The defining moment of the recently ended third season of “Downton Abbey” came with the avoidable post-childbirth death of Lady Sybil, perhaps the only character liked by everybody at Grantham, both upstairs and downstairs.
Her senseless demise proved all the more agonizing to watch as it morphed into a flesh-and-blood microcosm of the forces threatening to tear apart Downton Abbey in the early 1920s. Her father’s stubborn refusal to act, his status-based blind faith in a clearly disengaged doctor with a royal title and his foolish rebuff of modern medicine, sealed her fate.
There’s much we can take from the lowest moment of well meaning, but for shortsighted Robert Crawley, the Lord of Grantham: Money – and social standing – can’t buy competence, forget about happiness. If you’re lucky enough to have a family physician who makes house calls, trust him or her. Better yet, in times of crisis, trust your gut. Action is better than inaction. Sometimes the new is better than the old.
Those were among the hardest-earned lessons in a heartache-and-tragedy-filled stretch that began with a wedding and (spoiler alert! Stop here and watch Sunday’s season finale before reading on) ended with more (apparent) death.
On the surface, there’s little for us to relate to in Downton’s faltering early 20th Century vestige of the ancient feudal system. But Maggie Smith, an attractive cast, period fashions, dishy dialogue and moments of unabashed camp alone don’t make for a 21st Century hit on PBS. There’s much to be learned from the past, even from a hermetic world showing cracks. Here are more nuggets – some contradictory, some hard-to-swallow – to emerge this season from the School of Downton:
•Nothing is Too Big to Fail: Downton got its latest bailout thanks to the unexpected, huge inheritance Matthew Crawley received from the late father of his late fiancé Lavinia, whose heart he broke in her final moments on Earth last season. But Matthew’s look at the books showed that the lavish manor-born life that supports the masters and servants is unsustainable.
•Change is Painful, but Necessary: Downton is still together – at least for now – only because Lord Grantham finally relented and let his sons-in-law Matthew and Tom run the estate like something close to a business. But give Lord Grantham, One Percenter that he is, credit for looking out for the working folks amid upheaval that’s more of blow to his pride than his pocketbook. As his wife, Cora put it, “Poor Robert. This post-war world is not being kind to him.” Nor to head butler Carson, whose struggle to maintain decorum amid changing times proved near equally vexing.
•Sometimes, Lying is Okay: Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess, showed this season that while she’s manipulative, she’s not without a heart – or at least some practical wisdom. Her convincing Dr. Clarkson to tell Robert and Cora he now believes he couldn’t have saved Sybil saved the couple’s marriage. Her seemingly cruel subterfuge in pushing a prostitute-turned-housekeeper out of the village helped reunite the poor woman with her child. The Countess’ counterpart among the servants, Mrs. Hughes, displayed her own, gentler behind-the-scenes subtly in helping stave off scandal by giving a quiet sendoff to a maid whose attraction to chauffeur-turned-Crawley-in-law Tom threatened to roil Grantham.
•Love Stinks: Just ask star-crossed Lady Edith who was abandoned at the altar by an old codger she loved and later fell for a dashing editor unable to divorce his insane wife. Or nasty servant Thomas, who seemed to find love in Jimmy, a co-worker unable to return his affections. Or Mrs. Patmore, wooed by a portly old flirt who only wanted her for her cooking. Or lonely Dr. Clarkson, who at least got the gentlest of letdowns from Matthew’s mother, Isobel.
•Love’s Grand: Just ask servants Bates and Anna, whose love withstood his unfair imprisonment for murder and seems all the more sweeter since his release. Then there’s Matthew and Lady Mary, who bickered through the first two seasons, only to get married, save Downton, produce a lot of gooey lovey-dovey dialogue – and a male heir. Which leads us to the final lesson…
•…Just When You Think Everything’s Going Great: Life has a way of crashing and crushing your hopes and dreams, throwing the future into new uncertainty. At least at Downton Abbey…
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.