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Looking Back on Downton Abbey

Five years ago, audiences were introduced to the sprawling country estate of Downton Abbey at the turning point of a century of turmoil: The RMS Titanic had just sunk, taking the heirs of the estate with it, and setting off a chain of events that would put the inheritance into the hands of a ‘common’ solicitor. This week, the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey brought us 13 years forward, to 1925 and a radically different society. Over the years, we’ve watched the Julian Fellowes production become the juggernaut that launched a thousand competing costume dramas, transforming itself into a cultural institution in a society that bizarrely attempts to defy everything the show stands for, in many ways. Even as we claim to be breaking down class barriers — while they’re patently still up all around us — we’re embracing a show that mourns the dissolution of a particular form of the British upper class.

Downton revolves around the lives of upstairs and downstairs alike, including the aristocratic Granthams and their hide-bound traditions caught up in centuries of British class war and the army of servants that makes their luxurious lives possible. The giant estate home is a nightmare to run, but it’s not one the Granthams ever see — with acres of tenant farms, chamber maids flitting through the background, and valets to dress them, the family symbolises the pinnacle of an era that many people like to romanticise, though it made for hard going for the lower classes. The people who made such homes work were invisibilised, and the Granthams here are depicted as benevolent overseers offering jobs and purpose to their staff, instead of members of the upper class cementing their role of power and control.

Following the trajectory of the show traces not just the cultural history depicted on screen, but also Downton’s own contributions to pop culture, because the characters have traveled a considerable distance since 1912, and so have viewers. Our relationship to costume dramas is shifting, just like the estate was forced to do with the times, and it seems doubtful that a show like Downton could explode onto the television landscape with such fanfare now, though it was a radical success at its outset and inspired a slew of copycats. (Reign is my personal current favourite, simply because it’s so delightfully trashy.)

Over the years, we have watched the characters on both ends of the stairs forced to cope with social change, including increased class integration, the aftermath of a brutal war, and shifts in attitudes about class and culture. The season opener struck to the heart of this with repeated commentary on downsizing the estate, not because of financial straits but because such lavish homes aren’t fashionable anymore. Attending a fire sale at another estate, the Granthams are told that in twenty years, such homes will exist only in the form of institutions — a prediction that’s not off-base, considering how many grand homes of the era are now hotels, institutions, and historic sites today. The very estate where Downton films, Highclere Castle, is operated as a public attraction, though it is also used as a private home during the off season.

While Lord Grantham notes that the royal family will continue to operate as it always has, living in some sort of bizarre dreamworld beyond public kenning, even he admits that the times are changing, and homes like his are impractical but a step out of style. We’ve watched this evolution in class occur firsthand from the very first season, when housemaids sought jobs in the outside world and chauffeurs fell in love with ladies of the household. The escalating snowball of change has been building ever since, illustrated by the considerable freedoms made available to women, changes in personal attitudes held by the characters, and shifts in public policy and politics. Lord Grantham says in this season that he might consider freezing time, but he can’t, and it’s a sentiment that many in his generation clearly share.

In the five years since Downton started airing in the UK and the US, the social landscape has changed radically. Years of austerity and repression have made members of the working class much angrier, and much less tolerant of economic imbalances. Shows like Downton, which glorify eras of radical class stratification, feel as out of step as the estate itself does in the context of the programme. Costume dramas have always had, and will always have, a place in pop culture as people adore a shiny version of history, fancy frocks, and soap opera storylines with people talking in funny accents, and such dramas will inevitably focus on the wealthy and powerful, but they come with bitter notes. While Masterpiece continues to produce and/or import such programming, particularly adaptations of literature, it doesn’t sweep across the world as a pop culture sensation in the same way.

Downton spawned a slew of tie-in merchandise, themed parties, costumery, and all manner of worship from viewers who became heavily invested in the programme. Season premieres in particular were hotly anticipated (and the delay between UK/US airings was a source of much irritation), and the Monday morning after every airing was filled with discussion about the previous night’s episode. Downton became a pop culture sensation, and in recent years, that’s dwindled, even with storylines like a growing awareness of class, with critics growing particularly frustrated with the show’s treatment of queer characters and rape survivors, illustrating a sense of disillusionment with Fellowes and his work. (Gosford Park remains my favourite Fellowes drama, as it managed to encapsulate the same meticulous historical exploration found in Downton into a single two hour film, and it included a classic country house mystery to drive the plot. Notably, it was set in 1932, well into the fall of the country house as an institution.)

As often happens with popular television, Downton Abbey was sadly dragged on a little too long past its sell-by date, and this season, which Masterpiece is pitching as a triumphant exit, may be more like a quiet slip through the back door. Just as the abbey has fallen on hard times because it cannot keep pace with society, the show itself feels rather antiquated, speaking as it does to a much more naïve era.