“If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would. But I can’t, Carson. Nor you nor I can hold back time.” -Robert Crawley, Earl Of Grantham
Give or taken an old Obama campaign speech, there’s no better place to hear a discussion about societal change than on Downton Abbey. Both its upstairs and downstairs characters love nothing more than to mull over the various upheavals that affect their Edwardian (and later post-World War I) world. Tonight’s series finale is set at the end of 1925 while its pilot took place way back in 1912. Downton managed to cram 14 years worth of storytelling into a mere six seasons and there’s hardly been an episode in which a character hasn’t been confronted by a newfangled piece of technology they just will not abide—be it electric lights, the telephone, the refrigerator, electric egg beaters, a toaster, the radio, or a gramophone.
But in the big, concrete ways that define a TV show, Downton Abbey never really changed. Its main characters theoretically aged 14 years over the course of the series, but for the most part they’re still the same people they were in the first season. Dressed up like a prestige drama, Downton Abbey has the heart of a procedural, one in which Edwardian society provides as firm a structure as any hospital, police station, or detective agency. As time rushes forward, its class-conscious characters keep grappling with the same sets of problems over and over again.
I mean that partially as a compliment and partially as a critique. The show is clearly deliberately wrestling with the limitations of the class structure that so intensely defined Britain until the mid-20th century (and beyond, really). The entire point of the system was that it kept everyone locked in neatly defined roles that were nearly impossible to leave. Servants might climb the ranks from footman to butler, but they weren’t supposed to dream of rising above their station. Aristocratic families, meanwhile, married among themselves to keep money, titles, and prestige secure.
Yet at the same time there’s something lazy about Downton Abbey’s repetition. Take for instance the relationship between Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle), who were paired together early in the show’s first season. From then on their storylines dealt almost exclusively with legal drama, to the point where they’ve both spent time in jail for two separate crimes they were falsely accused of. Other shows might have told a variety of stories about the married life of two servants, but it’s not until the final season that the Bateses finally moved on to an arc free of legal turmoil.
I don’t want to imply there’s been no character development over the course of Downton’s run—Edith’s growing independence, Anna’s rape survivor storyline, and Lady Rose’s maturation have all been incredibly engaging. It’s just that these respective developments happened along a preordained track that kept each character tied to a specific theme: unlucky Edith grapples with hope and misfortune, pragmatic Anna frets about her husband and the justice system, and exuberant Rose thwarts societal conventions—initially as a flapper and later in an interfaith marriage.
That’s pretty much true for all the characters. Thomas has spent six seasons scheming for a way out of the monotony of service; Lady Mary tries to find a suitable match worthy of her high breeding; Carson aggressively clings to his Victorian values; Robert manages the Downton estate; Cora and Mrs. Hughes run the Downton household; Isobel crusades for the downtrodden while butting heads with Violet; and Daisy attempts to better herself (in ways that don’t require her to leave the show, of course).
To its credit, the show did send a few supporting characters away to get jobs as secretaries, cooks, or doomed soldiers. But compared to the massive changes on historically minded series like Vikings, Game Of Thrones, Deadwood, and Mad Men, Downton Abbey is positively static. The extent to which that can be read as historical commentary vs. artistic inertia comes down to how much credit you want to give creator Julian Fellowes.
For instance, look at the way the show dealt with World War I, arguably the most defining shift of the 20th century in British society (in America meanwhile, it’s World War II). Adopting a darker tone and actually depicting the horror of battle, Downton highlighted societal change through scenes of a future earl and a footman drinking tea as equals in the trenches or Lady Sybil realizing just how many of her male peers had died in battle. In the first few war-set episodes of season two, there was a definite shift in Downton’s storytelling.
Yet as quickly as it could, Downton returned to its soapy roots—full of romantic rivals, deathbed confessions, amnesiac heirs, and wheelchair-bound protagonists suddenly regaining the ability to walk. It’s true that British society tried and ultimately failed to return to its old ways after the war, but it never felt like Downton was purposefully addressing that regression so much as instinctively reverting back to what it knew how to do best.
Interestingly, the one character who managed to escape his preordained track (both within the show and in a more meta sense) did so in a plot that didn’t particularly involve the war at all. Initially defined by his cross-class romance with highborn Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), Irish socialist chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) was left untethered when Findlay decided to leave the show and Sybil was killed off in childbirth. When Mary was later widowed by Dan Stevens’ similar decision to leave the show, Downton quickly thrust her back into the romantic entanglements that had defined her early run on the show—Mary coolly flirting with a suitor has been perhaps the defining image of Downton for six years. But since Sybil’s death, Branson’s storylines have downplayed romance and class warfare to focus on his slow adjustment to upper-class life. I have no idea what Fellowes had planned for Branson before Findlay’s departure, but he’s the rare character who has truly transformed in attitude and outlook over the show’s fictional 14-year timeline.
Yet Branson’s development from Crawley-hater to Crawley-lover also reveals Downton’s biggest creative weakness: Its fundamental niceness. One crucial thing to recognize about the British class system is that it wasn’t a good system: It kept the lower classes down, women rigidly confined, and minority groups far from mainstream society. Yet Downton has no real interest in seriously critiquing the kind of people who benefited from and perpetuated this system.
The Crawleys are ridiculously magnanimous to their servants, helping them through crisis after crisis and even going so far as travel downstairs to apologize when they’ve been overly curt. While the show nods at the regressive politics of the era, it never depicts the Crawleys as irredeemably racist, sexist, or homophobic. Sure, Mary ensures that Rose splits up with her black jazz singer beau, but she does so while telling him that she wishes they lived in a better world where she didn’t have to. Sexist remarks are frequently tossed about, but they’re usually met with a progressive counterpoint. When a rape does occur, it’s committed by a servant, not the kind of aristocratic man who would be virtually immune to repercussions in his society.
Premarital sex, homosexuality, and illegitimate children have all been forgiven by the Crawleys (the better to keep the main cast together, of course). While I’m sure real-life historical families did forgive social transgressions, it’s hard to imagine any of them were as all-around benevolent as the Crawleys. Hell, in the pilot, Lord Grantham is the one reminding his butler that the lower classes suffered more during the sinking of the Titanic.
While that fundamental niceness makes Downton incredibly enjoyable to watch, it also makes it harder for the show to depict character evolution. How can you tell stories about people changing with the times when you won’t admit they needed to change in the first place? A challenging show would force its audience to confront the discomfort of the prejudiced past. With one or two exceptions, Downton was never that kind of show.
And that’s the key to its success: Provide enough historical commentary to stimulate its audience’s intellect while at the same time offering them the comfort food of a familiar, pleasant world. By now the beats of a Downton Abbey episode are as familiar as the beats on Law & Order: Robert will complain about a change before accepting it, Mrs. Patmore will bark orders while whipping up a ridiculously elaborate feast, Molesley will provide comic relief with an edge of pathos, and the Dowager Countess will deliver a sick burn disguised as an offhanded remark. Throw in a village fair, a hunting trip, or a cricket game plus some stylish period costumes and you’ve got a classic example of a Downton procedural. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that Downton Abbey is even ending at all.