Downton Abbey: A Job Well Done

Downton Abbey: A Job Well Done January 9, 2014

Warning: This article contains spoiler about the fourth season premiere of Downton Abbey.

Each week, Christ and Pop Culture will present an analysis of the latest Downton Abbey episode after it airs on PBS.

On Sunday, American television audiences got their first glimpse of British hit Downton Abbey’s fourth season. As expected, plenty of changes occurred following the traumatic death of Matthew Crawley in a car accident at the end of the show’s third season. His widow Mary is now left with their infant son George as well as a host of complex inheritance questions that Branson and Lord Grantham (back in patronizing mode) are also trying to settle. Meanwhile, the departure of the villainous O’Brien (foreshadowed at season three’s end) marks a change in the dynamics of the servants’ realm. Edith continues her romance with Michael Gregson, notwithstanding his invalid wife, while new cousin Rose is as lively and rebellious as I expected when she was first introduced last year.

As in previous seasons, Downton Abbey careens through time at breakneck speed, and its massive cast and interweaving story-lines leave any number of trajectories to be explored. To me, one of the most compelling themes throughout the series’ four-year run has always been its examination of the significance of human work, and that theme plays out prominently in the season premiere.

Genesis famously establishes that humans were placed in Eden for the sake of working within it: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15, ESV). Yet the Bible differs from the creation accounts of many other ancient civilizations, in which humans represent slaves or grunt laborers. Rather, the prelapsarian Adam and Eve are given meaningful work for the sake of cultivating and stewarding what God has granted to them; as scholar Bruce Waltke puts it, “Work is a gift of God, not a punishment for sin. Even before the Fall, humanity has duties to perform.” Work only becomes labor after the Fall, when God proclaims:

[C]ursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Individuals and societies in the Bible are thus constantly attempting to strike a precarious balance, acknowledging that the inclination toward work is a natural and instinctive aspect of the human person while trying to restrain that impulse so that it does not become overwhelming or taxing. This is arguably one purpose for the establishment of the Sabbath: recognition that humans, while workers, must transcend their toil.

The writer and theologian Dorothy L. Sayers lived in the same era as Downton Abbey, and she witnessed many of the cultural shifts dramatized in the show. One of these shifts was a changed understanding of work. As a creative artist herself, Sayers saw creative work (in any number of forms) at its best as a return to the Genesis 2 understanding of work. In an industrial world, however, work had become nothing but labor. A farmer might till his fields for love of the land as much as for survival, and a painter might produce a work of art without any hope of monetary recompense, but few factory workers would leave an assembly line feeling pride or accomplishment in the countless identical pieces of equipment they had constructed. The twentieth century created an environment in which an increasing number of people were forced by circumstance to perform work that was personally (and spiritually) meaningless to them. As Sayers observes in The Mind of the Maker:

We cannot deal with industrialism or unemployment unless we lift work out of the economic, political, and social spheres and consider it also in terms of the work’s worth and the love of the work, as being in itself a sacrament and manifestation of man’s creative energy.

Such discussions are highly relevant to Downton Abbey, a series whose focus on the servants “downstairs” invites its viewers to consider the nature and significance of work. Carson, the head butler, is an example of one for whom the work of service is an art; indeed, he has left a seemingly more “artistic” occupation as a performer for employment at Downton, an environment in which he experiences a purpose for a “love of the work.” In the season four premiere, Mrs. Hughes’s interest in Carson’s old stage companion Charlie Grigg represents her own recognition of the need for meaningful work. She has found Grigg in poor condition at a workhouse and arranges for him to take a theatre job, restoring him to an occupation that he may find significant, even if it no longer is so to Carson.

Molesley is another character for whom service is not merely a job but a vocation. Unlike Carson, whose position at Downton is as secure as any for the time being, Molesley consistently struggles with finding a way of fulfilling his desire to work. He had been valet to Matthew Crawley, who had to curb his anti-aristocratic bent and allow himself to be served. With Matthew’s death, however, Molesely’s position — and his purpose — is gone, and in the changing world of the 1920s, finding new work is thus far proving difficult for him. The ever-officious cook Mrs. Patmore, meanwhile, still has a job that she loves; yet as new electric appliances keep appearing at the estate, she fears that her own meaningful work might be replaced by technological devices — a fear that would not be unwarranted.

But the need for work is not confined only to the servants. “Upstairs” at Downton, it is Mary Crawley who suffers from lack of significant employment. She finds herself in mourning over her late husband, a state which her father Lord Grantham is happy to indulge. Of course, Lord Grantham has always found the managing of Downton and its environs to be his great legacy, so it is unsurprising that he consistently becomes a control freak about it. Yet in doing so, he prevents his eldest daughter from finding a purpose that her two younger sisters were both able to find. It is perhaps appropriate that it is Carson — the man who above all knows the worth of work — who must be the one to encourage Mary to fight for her rightful role in managing the Crawley estate. In doing so, he also pulls her somewhat out of her depression, since she can be involved in work that she finds meaningful, for she of all the Crawley sisters has always shared her father’s love of the Abbey.

Season four of Downton Abbey will doubtless continue to throw curve-balls at viewer expectations. But it is hard to imagine the series ever departing from its thoughtful meditations on just what it means for a person to do meaningful work. It is a recognition of a profoundly biblical idea, for all Christians share the calling to be laborers for the Master, hoping to hear the Lord proclaim in the New Heaven and New Earth, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Photo via PBS.

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