Monday, February 3, 2014

Up and Down at Downton

Mercifully, no one has died or been killed yet in Season 4 of Downton Abbey.  Even so the tension is rising. Will Mary find a new man? Will Tom Branson throw in the towel and emigrate to America? Will Mr. Bates do something stupid to avenge Anna and thus ruin the one really good thing he has in his life? How will Isobel Crawley renegotiate her place In the family and in the larger world of Downton society? What mischief are Barrow and Baxter really up to? Will Mosely make it in his reduced status? And then the really big questions after the latest episode: What is Edith going to do? And how far is Rose ready to go?

Rose’s involvement with the Black bandleader, Mr. Ross, clearly crosses more than one boundary.  To an American audience, because of our troubled racial history, it is the racial dynamic that we notice right away. But, while the racial angle undoubtedly adds further fuel to an already highly combustible situation, this is Britain not America, and I think we are meant to see this relationship (and all relationships at Downton) primarily through the prism of class.

Dramatically, last night’s episode made that point loud and clear, I think, through the way it portrayed both Violet’s and Isobel’s dealings with Peg the gardener, through the sad but comic trials of the downward-mobile Mr. Mosely (almost reduced to becoming Joseph, but spared that assault to his dignity by the superlative sensitivity of the Dowager Countess and Lord Robert), and finally by the snobbery experienced by Mr. and Mrs. Bates at a local restaurant (humorously turned to their advantage by Lady Grantham’s intervention on their behalf). All these little vignettes highlight how social class – a person’s defined social position – dominates everything in that world and is the primary lens through which all experience is interpreted.

We Americans have a history of trying to not quite acknowledge class. And, of course, class in America was never quite the pervasively decisive factor it was in the 1920s Britain portrayed at Downton. Yet, as Lady Edith’s aunt presciently warned her at the end of the previous episode, some things change but some other important things stay the same. Downton is a case study not just in whether Mary and Tom can make the estate a going concern in the modern economy but in how real people completely caught up in the consciousness of class can negotiate the complex challenges of a modern world which is gradually eroding the certainties, securities, and comforts of a world in which the social boundaries and the behaviors that accompany those boundaries are all always completely clear to everyone.

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