Tonight, my wife and I finished the series finale of the recent pop culture phenomenon, Downton Abbey. If you’ve not heard of the program, it is a A PBS masterpiece original that follows one of the great houses of England at the turn of the 19th century into the industrial revolution, through the pangs of The First Great War, and the changing times of the 1920’s that followed.
The show centers on the residents of the great house known as Downton Abbey, both the lords and ladies as well as the servants and several of the villagers with whom the household interacts. The show is a program for adults, dealing with social drama, classism, and a variety of other topics that are relevant in our current age.
Perhaps that’s why Downton did so well during its initial run—-not the fact that it is shot beautifully and written wonderfully (though it is both of those things) —- but rather that it speaks to dilemmas that are timeless and relatable to the human condition just as much in 21st century America as they were 100 years ago across the pond in England.
A more skilled writer than I could easily transpose many of the situations that occur over the show’s six seasons to another time in another place that would still resonate with modern audiences.
For me the show resulted in three major reflections, and I thought worth sharing.
The first is that I was once again reminded of the joy that I experience when sharing a show with my wife, Jamie. Throughout our marriage we have watched a few shows from start to finish, and it seems that each time we do the program is enhanced by our mutual appreciation. Downton was an especially enjoyable experience because after most evenings of watching one or two episodes, we would take time to debrief together and discuss how we felt about certain scenarios and choices that the characters made. Like the program itself, these conversations were a delight, and I will always attach the memory of this experience to the show itself and likely cherish it all the more because of them.
Second, the show reminded me that I am a classist, and my classism is a prejudice against which I must fight. I will admit it: as a lower middle-class millennial, I am full of envy and covetousness. I wish I were not, and I try to cultivate a spirit of contentment, gratitude, and satsfaction. Everyone who knows me will attest to that I often fail in this, but we are all works in progress. Needless to say, the show reminded me that those who have wealth and recognize the responsibility that comes with it can be heroes in many ways, oftentimes needing to retain their wealth and status in order to accomplish greater ends. This idea in conjunction with my Christian faith provides a fascinating duality. The show has given me much food for thought regarding my own prejudices, and I would like to think that I am better for having watched it.
Third, I am reminded again that art can explore deep moral failures, yet still be written, shot, and edited with a certain level of class and restraint. With the exception of one—-possibly three—-moments over the course of the entire show, at no point did I feel that lines of good taste or proprietary were overstepped. With these very few exceptions, Downton Abbey deals with treason, treachery, adultery, rape and a variety of other horrors without exploiting its actors or audience. I firmly believe that just because something occurs in a story does not mean it needs to be depicted onscreen nor described with gruesome and graphic detail. Perhaps the most skilled craftsmen is the one who refuses to show great sins; but rather, spends valuable screentime and energy on exploring the fallout of those actions and the pain that they produce.
The ending of a show or a series is always bittersweet. If the show concludes well, one is left with a feeling of closure and gratitude for all that came before and a sense of having experienced something valuable. Downton Abbey certainly qualifies. At its best, the show is beautifully shot, eloquently written, witty, transportive, and moving. And I felt it was at its best at various points throughout the series’ run. I am very glad for having watched it, and I’m sure I will revisit it in the years to come.
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