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The End of Downton? Nostalgia for the Gilded Age

Downton Abbey is back on the airwaves after entirely too long away, just in time for a big round of Emmy nominations (and, sadly, relatively few wins). The ITV drama won’t be hitting US shores until January, when it will be back on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, but in the UK, viewers are already raving about series three, which takes us to the Roaring Twenties, where there are some serious roadbumps ahead for our manor family amidst the drop waists and cloches.

‘tis the season for weddings, but it’s also one of escalating class tensions, and the series seems to be taking a both interesting and troubling tack as it continues to lionise the Granthams to the exclusion of their staff. As Lord Grantham is faced with ruin because of poor financial decisions (a pre-taste of the global depression slated to arrive at the end of the 20s), he wrestles with his consciousness and obligation in a way that screams ‘wealthy man’s burden.’ As a major sympathetic character, he’s a man we are supposed to feel compassion and worry for, and we’re also supposed to see him as noble, making his plight all the worse.

Clearly unwilling to give up Downton to raise enough funds to support his family, he claims that he needs to keep the estate intact to support the house, which in turn supports the estate. It smacks of paternalism; the Lord of the Manor can’t conceive of a world where the massive house staff might be independent, and believes he’s doing some great social service by creating an intergenerational system of locked social classes. Without Downton, he claims, everything falls apart.

The served live in the manor, and the servers are scattered around the estate, preparing to meet their needs from game for the table to lady’s maids for the women. Watching Lady Mary go to her wedding, we were treated to quite a display of how powerful the house is, as the whole town turned out to wave and celebrate, like serfs applauding their lord. The servants are clearly terrified of what might be next for Downton, clinging to the old ways with the exception of a handful; Tom, for example, has struck out on his own with his marriage to Sybil. They’re frowned upon by the rest for daring to go against tradition even though they are the ones carving out new lives and chances for themselves.

Lord Grantham doesn’t want to admit that his resistance to giving up the manor has much more to do with pride and a desire to maintain his social position than concern for his staff. The Granthams are determined to retain their power, and he in particular can’t bear the humiliation of having to publicly admit that he ludicrously sunk all his investments in one basket and obliterated his wife’s fortune in the process. While they may be saved by Matthew’s unexpected inheritance, it’s intriguing to see how Mary, born to wealth and privilege, feels entitled to it, while Matthew, of more humble origins, feels more conflicted about the matter.

Throughout the series, we’ve been treated to the idea of Grantham as ‘good employer,’ but that hasn’t been closely defined, and how benign is he, really? He provides food and housing for all his servants, but that’s typical of the time and the way great manors were run. Their pay is quite low, and they rarely have days off or time to themselves. They’re also expected to maintain high standards of servility as they wait on the lords and ladies of the household as well as their visitors; they are firmly reminded at all times of their place belowstairs and the need to be invisible.

How great is this, truly? Does Grantham provide his employees with the means for independence, education, and opportunities to choose their own lives? Of course not, because this wouldn’t serve his ends. While he fosters loyalty by not being outright abusive to his servants, at least on camera, it’s unclear how he’s benefiting their lives, and it’s curious to see this class framing idolised in Downton Abbey; is this truly a show about challenging class standards, or is it simply nostalgia for the old ways?

Is it possible to confront the history of great manors and the people who lived in them while being critical of class issues over the course of multiple seasons? That’s what I’m curious to see unfolding over the course of season three, where we see Downton under threat and our characters up against the wall. If the show is truly a class commentary, the dissolution of Downton and destruction of that way of life seems like a logical conclusion for the series, but that’s not necessarily the direction Downton will take.

The Granthams are the heroes of the hour here, and to bring them low could be creatively dangerous. Viewers definitely don’t seem ready for the show to end, and they like the glamour and glitz of the big house, not the reality of the interconnecting systems of oppression that keep it running. It is a show that may have become trapped by its own success, because few viewers want to see Fellowes pull the plug on the golden age.

As we confront the collapse of our own golden age, it’s telling that we should be rooting so hard for wealthy, powerful people to retain their positions even as the 1% worldwide rises above us while we shoulder the burden of global financial chaos. It seems deeply paradoxical to be celebrating wealth and crossing our fingers for the survival of ancestral power while criticising our own Granthams and calling for their fall.