Downton Abbey S1E2: A Question of Class

Posted on December 29, 2011

We should note before we continue that, for a bunch of reasons, we chose the Netflix version of the series to blog. Basically it came down to which platform would be the best way for people who haven’t seen the show to follow along with our writeups. We didn’t realize that PBS would be streaming the first four episodes and that the PBS version and the Netflix version of the series divide up the episodes differently, which means what we’re calling “Episode 2” does not start or end at the same points the PBS version of Episode 2 does. There is a persistent myth (voiced several times in the previous post’s comments) that Americans are getting a vastly reduced version of the original series that ran in Great Britain. This has been debunked time and time again, but it keeps coming up. Any version of the show you watch, whether DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix or PBS.org, is the same version of the show. There have not been massive cuts to the so-called “PBS version.” Any cuts amounted to a total of minutes and no storylines were sacrificed. Both the producer of PBS’ Masterpiece and Gareth Neame, the executive producer of Downton Abbey debunked this myth in person when we attended that Q&A and screening a couple of weeks back. No matter what you heard or what you think you might have missed out on, Americans are getting the same series that the Brits watched originally.

Onward.

Downton Abbey doesn’t really trade in heavy-handed themes, like its closest American counterparts, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, do. It’s got far too light a touch for that (which is one of its most appealing traits). But if there was one theme connecting the various plotlines weaving in and out of the show, then for this episode, it was snobbery. More importantly, the theme was how snobbery is misguided to the point when even a man’s life can hang in the balance over it. And it’s not just relegated to the upper classes. The middle class and the servants are as guilty of it (possibly even moreso) than anyone else in this setting.

Matthew Crawley is perhaps the biggest snob of all. We’ll get to some of the nastiness tossed around by the more titled members of the family, but Matthew was guilty of probably the greatest sin here. Frustrated by the changes in his life, as well as being thrust into a social and familial circle that doesn’t seem to want him around, he did the one thing no gentlemen should ever do: he took it out on a servant. Mosely is probably the least developed of all the servant characters and yet the actor has such a hangdog face and a quiet dignity, that when Matthew joked to him that his profession – which would be his life’s work, as well as the family business – is not just pointless, but silly, the pain on Mosely’s face was all but unbearable. To our 21st Century middle class American eyes, Mosely’s profession does seem a bit silly. It’s not that we disagreed with Matthew’s point, but he was crass and thoughtless to voice it. Worse, he’s a bit of a hypocrite, or at the very least is drawing arbitrary distinctions. As he admitted to his mother, they had a maid and a cook back in Manchester, so he’s not opposed to servants, just a certain kind of servant. To his credit, he learned his lesson and the scene where he asked Mosely to pick out cufflinks for him – possibly the most banal scene you could think of – makes our eyes a little wet each time we see it. The point here is simple: middle class snobbery is hurtful because it’s expressed so inelegantly. If you want to sling the bitchy, snobbish bon mots, then you turn to your betters for guidance: you turn to the Dowager Countess.

The Lady Grantham’s initial fit of pique over the arrival of the Crawleys was quite entertaining and “We could always start with ‘Mrs. Crawley’ and ‘Lady Grantham'” is one of her very best lines. But her disapproval of Isobel’s middle class drive to improve the world around her by getting involved in it almost cost a working class man his life, something that shocked the Dowager Countess when the realization hit her. Interestingly (but totally true to her class) she’s far kinder to the servants and the working class than she’d ever think to be toward the middle class. “Might I give you this cup?” she asks the embarrassed Mosely, and it’s probably one of the kindest gestures the character has ever made.

As an aside, Isobel remains one of our very favorite characters. She is strong, open-minded, and opinionated, but at the same time she is deathly afraid of the social disapproval of her wealthy, titled in-laws. “What they expect,” she reminds her son,” is that you and I won’t know how to behave, so if you don’t mind, I would like not to confirm their expectations,” a truly fantastic line that reveals so much about her. Watch the scene where she and Matthew are presented to the family for the first time. It’s subtle, but the fear and stress on her face is palpable. And the irony of it is, she always conducts herself impeccably. She was, after all, a doctor’s wife, and what she learned from that consists of far more than just the latest treatments for dropsy. She learned how to move through the world, even when it intimidates her.

But in many ways, the Dowager Countess is only a prelude to the intense snobbery that comes out of Mary, directed straight at Matthew. This is snobbery-as-weapon. Sure, she’s appalled by Matthew’s lack of manners and inability to hold silverware “like a gentleman,” but under normal circumstances, she’d most likely keep these feelings to herself, much like she’d normally refrain from putting down her own mother with “You’re American. You don’t understand these things.” But even before her mother and grandmother put the marriage possibility on the table, Mary was feeling the pressure to marry this man who represents everything that’s wrong about the entail in her eyes. To marry a man simply because he has a title is abhorrent to her and, ironically, something her own mother understands far, far better than she herself does.

Which isn’t to say that Matthew’s some sort of wilting victim in the face of her sharp tongue. He earned her disdain all by himself; first by mocking the idea that one of the daughters would be “pushed” on him; then by openly commenting on the class distinctions and odd (in his eyes) ways of doing things at Downton Abbey. Regardless of one’s own background, it’s still pretty classless to openly comment on things like that at your hosts’ dinner table. Matthew, in Mary’s eyes, is crude and boorish. He is not, however, stupid, even though she wishes that he was. Check their dinner conversation about Andromeda and Perseus. She is first quite surprised and a little peeved that he can finish the story for her, but she’s essentially cut off at the knees by his verbal bitchslap of “That depends on the princess and the sea monster in question.” Girl, you just got OWNED by a solicitor from Manchester. She’s not in love with him – not even close – but that conversation left her far more intrigued by him.

But the show definitely wants to make a point about the aristocracy and the servant class, and it goes out of its way to expose the idea that the servant class – especially in a big house – can be even more viciously classist than their employers and can be just as likely to hold on to silly social conventions that are nothing but illusions.

O’Brien, as she is wont to do, sits in the kitchen, badmouthing Matthew in the most vicious terms when Lady Grantham happens to walk in on her. For once, Cora showed some common sense with O’Brien and slapped her down so hard in front of the entire staff that her head was spinning. Worse, she sugar-coated it with “If we’re to be friends…” Say what you will about O’Brien, she doesn’t fool herself. “Who is she kidding? We’re not friends.” Anna seems skeptical, but O’Brien’s got it right. You can be friendly with the family, but at the end of the day – at the end of every day – they are the masters and the servants are the servants.

And while Cora had a job to do and did the right thing here, we couldn’t help but once again side with O’Brien and Thomas on the fact that she walked into an area of the house where no servant would ever expect her to be. In a way, it wasn’t quite fair of Cora to dress her down like that, even though it pretty much had to be done. Mrs. Hughes brought forth the full weight of her steel-spined fury to remind O’Brien and Thomas that they’re not indispensable and that free speech doesn’t exist anywhere for the servants in a country house. It’s one of the few times the show goes out of the way to make this point: that a life “in service” can be pretty humiliating and dehumanizing at times.

And finally there is stuffy old Mr. Carson, who goes apoplectic when William splits a seam only to have it revealed later that, for all his bluster and rigidity, he was not, as William believed, born a butler. The only thing Carson has to maintain his power over the staff is his dignity and the belief by others that he’s a man of class and honor. If they were to find out that he’d spent his early life on the stage with someone who turned out to be a common (in every sense of the word) criminal, it could have ruined his reputation among the staff. How do you think O’Brien would have handled this news? Or Thomas? Carson is damn lucky that the only people to witness his shame were Anna and Mr. Bates, two of the kindest people among the staff, and Sybil and Lord Grantham, two of the kindest people in the family. Could you imagine if Edith had walked in on that scene? Even Cora would have found it too funny not to share with everyone. Contrast Lord Grantham’s manner of treating Carson with Matthew’s manner of dealing with Mosely. It’s not our favorite thing in the world about the show, but it’s sometimes a bit too in love with the idea of the benevolent aristocrat. Sure, the Dowager Countess is there to stir a little salt into the cream, but for the most part, the show repeatedly makes the point that the Lord of the Manor is far kinder and wiser than anyone else, from his American wife right down to the ladies’ maids.

Watch Downton Abbey, Season 1: Ep. 2 on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

[Screencaps: tomandlorenzo.com – Video Credit: pbs.org]

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