On the Politics of Downton Abbey

First, allow me to state that I will include no spoilers, and for my American audience who hasn’t surreptitiously watched season three (though DM me @destroy_time if you want links), I will be utterly vague and generalizing in plot points.

Downton Abbey is the most progressive show currently on air. Yes, Homeland deals with weighty issues of national security and the “war” on terror, but Downton outreaches it in so many ways. So, you may ask? How can a period piece set in the 1910s and 1920s involving the English aristocracy earn the title of “Progressive Show Currently Airing?” Well let me try to explain.

There’s almost too much to explain. Let’s start with women’s rights. Take Edith, for example — a much-maligned character for the first two seasons who comes into her own late in season two and fully in season three. Politically, the show displays the evolution of women’s rights into full equality in a brilliant — if understated — fashion. This is also brilliantly true in the interactions between Mrs. Crawley and the former prostitute Ethel (brilliantly played by Amy Nuttall, who also was phenomenal as Ygritte in Game Of Thrones, in a complete 180 from her Downton character). A major statement on women’s rights, as Mrs. Crawley doesn’t judge Ms. Parks, but seeks to do what she can to — for lack of a better word — rehabilitate her into “respectable” society and also eventually also reunite her with her infant son. Beyond that, you see Mrs. Patmore and Lady Edith – and eventually even Cora and the Dowager — taking strong stands on women’s rights and portraying strong women who stand up for their rights in an era (at least in seasons one and two) when they couldn’t even vote in the United States.

Then there’s the evolution of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) from a lowly chauffeur to the loving husband of Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who herself — by taking an active and vocal role in the first World War as a nurse — championed women’s equality. No spoilers here, I swear, in case you haven’t watched season three yet. But Mr. Branson’s change from the scoundrel of the family to a loved member of it is one of the hallmarks of progressive politics — that all men and women are fundamentally equal and that one’s background or profession is no impediment to full equality. Tom’s full embrace of Irish equality is even embraced by Matthew lovingly in the pre-Christmas episode season three finale (minor spoiler). Moreover, the show subtly through Tom raises issues of income inequality and by far class prejudice. It’s telling that Tom becomes accepted by the nobility despite his background and politics.

Even Mr. Bates (John Coyle) brings to the table issues of prison reform and — in more cases than one — folk of a possibly shady background seeking to leave their past behind and embark on a new life. With Bates, the show has left that an open question so far, but in the real world, it is a relevant and poignant question, and one that in the penal colony of the US, is far too often unasked and unanswered by our political class and many of our citizens.  

Of course, as a gay man, this brings me all to Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who, while being mostly reviled in seasons one and two, came into his own in season three. For me, he’s always been a sympathetic character, even if as one in terms of the show, he’s often disliked. As an LGBT man in an era and environment where being yourself was strictly taboo, he’s exuded perfectly the aura of someone who employs any variety of defense mechanisms to protect himself from openly being who he is. His character so poignantly exudes the need for LGBT equality in several telling moments, the Turkish ambassador in season one and multiple times in season three. He’s become the perfect example of an LGBT person in a time and a society that doesn’t accept full equality, and the progressive aspect comes in from Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)’s eventual acceptance of his sexuality. For me, the moments with Thomas were some of the most emotionally heavy scenes I’ve witnessed, and a powerful statement for LGBT equality.

In short, Downton Abbey — despite being based in a manor house in the first decades of the twentieth century — embraces the concept of basic human equality and dignity, rejects the idea that titles elevate one above others, stands for women’s and LGBT full equality, and rejects the concept that money buys elevated status. These are progressive ideals fully, and no show I’m aware of does a better job of displaying those ideals in a tear-jerking yet cogent manner.

~ by Benji on December 2, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: