I enjoy “Downton Abbey.” But if you enjoy "Downton Abbey," I'll bet we don't enjoy it for the same reasons. You probably like watching lushly-produced tales of manners, romance, ambition, sex and revenge played out among a wealthy, titled family and its cadre of servants. On the other hand, I, unlike most of the program's anglophilic devotees, really get a kick out of seeing Englishmen in prison.
Because make no mistake, “Downton Abbey” is a prison drama, and equally so for all the characters as for the hapless valet now languishing in an actual prison, after being framed for his wife’s well-deserved demise. [You see. . . If the second Mrs. Bates (sainted housemaid Anna) can prove that the first and late Mrs. Bates (spiteful and vindictive Vera) baked the arsenic-laden pie that killed her only after her husband (noble and selfless valet John Bates) left London to rush home to Downton Abbey in time to dress Lord Grantham for dinner, then Mr. Bates may someday see the outside of His Majesty’s prison, where he is now condemned to languish.]**
But while Bates may rest in hope of release, none of the other residents of Downton Abbey are likely ever to escape. Their fetters were forged in centuries-old class and social conventions that are supposed tell each of them precisely who they are and predict everything that may ever happen to them. The War to End All Wars barely put a chink in their chains; it will take a global depression and another world war even to deepen the scratch.
This sounds horrible to those raised to believe that “anyone can grow up to be president.” But upstairs and downstairs, from the big house to the village shops, Downton’s denizens operate in (mostly contented) subservience to this stratified and stultifying order. If it is a prison, it is a comforting one that is most ardently defended by those who have inhabited it the longest. We regularly see the imperious Dowager Countess and implacable Carson the Butler affirm their allegiance to this world, by exchanging a furtive glance, a restrained nod or a discreetly rolled eye from their distant perches atop its respective poles.
And well they might. For theirs is a world that doles out swift punishment to anyone who presumes to challenge its orthodoxy. When randy housemaid Ethel dares to lay with even randier aristocratic Major Bryant, she winds up with a nameless son she cannot keep and nearly fatal employment in the oldest service profession of all. Sloe-eyed debutante Sybil is all hoyden, defiantly taking work as a nurse and marrying the chauffeur – the Irish, Catholic, vaguely Republican chauffeur no less. But soon enough she meets her death, when her father’s hidebound confidence in class over competence puts her in the hands of an inept society doctor who misses a diagnosis so obvious it had PBS viewers screaming “pre-eclampsia!” at the telly ten minutes into the episode.
For all the secure predictability this demimonde is supposed to provide, we watch as a host of thoroughly entertaining, utterly avoidable woes befall Downton's inhabitants, while none of them ever seems to see disaster looming. Instead, thanks to their faith in their precisely ordered world, they are blind to and surprised by the mayhem we all can see lurking around each architecturally important corner. For while the Crawleys and their servants know Burke’s Peerage front to back, their education in Robert’s Rules is sadly deficient. Otherwise, they’d have known that you must never let who you are blind you to where you stand, nor let where you stand blind you to what's coming your way.
Not for nothing is this blog entitled "Suburban Sheepdog." It may not be a quaint Yorkshire village, but I live in a prototypically “nice neighborhood.” I’ll bet you do, too. For the most part I work, recreate, shop, pray and even travel through a world that appears quite as safe and certain as an English country estate. The overwhelming likelihood is that violent trouble will never come my way.*** So why do I burden myself with a firearm and other assorted kit? Why do I take time to train and practice? Why do I care about esoterica like mindset?
Because there are no spoiler alerts in real life. Because there is nowhere I can go on the Web to read that “in tonight’s episode, Suburban Sheepdog faces an armed assault.” Because unlike those inhabiting Downton – be they entitled or indentured – I know there is no position of privilege that can protect me, no social construct that will keep my family safe. That task falls to me, each day, come what may. And I had better be ready, because not only are there no spoiler alerts, there is no rewind.
*Seriously. Spoiler alert. If you are not up to date on “Downton Abbey” and you care, read no further.
** I swear I’m not making this up.
*** Let's ignore, just for now, that it already has on a few occasions. I really don't want facts getting the way of the point I'm making.