Who Wants to Talk about Downton Abbey?

I don’t usually do this, but the season 3 finale of Downton Abbey came out last night and everyone seems to be talking about it right now. It’s a fascinating show from a historical standpoint, but there’s also a lot there to analyze from a gender or class standpoint. There’s also a good deal to think about from a religious standpoint (especially Sybil’s take on religion and the conflict over whether Tom and Sybil’s daughter should be Anglican or Catholic). Since it’s one of my favorite shows, and since I’m sure many of you are big fans, I thought I’d open the floor to whatever discussion you all might like.


Interesting angles for thought/discussion:

First, what do you think of the writers’ treatment of Sybil? For myself, I think the character had a lot of potential, but that at some point the authors dropped all that. It’s almost like after she got married they forgot she was a character who could do anything other than, you know, getting pregnant. I can think of a million ways I would rewrite Sybil.

Second, what do you think the writers are trying to do with Edith? I’m honestly not sure on that point, because her sudden interest in women’s work and in independence seemed completely and totally out of character as established in earlier seasons.

Third, I’m really curious what the writers are going to do with both Tom and Mary. They are both widowed and each has an infant child to raise. I really have no idea where the writers are going to take either of them.

And also, like I said, analyzing the show from the standpoint of class, gender, and/or religion is really fascinating.

Anyway, what thoughts do you have?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gail

    The season 3 finale aired on Christmas here in the UK, so I’ve had to be super careful about giving away spoilers to all my relatives! It’s one of my favorite shows, and I absolutely love its creator Julian Fellowes. Check out his novels if you’re interested in more about the British class system.

    One thing that I find really hilarious is that a few weeks ago, a Fox News host suggested that liberals should be threatened by the popularity of Downton Abbey because it doesn’t demonize the rich (this was a segment on The Daily Show). The host praised Lord Crawley as a “job creator.” I found this all particularly hilarious considering that the show airs on PBS. I suppose you could look on Lord Crawley as a provider of employment for the town, but providing the opportunity to go into service for one’s entire life isn’t exactly offering a great life. In the first season, the Dowager Countess suggested that people like Gwen (the maid who wanted to become a secretary) were better off kept where they were, so it’s not so much about providing employment for everyone as it is ensuring that the family is kept above everyone else.

    Not to mention, Lord Crawley’s money is from Cora’s dowry. He didn’t exactly earn it himself from hard work. And in season 3, he loses the money and only keeps the estate with Matthew’s inheritance. If this is an example of a good “job creator,” I’d rather have someone more stable. Matthew and Branson are actually the ones who ensure that the estate remains a viable source of employment, and neither of them came from an elite background. Someone should let this errant Fox News host know that Downton Abbey is about the breakdown of the Peerage system and the elite class during and following WWI, not putting it on a pedestal.

  • http://smashed-rat-on-press.com/ The Rodent

    *sigh* Sybil certainly would have done more interesting things, even with the baby, if not for her utimely demise. But perhaps the “torch” will now be picked up by Edith…? Oh, and I was all set for O’Brien to jump ship and go to India with the Scots. :-) But most of all: I’m waiting for Carson and Mrs Hughes to realize they’re in love and do something about it.

    • victoria

      I think keeping her around would’ve been great from a dramatic standpoint, but the actress didn’t want to stick around.

  • Anne

    I have to admit I don’t have too much faith in the writers. The sets, costumes, and actors rise above it, but when Matthew asked Mary if she had forged the letter from Lavinia’s dad, I feel like that was the writers pointing out the absurdity of it all.

    As for Tom, Sibyle was willing to run off with him and be a working-class revolutionary, which could have been an interesting ongoing source of a broader perspective, but now he’s turning away from what she embraced and is embracing what she turned away from and what he despised.

    And I can’t shake the feeling that Matthew was killed off to open up some more romantic drama around Mary, with Rose as the new Edith who will run in and frustrate Mary’s happiness.

    • luckyducky

      Matthew’s death was not for creative reasons, the Brits only sign on for 3 seasons at a time and the actor (can’t think of his name) playing Matthew did not extend his contract — so they had to kill him off. I think Sybil’s banishment to Ireland and death were for similar reasons. Yes, it made sense for her to be in Ireland but they didn’t show any of it, unlike Matthew, Thomas, et al. in the trenches. And in terms of British-Irish history, it may not rival WWI but it was a pretty momentous time to be Ireland.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Yes, Tom going to work for the estate is a completely disgusting plot development that completely belittles the ugly history of the English ultra-elite and Ireland.

      • luckyducky

        Yeah, Fellows writes about Ireland the way as modern day confederate flag waver would write about slavery. Full disclosure: in college, I took 2 semesters of Irish History* (1150-1998) from an Irish nationalist and History of the Reconstruction from an African American scholar whose area was lynching.

        *I don’t remember much except the British are bloody bastards, especially the Black and Tan, and Eoin MacNeill because most of the my time spent studying was trying to match up the anglicized spelling in my notes with the Gaelic names in the readings. That and we covered nearly a millennium in 6 months.

  • Maria Lima

    Both Sybil and Mathew died because the actors playing them wanted to leave and work in different projects. So, I think we cannot actually blame the writers for their destiny. I love Dowton Abbey, by the way!

  • http://lyricalpolyphony.blogspot.com Mary

    I think they may have killed off Matthew’s character because the actor wished to leave. But, honestly, I loved his character and I would rather have had a different actor step in, he and Mary go abroad, his character get stuck in a foreign country, or SOMETHING. Of course I suppose it’s possible that he could miraculously survive, if the actor was persuaded to change his mind…. that would be lame but good. :) The after- the- birth scene was lovely, but it did highlight the “birth is for women only” thing- I don’t want to think about having babies without my husband in the room as coach, but that;s just me. Besides which, that intimate involvement can engender some male empathy…. :)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I loved the first season of Downton Abbey but the second season was a major disappointment and there was plenty about this season that just plain disgusted me. I sort of only half watch it now (but I can’t quite stop!) Long rant ahead:

    First, Sybil. YES! She started out with so much potential. She was smart and independent-minded and a suffragette. Then they pretty much completely dropped all that from her character. Yes, she became a nurse but we barely even heard anything about that–how doing that kind of work affected her or changed her or made her think. They just put her in a nurse’s uniform and that was that. Oh, except in season 2 when Tom belittled her nursing which, in my opinion, was incredibly disrespectful and she should have taken him to task for it. Then, after a period of being wooed by Tom, during which the writing was so vague about her feelings that it was impossible to tell if she actually liked him or if she just finally gave in because he wouldn’t take no for an answer (yuck!), she pretty much subsumed her politics into his. I guess Irish republicanism was enough rebellion for both of them without that silly women’s rights stuff. Although, of course, not Tom has abandoned THAT! More on Tom in a minute.

    Edith–I guess this turn in her character seems inconsistent but I’ve always felt that way about Edith. Season 1 was the only season when she seemed at all consistent. Since then, Fellowes has had no idea what to do with her. I will say that I did feel very sorry for her after she got jilted at the alter do to her family’s completely nonsensical objections. Why in the world would a family like that object to their daughter (who was no spring chicken by those standards) marrying a titled man with money whom Edith actually really liked and who seemed kind and affectionate towards her? That’s a far better match than most women of that generation could ever hope for, hell, a far better match than plenty of women BEFORE her generation could hope for–this is not a class that married for love. All Maggie Smith’s character’s fuss about Edith starting life as an “old man’s drudge” was ridiculous and contrived. The Dowager (who is pretty much the reason I watch now) is nothing if not pragmatic. It would have been far more in character for her to support the match. The whole thing was ridiculous.

    As for the current plot development with the editor? Well, all I can say is, Fellowes has already ripped off Austen, Dickens, and the (far superior) series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” I suppose he might as well rip off Charlotte Bronte now…

    Thomas–um, makes a nonconsensual sexual advance at a sleeping person. This is not okay. Ever. Look, Fellowes, if you want to finally introduce a plot development in which you directly deal with Thomas’ sexuality for the first time since season 1, even if it is a totally anachronistic one in which pretty much everyone is like “meh, no big deal, he was born that way,” having Thomas be not merely gay but PREDATORY is not the way to do it. And then he follows the dude when he’s drunk because he was hoping that…what exactly? I’m not even going to go here. Just ew. Epic fail.

    Tom–starts off, in season 1, as an advocate of women’s rights himself, taking Sybil to the demonstrations that inspire her. Then, like Sybil, forgets all about it in the process of their really badly written courtship in which he insults her work. Then they get married and he spends a few episodes kind of bullying her–asking her not to “disappoint him” when she reasonably requests that he not shout about the Irish Cause at dinner all the time (which seems reasonable enough to me, no matter how righteous that cause is)–and protesting dinner jackets and stuff. Then totes gets over it and, to hell with the rights of the Irish because, dude, who DOESN’T want to live in a castle and play billiards and wear lots of different kinds of jackets for minor occasions? Like who WOULDN’T sacrifice all their ideals for that? Especially when your fancy connections can bail you out of the consequences of your own actions!

    I get it, he needs to make peace with this family for the sake of his child. That is, frankly, the only reason a person like him could possibly do such a thing with a family like the Crawleys. From the point of view of an Irish person of that era, people like Lord Grantham are the ultimate enemy. And rightfully so. But, okay, he has to make the best of the situation. But, Jesus, it should be a LOT more difficult for him. But Julian Fellowes doesn’t understand this. He seems to really think that, deep down, everybody really wants to be a useless, disgustingly rich person and, if those Irish hothead party-poopers like Tom could have just gotten a taste of the life of a lord, they’d soon have forgotten about all that “hundreds of years of oppression by the English ruling class” nonsense and lightened the hell up. Silly Irish!

    Fuck you, Fellowes. On multiple fronts. Seriously.

    (And, oh yeah, he killed off Matthew. This would have broken me up much more if Matthew hadn’t become such an insufferable, sanctimonious prig but I do feel sorry for Mary.)

    • Nicola

      I agree with you on most counts; I’ve only watched series 1 and bits of 3 when other people around me were watching it because it had started to feel like the “Oh noes the rich people might have to live in a house that’s STILL bigger than 99% of people’s homes but it’s not their ancestral home so it’s AWFUL!” show.

      Anyway, I (somewhat) disagree with you on Thomas’s sexual predator thing. I think what Fellowes was trying to do was show the disconnect between what people now find repulsive about Thomas’s behaviour (the fact that the other guy was sleeping and obviously not consenting) and what people in-story find repulsive (the fact that it’s another man). The idea that homosexuality is equivalent to paedophilia or other forms of sexual assault is less widespread in the UK than in the US, so Fellowes, as a straight man, might have simply been ignorant of the potential implications, though that doesn’t necessarily excuse him as he should have done research before writing such a storyline. Then again, Fellowes is a Tory peer, so maybe he knew exactly what he was doing ;)

  • Cara

    I think Edith is the most interesting of the sisters. Sybil could have been, but her actress wanted to leave and so that was that, she left for Ireland and then got killed off at the first opportunity. I don’t think Edith’s arc is so implausible. She tried very hard to achieve success in the expected way, getting married to a rich man, and failed, again and again. Now, she’s trying something else. It makes sense to me that personal growth can come from that kind of failure, she changed her mind about her family’s values after she didn’t live up to their standards and the only ego-preserving way out was for her to reject those values. I empathize with that. Edith’s resentment, frustration, and feelings of always being second-best to Mary feel a lot more real to me than most of what goes on in Downton Abbey.

    • alr

      I agree that what we see in Edith is growth and change. We have to remember this thing started in 1912 and it is now somewhere around 1921. A person can change their views substantially in nine years, particularly in a time of great social and cultural upheaval. Even if none of them have aged at all. ;)

  • Anne

    I do give the show some credit for reminding people that coverture used to to be the norm, but it would be nice to see it play out a bit more. Mrs. Crawley, for instance, could have a conversation with someone about why she prefers being a widow to remarrying. Edith has touched a little on the laws that allowed women over 30, who own property, to vote. I wonder how many married women would qualify as property owners or if their property was assumed to be their husbands’.

    The main problem with Downton, IMHO, is that its sensibilities are far too modern to really delve into the meat of things. It nods to the social structures of the time but in a “oh, isn’t that quaint” sort of way. We have the class differences but toned down so much as to make the divide a mere custom instead of a chasm. There’s the occasional reminder that someone is being insolent, but you don’t get any real sense of anyone being truly at another’s mercy or how the staff really was supposed to be invisible and silent. The things the servant girl said to Tom were enough to ruin all disbelief, but to hear Mrs. Hughes say she hadn’t really done anything wrong … And the way they handle Thomas is very … designed to not offend modern viewers.

    But this show is a fluffy diversion, not a history lesson. From watching it you wouldn’t have any idea that the Spanish Flu killed over 50 million people over several years, or that the large numbers of war dead had left so many women fending for themselves for lack of possible husbands. It’s hard to feel the immediacy of the problems from 90 years ago, but I do wish they’d try once in a while.

    To its credit, the show did make me research Moydrum. I find it ironic that U2 used the ruins on the cover of “The Unforgettable Fire” and the show seems to have forgotten it in less than two episodes.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      If you want all that stuff, just watch ‘Upstairs, Downstairs.” Not nearly as gorgeous a production but incredibly writing that does sanitize a thing.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Er, “incredible writing that does NOT sanitize a thing.”

      • Anne

        I have been eyeing it on Netflix. :) It’s not that I’m particularly fond of class divisions, but I know enough that Downton just doesn’t ring true even though it’s one of the central themes. Game of Thrones, OTOH, I think does a very good job of it even though it’s not central.

  • A Reader

    I’m going to miss Matthew. He brought out the good side of Mary (who I think people are too hard on). Plus he was cute ;)

  • Jill

    I”m one of those people who found Matthew annoying of late. I liked him much more when he was miserable and pining after Mary. It was more interesting. I hope Mary’s character becomes more interesting again, now that he’s gone. And I agree with those who have said that Edith’s character is plausible. She has always been slightly unconventional (learning to drive, working on a farm) so her latest exploits are along that same track.

  • http://revolfaith.com April K

    Yeah, I don’t have a problem with Edith’s inconsistency at all. People, for the most part, aren’t all that consistent anyway. She’s the “ugly” middle child who is struggling to find herself. Anything that she has wanted to do has failed, been banned or criticized. Her behavior is consistent in light of the situation. Of course she’s going to run from one thing to another. Of course she’s going to be drawn to charity cases. She’s practically a charity case herself, being rejected or ignored by her family and jilted by a man she deeply loved. I honestly really like her and can’t wait to see what happens to her in the future. Would not be at all surprised if she just gave the middle finger to her family and ran off with editor what’s-his-name. Also wouldn’t be surprised if editor what’s-his-name bites the big one and forces her to start all over again.

  • J-Rex

    I saw that the show was rated very highly and everyone talks about it. I enjoy Pride and Prejudice and can handle shows or movies that don’t have much action. But I started watching D.A. and found it incredibly dull! I sat through most of the first season because I was waiting for it to pick up, but I had to give up. I don’t mean to be one of those people who only comments just to tell everyone that I don’t like the thing they all like. I’m just wondering if it gets better later on? What am I missing here?

  • http://www.163.com 163.com


  • Fern Porras

    Did I miss what happened to Patrick? He turned up claiming that he had survived the Titanic sinking; he is burned beyond recognition, and seemed to be softening up Edith. Did he suffer some tragedy while I was washing my hands? I have never seen or heard from his character again. Of course, it might have been the night I was having a problem with my Vudu channel buffering non-stop.