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.