Downton Abbey’s Quiet Revolution

Has the show secretly been rooting for the servants all this time?


To love something fully and unreservedly is to acknowledge its faults and embrace it anyway. To love Downton Abbey, then, is to recognize that it was frequently one of the silliest shows broadcast on television: a lavish post-Edwardian schlockfest unabashedly reliant on some of the most cringeworthy soap-opera tropes for plot momentum. Between the badly burned impostor pretending to be a long-lost relative and heir to the estate, the myriad deaths in grisly car wrecks, and the countless fatal illnesses that turned out to be nothing a multivitamin couldn’t cure, Downton (broadcast on the for-profit ITV network in the U.K.) didn’t resemble its high-minded BBC costume-drama counterparts so much as a time-traveling season of Eastenders. If elevator shafts had been more common in 1920s Yorkshire, you can guarantee someone would have been shoved down one, just as reliably as you could bet Mr. Carson would have furrowed his brow at the resulting inconvenience to his lordship.

But Downton, whose last episode aired in the U.S. on PBS Sunday night, wasn’t just lovely escapism—a confection of nonsense wrapped up in organza and Harris tweed, and made distinctly more credible by the manifold talents of its cast. It was also a love letter to a time of rampant inequality and dubious feudalism. The humans of Downton are positioned in a complex hierarchy not just by virtue of their fortune, but also by their birth, something Mr. Molesley hinted at in one of his history lessons when he asked his students to ponder the divine right of kings. The universe of the show exists on a plane that’s totally at odds with the American Dream: Status isn’t so much about money or power as it is class. For all the education Daisy acquires, or all the customers Mrs. Patmore hosts in her now-slightly-more-salubrious B&B, neither will really be able to escape the system that literally had them both in positions of servitude.

So the question is, why was Downton so popular? How could a show romanticizing the considerable gaps between rich and poor have so many fans in a country founded upon the notion that all men are created equal? What could explain the persistent appeal of a show so absurd in its core that it had (by my shaky count) at least nine separate subplots revolving around blackmail? The superficial answer is that Downton was often simple, satisfying entertainment, with human-interest issues, compelling characters, and serial storytelling that stretched out plot lines long past the point of elasticity. The more complex one is that Downton, initially, offered an attempt to reconcile the haves and the have-nots in an era of ever-increasing inequality. It seemed to want to believe in a world where everyone could buy into a symbiotic system of paternalistic generosity—one where the lord of the manor could prove to be a kind and thoughtful patron of the men and women who in turn catered to his every need.

What made the show so interesting in its sixth and final season, though, is that the cracks in this idealized détente started to show. Its biggest defender was the butler, Mr. Carson—a benevolent dictator who ran the downstairs section of the house with all the steeliness his beetling eyebrows could convey. More loyal than the family labradors, and more ardent a believer in the status quo than even Lord Grantham himself, Carson suddenly evolved into a hectoring, unkind grump who abused his new wife’s housekeeping skills as furiously as he fawned over the sacrosanct rights of his lordship to trim budgets by laying off a few servants rather than spending moderately less on claret.

Carson’s intractable belief in the upstairs/downstairs divide was revealed to be all the more ridiculous by the moments in which the family’s unchecked privilege came to the fore. Cora, long the gentle American benefactor of the family’s servants, cruelly scolded Mrs. Hughes when she found her trying on one of her coats for her upcoming wedding. Lord Grantham stupidly offered Carson the use of the servant’s hall for the same event. When the interminable debate over the village hospital’s prospective merger first came to a fore, Mrs. Hughes commented that it was all very well the family weighing in, but they ran off to London at the first sign of a cold. More than ever, the show seemed to be picking a side in the age-old conflict between master and servant.

At the same time, the lifestyle of the landed gentry was looking more and more anachronistic. When Thomas Barrow arrived for his new job as a butler-footman hybrid to an elderly couple and was surprised to learn that the household’s staff consisted of only three people, his elderly boss replied, “This isn’t 1850, you know.” But at dinner later, as the gentleman sat in stony silence across from his wife, who was wearing her diamonds to dinner like a 1920s Miss Havisham, the scene indeed looked like a morbid historical museum exhibit. For five seasons, Downton’s characters had lamented the vague onset of “change”; in the sixth, it seemed like it couldn’t come fast enough.

The show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, bears all the hallmarks of aristocratic advantage: He was born in Cairo to a British diplomat, received a private-school education at Ampleforth, and was given a lifetime peerage by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010. But Fellowes also spent a decade in Los Angeles pursuing an acting career, during which time he failed to win a starring role on Fantasy Island but presumably learned his way around the very different hierarchy of the entertainment industry. His early failures sparked an innate belief that hard work, not luck, drives success. “It’s part of the key to his current success, his work ethic,” the producer Bob Balaban told The New York Times in 2011. “He doesn’t procrastinate. He doesn’t hide. He works like a demon.”

Perhaps it’s overly charitable to interpret that Downton has secretly been rooting for the working classes all this time. After all, few shows have so romanticized the relationships between the upper and working classes to such an unlikely degree (for a more honest view of service in the early-20th century, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs is a very good read). But the finale, in which Anna gave birth in Lady Mary’s bedroom, Spratt and Lady Edith discussed a magazine column as equals, and Tom and Henry set up shop as “a couple of used-car salesmen” as Lady Mary put it, seemed to hint at a more equitable future for all the show’s various heroes and villains. This might not explain the show’s extraordinary popularity, but it makes you wonder whether, all this time, Downton secretly had a more complex worldview than viewers appreciated.