property—along with the fortune his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), brought to their marriage—is entailed to a distant cousin, middle-class solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), but Cora and her mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), vow to break the entail so that Mary can inherit. As much as the question of inheritance hangs over the Crawleys, though, life still continues on at Downton Abbey, with rivalries and romances, triumphs and disappointments, challenges and compromises playing out among the family and their servants, notably the ambitious first footman, Thomas (Rob James-Collier); Lord Grantham’s honorable but secretive valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle); Lady Grantham’s poisonously bitter lady’s maid, Mrs. O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran); and the silly, skittish scullery maid, Daisy (Sophie McShera), who sees more than she should.
That doesn’t even cover the full main cast, which comprises eighteen people total—the sheer number of which hints at the depth of the show, the varied texture of its many interwoven subplots. Fellowes creates a whole world for his characters, with extensive back stories and a nuanced understanding of the setting. That setting is, of course, half the fun. Bookended by the sinking of the Titanic and Britain’s entry into the Great War, the first season covers a little more than two years in the early nineteen-teens, a period that is easily comprehensible (they have electricity, cars, telephones, and other technology we still use today) yet still marked by the sort of elegant customs and formality that contemporary people, lacking those, can’t seem to help fetishizing.
The thing I’ve always loved most about this kind of setting I learned from Jane Austen: When you have to be superficially polite and demure, you must find clever, underhanded ways to be flirtatious, rude, or aggressive. (Seriously, if all you get from Emma is a pretty little fairy tale, you are missing all the fun.) The strictures of the society demand irony, subtext, and wit, and Fellowes has a great ear for it. Dialogue in Downton Abbey is dryly hilarious and often wickedly pointed—in the compellingly rocky relationship between Matthew and Mary, in the increasingly ugly rivalry between Mary and Edith, in Thomas’s contempt for his fellow servants, and, best of all, in the Dowager Countess’s suspicion of anyone and anything that would shake her comfortable world. (No one delivers this kind of dialogue quite like Maggie Smith.)
In addition to the humor, Fellowes finds genuinely affecting moments in even the minor narratives. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), shines in a lovely, quiet story line in which a suitor from her younger days compels the now middle-aged woman to reexamine the choices she has made over the years. An early confrontation between Thomas and a former acquaintance establishes not only his ruthlessness but also, with some sympathy, a reason for his cynicism. Protofeminist Sybil Crawley throws herself into helping one of the housemaids find work as a secretary and attending tense political rallies and wearing harem pants to dinner—subverting stereotypes of grim activists by portraying instead a bright young woman optimistic about the world and eager to play a part in it. None of these subplots play out on center stage, but the show never short-changes them either, and it’s all the richer for it.
As for the main plot, the relationship between Matthew and Mary—both of whom pridefully nurse their prejudices—is predicable but delicately done, especially in the final, poignant episode when they both act the only way they know how, to their own pain and detriment. Mary, in particular, can be heartbreakingly self-destructive and cruel, and Dockery vividly weaves that ugliness into Mary’s better qualities, her idealism and intelligence, creating a fascinatingly complex character. Stevens matches her well (though Matthew is the more likeable of the two), and the romance between their characters feels earned rather than rote—and too authentic to be melodramatic. Similarly, Bonneville finds the humanity and warmth in a man who sets his principles above his daughters, and he and McGovern create a beautiful portrait of a marriage that has evolved over the years, its loveless beginning somehow blossoming into real affection and respect.
If the show has a major fault, it’s in Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien, who aren’t granted similar shadings. Too often, the pair seem sadistic, even fiendish in their dedication to inflicting pain and causing trouble in ways that aren’t to their advantage—that could, in fact, easily backfire upon them. Pitilessly mercenary behavior makes sense; wantonly vicious behavior from such self-interested characters does not. In those moments, Thomas and O’Brien are less people than they are plot catalysts, which diminishes both them as characters and the show as drama.
And that’s a shame because Thomas and O’Brien are the only two servants who refuse to sentimentalize their positions in the Crawley household. Thomas disavows any loyalty toward his employers; their standing, their honor, doesn’t matter to him one way or the other. He will always do what’s best for him. As for O’Brien, she bristles when Lady Grantham, in dressing her down, refers to the lady’s maid as a friend. O’Brien knows that she’s not a friend; she’s a servant, paid to do as she’s told, nothing more, nothing less. And the thing is, those perspectives are valid. They’re modern. The Crawleys’ servants devote their lives to their masters—they have no families of their own—with no job security, no safety net, no recourse if they’re wronged. Yet only Thomas and O’Brien seem to fully realize—and resent—how vulnerable that makes them. It’s more than a little unfair to house such legitimate frustrations and anger in such ugly, occasionally irrational characters.
I hope to see more nuance there in the show’s second season, now entering production. At this point, Thomas and O’Brien seem irredeemable, but the Crawleys’ socialist chauffeur, for example, could provide fertile ground for interrogating the injustices of the class system in a sympathetic character. Indeed, playing out as it will against the First World War, the second season looks promising on any number of fronts. I can hardly wait to see what’s in store for the Crawleys and the others at Downton Abbey. And with Fellowes providing material for such a talented cast, it’s sure to be the best kind of melodrama: the sort that transcends melodrama altogether.