Americans should be ashamed of how aflutter they get about Downton Abbey—it’s unpatriotic. I seem to remember we fought a revolution so as not to put up with this nonsense, where notions of station are so unforgiving that upper and lower echelons are practically different species. The maids and footmen who tend to Lord and Lady Grantham feel privileged to breathe the same air let alone feed and dress them, and American audiences can’t bloody well get enough of it all; critics yammer about how bloody well splendid it looks, and TV commentators swoon over the bloody fashion. “The clothes!” NBC News host Andrea Mitchell kept exclaiming during one of the earlier seasons that ran concurrent with our last presidential campaign, when she wasn’t filing reports on Ann Romney’s dancing horse. Because I’m apparently the last real American in whatever America isn’t Fox News Nation, I resisted Downton Abbey—until last summer when, laid low for a couple of days by July 4 festivities, I figured I would watch one or two episodes. As the TV writer for a major magazine, on fleeting occasions over the years I’ve found that knowing what I’m talking about can be useful.
Opening on the morning after the Titanic has sunk, the early-20th-century saga of the Grantham, aka Crawley, family brought together by an unforeseen inheritance and surviving (or, in some cases, not) war, intrigue, murder, shifting political values, and lovers dying in the wrong bed at the wrong time is high-toned soap opera at best. The ongoing chronicle, set outside the city of York, is stuffed with types, some of them timeworn: butlers with a past, self-loathing homosexuals, scheming housekeepers out of a Daphne du Maurier classic, and the three (now two) Crawley daughters who are so different from each other—one manipulative, one brainy, one angelic—that they couldn’t possibly be sisters if they weren’t on a TV show. As is the imperative of such a series, everyone is given a story, from the lowly cook losing her eyesight to the leads themselves, who are likable without always being interesting: The manor’s countess is American-born Cora—played by Elizabeth McGovern—who is gracious and resourceful, smarter than her husband and canny enough to let him believe otherwise, while Hugh Bonneville’s patriarch, Robert, is defined equally by his decency and incompetence. One of the slyer revelations as the narrative has progressed is that for all his bearing and authority, Robert has run Downton into the ground and squandered the family’s fortune, even as he resists the efforts of a younger, shrewder distant cousin who tries to modernize the estate.
But have I mentioned how bloody well splendid it looks? And the clothes! Downton Abbey is a pageant, a cavalcade of a time when being born right is the first and most irrevocable career move, and in which an older order—whose passing Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes, clearly mourns—is submerging in icy seas as surely as a grand and extravagant ocean liner. The two galvanizing figures on whom Downton Abbey rises and falls are at opposite ends of Downton’s spectrum, and nothing better sums up the series than how over the first three seasons the two rarely exchanged words or crossed paths, something that changes in the new season finally airing stateside this month. The oldest Crawley daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), is selfish and melancholy, indulgent and strong, cruel and empathetic, given to egregious lapses of judgment—one indiscretion way back in the third episode set in motion almost everything that’s followed—and to insights of which her father is incapable, especially when they have to do with the family’s unfolding circumstances. Her father’s valet, Bates, was the first person we met in the show’s opening moments as he arrived by train. With a sense of honor almost as crippling as the army wound that’s infirmed him, he also conveys flashes of darkness and violence; arrested at the end of season two for murdering his former wife and incarcerated for much of season three, he became the series’ soul, with our emotional investment hanging on his fate. It’s to the credit of actor Brendan Coyle that we root for him without completely dispelling our doubts about his innocence.
Except for a subplot concerning another daughter, Mary’s and Bates’s predicaments continue to dominate the new season. Dramatically the series is in a precarious place, struggling to recover from its single weakest minute, which came at the end of season three when a major character was dispatched. Though others have come and gone as well, their destinies usually have felt organic and convincing, whereas last season’s conclusion had about it the arbitrariness of shock value for its own sake or maybe an actor’s unresolved contract dispute. This turn left Mary a single mother alienated from her new baby, and the growing conflict of season four revolves around whether she’ll shake off her torpor and find her inner Michael Corleone, with a better head for how to manage Downton than her father, who’s still getting used to the idea of women voting. If so, she’ll emerge as heir apparent of Downton the show as well as Downton the abbey, while the usual male suitors she’s always attracted continue to swarm and the dichotomy of Mary’s personality—by which what we admire about her contrasts with what we dislike—becomes more pronounced. In the meantime, just as Bates would seem to finally have put his Job-like struggles behind him and settled in with new wife Anna, the domestic peace is shattered so violently as to have caused no small controversy in En-gland this past fall when the episode in question first aired. Midway through the season as a terrible secret is confronted, there’s a scene between Bates and Anna that would make a stone sob; afterward a fuse has been lit in Bates that again raises questions about his true nature.
As for us Americans, including those who can’t get enough of the show, our true nature is beyond confusion at Downton. When tart-tongued loudmouth Shirley MacLaine returns in the season’s final installment as Cora’s Yank mother, she brings with her—along with Paul Giamatti as Cora’s disreputable brother—the general vulgarity of colonists who won that skirmish back in the 1770s only because they didn’t fight fair and were too uncultured to know what a marvelous thing it is to be En-glish. The Americans at Downton have their dubiously attained money but don’t know their place, which is called “class” for a reason that’s most evident when people don’t have any. Whether English viewers, who certainly have made the show a hit in England, hold as much nostalgia as Americans for the lost England of Downton Abbey isn’t clear; my wife recently was in York and reports that the locals find laughable the prospect that any aristocracy could ever have felt as much noblesse oblige as Cora and Robert or could ever have treated the hired help so well. Maybe over there Downton Abbey is a satire. Maybe because the new season is the least compelling of the four, with less at stake for its characters and without the epic backdrop of World War I and its aftermath, I’m feeling irritable again about Americans’ devotion to it. But when imperious head butler Carson proclaims that “the business of life is the acquisition of memories,” he’s considering both his own memory of a lost love and that of a bygone era for which not just Fellowes (a member of the House of Lords, as it happens) but the rest of us yearn as palpably as does Lord Grantham himself.