down-ton abbey

Spoiler alert: I reference events in episodes that have aired in both the U.K. and the U.S., but I include the caveat for any readers who haven’t yet seen the series.

I’m an enthusiastic fan of “Downton Abbey,” the hugely successful British television drama set in the early twentieth century, the story revolving around the Crawley family and the servants of the eponymous estate in Yorkshire. The principle preoccupation of the family is the fact that Lord Grantham’s title, his estate, and his wife’s money — because of the ironclad English law of entail — all pass to a distant cousin upon the death of the previous heir and his son on the Titanic, which event opens the pilot. I love period drama, especially of the British late 19th/early 20th century variety. Indeed, I literally squealed with delight when I saw that Lady Mary Crawley references Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the upcoming episode.

There are so many wonderful things about this show: The accents. The fear of “new” technology (electricity! typewriters! telephones!). The gorgeous clothes (for the upstairs family, anyway, though the servants wear nicer things to wait on the Crawleys than most modern people ever do). The glimpse into a way of life that is so removed from a modern American audience. The well-developed characters: scheming Thomas and O’Brien, unflagging reformer Isobel Crawley, rebellious Sybil Crawley, the witty Dowager Countess — who it is universally acknowledged has the best lines of the series. (If you’re a fan and haven’t seen this video, you must. And you may appreciate it even if you’ve never seen the show.)

But — and I think with most mainstream entertainment, there is almost always a “but” — the latest episode to air in the U.S. gave me pause. Of course, there were issues all along. As one critic writes, somewhat contradictorily,

Even with its high-lather soap factor, no one would consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure — it’s “Masterpiece,” for heaven’s sake, the television equivalent of graduate school — though certainly creator Julian Fellowes makes it easy for an American audience to empathize with pampered members of the master class. . . . By conveniently blurring the class distinctions of the time with a lot of noblesse oblige and more than a dash of modern psychology, Fellowes and his writers allow their audience the benefits of a romantic period piece and none of the troubling drawbacks.

She then goes on to talk about the oppressive class system that bolsters the Crawley family — which I would certainly identify as a “troubling drawback” in even the most cursory critical examination of the show. For this reason, and others, I do consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure.

In “Episode Eight” of Series 2, which aired last Sunday, veteran Matthew regains his ability to walk after suffering severe spinal damage in the war. The ableism of this plotline — in service of giving viewers the long awaited, unblemished reunion of Matthew and Mary, whose on-again, off-again relationship drives a great deal of the show’s plot — is troubling.

We get a first glimpse in the pilot of the era’s anxiety around people with disabilities with the arrival of the new valet, who walks with a cane. The whole house is in a tizzy about whether Bates will be able to do his job, and he’s sacked towards the end of the episode — only to be saved, deus ex machina style by Lord Grantham, who seems to recognize the claims of an old friend more than the injustice of preemptorily firing a worker. And like magic in the next episode, all concerns about Bates’s performance are gone; they never come up again. It’s not clear if that’s because they were exaggerated, based on the prejudice of the times, or because accommodations were made for him. And since the villainous valet and lady’s maid find plenty of reason, besides his disability, to collude against him, one ultimately wonders why Bates was given this characteristic at all.

The issue returns in the latest episode, as Matthew (understandably) continues to struggle with the prospect of life in a wheelchair. I realize that these were different times and there were not the accommodations that now exist for people in his condition, but it struck me as extreme (and not a little sexist) when he sends his heretofore fiancee, Lavinia, back to London, citing his wish to keep her from a sexless, childless existence. But we aren’t afforded any view of the presumed obstacles that he must now face in an environment ill-equipped for his wheelchair. The very practical issues of how he gets around in a house full of stairs, of who is assisting him with bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom are not addressed. The heir presumptive must not be subject to these indignities, and the show acts as though it’s simply a matter of Bates — who in the pilot, we were told, wasn’t able to carry anything as might be required in the course of extra duties! — helping him move from wheelchair to bed. And when it becomes clear that Matthew will recover, though he’ll carry a bruise on his spine for the rest of his life, he quips, “But at least I’ll have a life” — which statement is at the very least hugely insulting to anyone in a wheelchair.

What’s more, the episode goes on to show that Matthew must be spared not only the wheelchair — only an able-bodied man is worthy to be the next Lord Grantham — but even the burden of having to appear ungentlemanly. In a truly horrifying development, as Lavinia lays dying of Spanish flu, having realized that he’s still in love with Mary, she manages to choke out, “Isn’t this better, really? You won’t have to make a hard decision . . .” So in the show’s really fucked up logic, it’s better that Lavinia die than Matthew have to do something selfish so that he and Mary can be together? This is the pinnacle of the show’s contortions to bring the protagonists to what I assume is coming: their marriage, securing Mary’s place in society and neatly resolving the problem that has propelled the series since the pilot. Hence my post title, “Down-ton Abbey,” as the show’s writers reach a new low in this episode.

I still plan to watch and enjoy “Downton Abbey” — if not just to delight in the swoon-worth Dan Stevens — but I’ll continue to do so carefully.

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