I Like to Watch
Saying so long to Downton Abbey
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Anglophile audience must be in want of something to bitch about, from Reign to Downton Abbey, which both end this year. In the latter case, perhaps awful Edith's vague romance with a mysterious cousin was one possible reason to exit Downton Abbey, which comes to its American close on Sunday, March 6, 8pm.
For many, I suspect, it was the Portlandia-esque death of Matthew Crawley that did it. For those who came to Downton solely for the campy Dowager Countess, something shiny could have come along at any time. For those whose point of entry was Anna and Mr. Bates, well, for them we weep. But I'm not interested in why people left, I'm interested in why we stayed. Why Downton was ever a hit in the first place.
If you stuck around long enough to see Lady Mary show Edith almost five seconds of kindness, joke multiple times about "poor Mr. Pamuk" dying atop her, buy a diaphragm, slop a pig, and burn through a fairly impressive number of awesome guys on her slow road out of depression, you might get where she was headed. Or watching Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore lose their virginity, or the unbearable Daisy build herself a family at last, or find oneself in tears – believe it – as bloody-minded misanthrope Thomas Barrow is finally forced into humanity.
Just maybe it's watching the slow dismantling of the monarchic feudal system, and the even slower creation of the capitalist feudal system.
Do the British understand what Americans love in them? Is the Dowager Countess American fan-service, answering to our fetishistic preoccupation with being yelled at by Anne "Weakest Link" Robinson, Simon Cowell, and best of all, Gordon Ramsay? Is there any way for an American to truly understand that show through a British lens?
Tolkien's express desire was to create an authentic UK mythology: to reach back past regional fights and ethnic tropes and self-serving revisions, past Anglo-Saxon language itself, and give Britain a dream, to calm her night terrors through the wars. Maybe that's what Downton Abbey did for us. And if so, maybe that dream's ending right on time.
My suspicion is that, as much as we talk – especially now – about American revisionism, that lost national "greatness" none but the most insane can describe, we may have inherited the tendency from our forebears: The famously inauthentic Ploughman's Lunch was invented by the UK Cheese Bureau in the Fifties, just as Coca-Cola was giving birth to Santa Claus.
The willingness to overlook Barrow's sexuality upstairs (particularly from the Earl, who all but scoffs, "Who hasn't? I went to Eton.") could be a best-case scenario or a more progressive past seen in hindsight, just as Rose's flirtation with a black jazz man could either be wishful thinking, the UK telling tales about itself, or legitimately another cultural and period difference. But whether the lens is rosy-colored or we bring American baggage along, it's comforting to think about, in the end: Just because they didn't use the F word in black-and-white movies doesn't mean they didn't use it. Just because they didn't talk about it doesn't mean they didn't do it.
I think a lot of our weirdness today, in 2016, comes from conflating our vastly less mediated reality with media from even just 90 years ago – where Downton Abbey ends – as though they're equally representative of reality. Imagine: no poor Mr. Pamuk, no sad trolling Thomas, no secret babies – not even chaste chauffeur-canoodling. If you honestly believed Jane Austen was writing down every lustful thought she had, like some kind of Brontë, 2016 would certainly start to look fairly gross, wouldn't it?
That's the exact kind of simple, backward fantasy world fundamentalism needs to believe in: Women knew their place, guys were on top, it was fine, everybody was happy, and if we could just get back there, things would be cool again. All terrorism and all fundamentalism eventually trace back to that: a fairy-tale time when everything was how I want it, before everything got so messed up.
Downton Abbey does not sell us that story. Maybe it is because Britain is constantly revising its autobiography, and Earth is swiftly approaching full-time theme park status, and soon we'll all be exporting kitsch of ourselves, once the World is sufficiently Small After All.
Or maybe – and this is what I believe – it's simply realistic. Maybe people have always been exactly as complicated and as varied – as generous and desirous, and funny and petty, and wonderful – as they are right now. Maybe it's time we let ourselves off the hook.