Has the show secretly been rooting for the servants all this time?
But Downton, whose last episode aired in the U.S. on PBS Sunday night, wasn’t just lovely escapism—a confection of nonsense wrapped up in organza and Harris tweed, and made distinctly more credible by the manifold talents of its cast. It was also a love letter to a time of rampant inequality and dubious feudalism. The humans of Downton are positioned in a complex hierarchy not just by virtue of their fortune, but also by their birth, something Mr. Molesley hinted at in one of his history lessons when he asked his students to ponder the divine right of kings. The universe of the show exists on a plane that’s totally at odds with the American Dream: Status isn’t so much about money or power as it is class. For all the education Daisy acquires, or all the customers Mrs. Patmore hosts in her now-slightly-more-salubrious B&B, neither will really be able to escape the system that literally had them both in positions of servitude.
So the question is, why was Downton so popular? How could a show romanticizing the considerable gaps between rich and poor have so many fans in a country founded upon the notion that all men are created equal? What could explain the persistent appeal of a show so absurd in its core that it had (by my shaky count) at least nine separate subplots revolving around blackmail? The superficial answer is that Downton was often simple, satisfying entertainment, with human-interest issues, compelling characters, and serial storytelling that stretched out plot lines long past the point of elasticity. The more complex one is that Downton, initially, offered an attempt to reconcile the haves and the have-nots in an era of ever-increasing inequality. It seemed to want to believe in a world where everyone could buy into a symbiotic system of paternalistic generosity—one where the lord of the manor could prove to be a kind and thoughtful patron of the men and women who in turn catered to his every need.
At the same time, the lifestyle of the landed gentry was looking more and more anachronistic. When Thomas Barrow arrived for his new job as a butler-footman hybrid to an elderly couple and was surprised to learn that the household’s staff consisted of only three people, his elderly boss replied, “This isn’t 1850, you know.” But at dinner later, as the gentleman sat in stony silence across from his wife, who was wearing her diamonds to dinner like a 1920s Miss Havisham, the scene indeed looked like a morbid historical museum exhibit. For five seasons, Downton’s characters had lamented the vague onset of “change”; in the sixth, it seemed like it couldn’t come fast enough.