Downton Abbey: Means to an End?

Downton Abbey: Means to an End? February 6, 2014

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the fifth episode of Downton Abbey’s fourth season.

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

Episode One: Downton Abbey: A Job Well Done.

Episode Two: Downton Abbey: Things We’ve Lost.

Episode Three: Downton Abbey: Bring the Light.

Episode Four: Downton Abbey: All in the Family.

Downton Abbey‘s most recent episode kept to the more subdued pace consistent with other recent episodes, no doubt putting pieces in place for more incendiary events later in the season. Of course, we’ve always known cousin Rose would shake things up, and her incipient relationship with African-American singer Jack Ross will certainly do just that. Edith, the most scandalized by Ross’s presence, is morose about the absence of contact with Gregson. In the meantime, Bates and Anna still struggle through the cloud over their marriage caused by the traumatic rape, while the aristocrats at Downton contend with Evelyn Napier and Charles Blake, who are touring local estates to determine their viability. Alfred gets his job at the Ritz after all, while Jimmy strikes out in his attempt to seduce Ivy.

Because this week’s episode was more muted than the intensity of the season’s earliest entries, the focus was on examining character relationships rather than introducing further explosive plot developments. In particular, the episode raises the significant question of whether we ought to treat people as means or as ends in and of themselves. Some Downton Abbey characters took the former approach this week, while others chose the latter.

One of the most fundamental truths maintained throughout the Bible is the intrinsic rather than the instrumental value of human beings. Humanity is formed in the image and likeness of God as the culmination of creation (Genesis 1:26). Psalm 139 famously represents a paean to the divine workmanship in crafting each person. Jesus acknowledges God’s sovereign care over all men and women (Matthew 10:29-31). According to the Apostle Paul, even the pagan poets got it: “[W]e are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28).  In other words, the Bible could not be more emphatic that we are beloved of God and that we are to treat one another not as means toward achieving an end; as bearers of the imago Dei, each person has automatic value that is not reducible to what he or she contributes to anyone else. Or, as C. S. Lewis famously put it in “The Weight of Glory”:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit . . .

At Downton, when it comes to treating people as means, the usual suspect is of course Thomas, and he is at his conniving best in this episode, grilling his new upstairs mole Baxter for intel about the goings-on among the aristocracy even after Cora has sworn her to secrecy. This is true to his pattern across four seasons of exploiting anyone or anything to secure his advancement, even at the expense of his relationships with the other staff. Also among the servants, Jimmy proves that he is interested in Ivy primarily as a means of gratifying his own desires, clearly evident in his response to her objections: “I’ve been good to you Ivy. I’ve been polite to you; I’ve taken you to the theatre and to the cinema; I’ve never been that nice to any girl before.” Napier and Blake, meanwhile, demonstrate that they see estates like Downton largely in terms of their productivity for the state, with less regard for the people who own, or perhaps even who work, the land.

Paradoxically, in this episode it is the gentry who most frequently manifest the higher perspective on personhood. Robert, for all his snobbery, has always seen the Downton estate as a trust between himself and those who work it; in the previous week he ensured that the heir of a family farm on the grounds would be allowed to continue, despite the bad business sense. Cora fights for Bates and Anna to be treated respectfully at a posh restaurant, even against the objects of a supercilious waiter. Staff and servants alike rejoice at rather than resent Alfred’s acceptance to the Ritz, even though it costs them extra labor, and he movingly expresses gratitude for this. Isobel is in fine form, consoling Tom and Mary in their mutual griefs and playing detective to make certain Pegg is not dismissed as Violet’s gardener. Even the privileged Violet herself shows a moment of respectfulness in preemptively bringing Pegg back, however smugly it is done (she is still the Dowager Countess, after all).

The extent of the nobility’s respect for human worth will doubtless be tested by Rose’s newly discovered relationship with Jack Ross. Still, Downton Abbey as a series is heavily invested in presenting its many characters not just as types but as fleshed-out human beings; even the most villainous regulars like Thomas or old O’Brien have their glimmers of sympathy. It is this recognition that no human life is without value that animates the show, and it is a recognition that any Christian should be able to affirm.

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