The Houses of Subplot

Matt Swetnam on why we shouldn’t love Downton Abbey (but do anyway).

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Illustration by Phil Noto

I came to Downton Abbey because it premiered in winter. On Sundays, when afternoon darkness piled up against the windows of my apartment and turned them into mirrors, after I had finished the upcoming week’s ironing and shopping and cooking, I would sit at my kitchen table and stream the show from the PBS website. I liked it because it was well-made, of course — its melodrama carefully plotted, its settings attractive — but I also liked the show because it summoned the work of its world so concretely. At Downton, the servants worked at serving the aristocrats, who worked on the extension of their family line. In this overlay of work on life, I recognized that pattern of life in winter (or my life in winter), when short days and bad weather leave us able only to focus on what needs to be accomplished, on work and little else. It didn’t bother me that it always seems to be summer at Downton Abbey. Indeed, I was happy to look up from the screen and catch my translucent reflection in the pane of the window across the room, to look down again and see wind caught in the leaves of some great, pedigreed oak. I was happy to find that, in Downton Abbey, I could both identify the elements of my life and escape from them.

That Downton Abbey is not merely a house is obvious: it is a house, but a house is a nation, and Downton’s figuration of the nation is an appealing one. Present at Downton are the poor and the rich, the well-trained and the uneducated, the ambitious and those prepared to accept that the world of Downton Abbey will be their world forever. Despite these differences, everyone works, and works together, and everyone suffers together, too. Indeed, at Downton, everyone suffers in eerily similar measure. Each character is assigned a single individualizing flaw. Consider Downton’s servants. Mr. Carson, the butler, is too insistent on protocol, though this stubbornness, in the world of the show, is as respectable as it is laughable. Mrs. Patmore, the cook, has eye troubles, until they are fixed in surgery. Anna, one of the maids, is too romantic in temperament, though she soon finds a great love. Mr. Bates, the valet, is literally crippled, though his limp only impedes the ease of his work and never stops him from it entirely. The footman, Thomas, is gay but is also capable, and his unhappy competence turns him sinister. Even Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, perhaps the series’ most pleasantly unremarkable character, cannot adequately control her own fate, because the show’s writers use her and her position (she has a room of her own, and is free to move around the house) to advance a plotline or two in almost every episode.

Downton Abbey‘s aristocrats display the same ratio of ability to flaw. Lord Grantham, the family patriarch, is honorable but has been emasculated by his lack of sons. His wife, Lady Cora, is wealthy but American. His daughters Mary, Edith, and Sybil, are, in turn, independent but impetuous, dutiful but unattractive, and marginalized by idealistic youth. Matthew Crawley, the distant relation who is heir to the Downton estate, is happily willing to pay court to the aristocrats who in fact depend on him, but he is nevertheless too resolutely middle-class. The aristocrats and the servants alike, then, exist in a sort of egalitarianism of defect, their claims on each other’s attention and sympathy extending no further than their little challenges permit. As a mechanism, this is effective. The characters’ balance of flaw keeps the show’s subplots from strangling one another. But the subplots never come to much. They focus on apparently insoluble problems that are nevertheless promptly solved. In the show’s second season alone, an apparent case of paraplegia is cured, a pretender to the Crawley inheritance willingly abandons his claim, and the sweet young woman who threatens the show’s centerpiece romance recognizes and admits her own unsuitability before she, promptly, dies.

This would be fine if Downton Abbey were just a soap opera. The organizing principle of the soap opera, after all, is directionless, continuous churn. Still, Downton Abbey pretends to more than soap opera. It stakes a claim on national representation in a way that other shows, even those set historically, do not. At every turn, it evokes momentous event and tremendous change; indeed, it evokes directionality, precisely the thing that a soap opera can never admit. In Downton Abbey, the Titanic sinks, and the socialists start to organize. The Great War begins, and a woman learns to drive a car. Suffering soldiers raise questions about the meaning of honor, and the class system begins to lose its rigidity. Very specifically, Downton Abbey claims to tell us how we (and here I mean some sort of English cultural “we” loose enough that most of the rest of us might not feel too left out) became ourselves.

The show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, a Tory peer in the House of Lords, has acknowledged that he finds no fault with such an interpretation. In an interview with The New York Times, Fellowes observed, “I’m seen as a chronicler of the class system, which I don’t think is unfair.” Indeed, a comparison of Downton Abbey with Fellowes’s other successful depiction of early-twentieth-century manor house life, the murder mystery Gosford Park (which Fellowes wrote but did not create), is revelatory. Both are concerned with the social dynamics linking servants and their employers, but where Gosford Park focuses on the sometimes violent uncertainties of life in a place where everything is seen by someone but nothing is seen by everyone, Downton Abbey happily focuses on the unity of purpose of its characters. (“We treat the characters of the servants and the family exactly the same,” Fellowes told The New York Times.) Of course there are secrets at Downton, but none of them ever comes to much. No one cares, in the end, that Lady Mary had sex with the Turkish ambassador, and no one discovers the few secrets worse than that one, like the responsibility of Lady Cora’s maid, O’Brien, for Lady Cora’s miscarriage. Instead, Downton Abbey spends its time mileposting, mostly happily, the events of the 1910s for the varied group of characters it has gathered under the roof of the mansion.

The problem with Downton Abbey’s ambitions of national representation (or, at the very least, its goals to paint a broad social portrait) is that too often, the show’s ensemble of characters is not recognizable as a real, human, group of people. The substrate of sameness of characterization that propels the show’s melodrama is too easy; the writers have not developed the spectrum of attitudes and actions and inabilities and failures necessary to make the show’s claims of representative scope believable. This saddens me. I wish that there were more shows on television that represented social systems in ways that feel real. To do so is risky of course: it requires the members of the audience to pay attention to unlikeable characters who are not villains. (In Downton Abbey, a couple of characters come close, like Daisy, the understandably-reluctant kitchen maid pushed into a sham marriage designed to please the dying soldier who loves her, and Lady Mary, the show’s most compelling character, torn between her twin longings for connection and for independence.) This is the tragedy of Downton Abbey — it aspires to so much, but settles to leave its characters’ stories so implausibly and so almost-disrespectfully resolved.

So what can we hope for, as watchers of television? There are some shows that have indeed captured the alternating excitements and longueurs of life in a way that the metronomic Downton Abbey has not. The Wire did, of course, though it is unfair to expect any other television show to approach its blisteringly-perfect mastery of form. Beyond The Wire, most of the contemporary dramas we are left with are procedurals (all subplot, no aspiration, even if crime and the law do stitch different sorts of people together) and shows like Lost that use intimations of the uncanny to provide their characters some kind of commonality (universal puzzlement) through which to interact. The rest, the ones that do make an attempt at sustained social realism, like Enlightened, are often very good, but they seem somehow small-minded. This is perhaps inevitable. There are no longer any great houses of Downton’s sort, no great institutions that mix family and work and sociality in precisely the way that Downton Abbey claims happened, once. The places that come closest now — universities or hospitals, maybe — are dominated by specialists whose lives at work are circumscribed by the technical languages in which they operate. The military is too male, the internet too diffuse, politics too emptily theatrical, corporations and the suburbs emptied of meaning by too much scrutiny. The best shows about those institutions, like Enlightened or The Office, are strongest in their portrayals of complicated individuals, like Amy Jellicoe and Michael Scott. When they focus on broader social life, they mostly seem to repeat the things that culture already expects of corporations (soulless and byzantine), or of whatever other setting they happen to have chosen as their own.

If Downton Abbey is easy and Lost is contrived and Enlightened is small, what else could there be? The question is a difficult one. Perhaps it’s foolhardy, after all, to hope to find some fresh national metaphor. It feels as though it should be possible in a country like the U.S., built on an eponymous unity, but the U.S. has always been a divided place. Rather, though, than retreating, maybe television writers should stretch farther, try to find more global stories to tell. In recent years, some novelists (like David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas) and filmmakers (like Steven Soderbergh in Contagion) have made such attempts, and shows like 24 have, too, in little ways. These attempts are fast-moving and multimodal, transcending lines of genre. They focus not on stasis but on movement, of goods and people and information. Such a television show would pose challenges to its creators and to its audience, but at least the challenges would be new ones.

Matt Swetnam comes from Las Vegas and lives in Seattle now. He loves Wikipedia lists of animal subspecies, fruit cultivars, and sister cities. He loves the self-maintained Wikipedia pages of the vain and almost-important. He loves the little uncorrected errors of grammar and assertions of vehement opinion that constitute Wikipedia's digital marginalia. Someday, Wikipedia will tell a story about him in a fundraising appeal.