The minimal fantasy of Downton Abbey

We’ve been expecting less from our fantasies for quite some time now. The turning point, in my mind, was “trickle-down economics.” The entire premise was of course absurd — the whole point of capitalism is that wealth tends to flow upward — but even if it worked as promised, it would avowedly be only a “trickle.” I make a similar point in Why We Love Sociopaths about the deflationary fantasy of the ruthless social climbers and lawless lawmen:

What kind of fantasy is it to say that people can get a satisfying job, if they are capable of amazingly ruthless behavior unrelated to the ostensible skill set required to do that job? How reassuring is it to learn that the U.S. will be free of terrorist attacks, as long as there’s one guy willing to take it to the limit and openly defy every law and authority?

And on the latter point, of course, even that tepid fantasy has been downgraded in Homeland, where there’s one woman who truly grasps the terrorist threat and predicts every attack — but no one ever listens to her until it’s too late.

There seems to be a similar minimalism in Downton Abbey, a show that I keep watching more for the pleasures of its surfaces than the intricacies of its plots. Here we have a world with a yawning chasm between social classes, where the majority of characters are toiling day in and day out for the benefit of an idle few. This is of course just like our world, with one important caveat: everyone admits that’s what’s going on. No one in the aristocratic family is under any illusion that they “deserve” what they have due to their intelligence or hard work — they were just born into this family, while others weren’t.

The frank class division opens up a space for the ruling class to feel a sense of obligation toward the servant class and the tenants. After a few plots early on in which it becomes amazingly clear that Lord Grantham has no idea how capitalism works, his concrete role in managing the estate is to put the breaks on the overly “economical” plans hatched by his bourgeois son-in-law and the socialist who marries into the family, to insist there must be some way to ensure the sustainability of the estate without being ruthless in profit-seeking.

Compared to our current system, where the ruling class believes it has “earned” what it has through “merit” and feels a moral obligation to maximize profits at all costs, this system seems positively utopian. The fantasy is similar to that in Mad Men — yes, the postwar ruling class was full of terrible people, but at least they wanted to convince themselves they were making people’s lives better. At least they wanted a space for creativity, or at least sincere sentiment, alongside the profit-motive. And at least they, like the aristocrats in Downton Abbey, give us something beautiful to look at, a play of surfaces that echoes the minimal ideological veneer with which they paper over the brutality of their times.

3 thoughts on “The minimal fantasy of Downton Abbey

  1. Michael Young’s classic book on Meritocracy forewarned the dangers of such a society. If i believe I have achieved ‘by merit’ then I open myself and wider society to the pursuit of the neo-liberal agenda.

  2. If the Mad Men must convince themselves to lead themselves away from their own disbelief in making people’s lives better (only the worst was yet to come), then mad Cassandra, tepid downgraded fantasy ignored still, has the most persuasive advertisement of all—revealed Truth—but completely ineffective (the fault is hers, so the story goes, because no one believes “the madwoman in the attic.” If only she were more… persuasive, but madwomen always choose poorly, don’t they?). Where does this put the audience for Downtown Abbey?

    Well, we do know how it ends for all them. We’re watching the countdown. We can do nothing to save any of them. Many will lose, and suffer, and die horribly in the world war of totalitarians that has never stopped. We will watch them and find whatever satisfaction we can, since none of the suffering is really all that real anymore, so far as what’s going on underneath the skin matters. Humans long enjoy watching things burn down to coals after the blare and the blaze.

    We put ourselves into the role of Cassandra, to tell ourselves a truth about history and repetition, only now we no longer feel compelled to do anything about it. There isn’t even a joy in being right when the madmen make it all go wrong; who wants to be the Mayor of that I-Told-Ya-Town? This ending will be far worse than the those that came before.

    People watch what feels comfortable, natural, close to how they already do think about humans and the stories humans tell one another.

    So, the war’s end is coming. Fascism will get much, much worse, and different, because we all learned from the mistakes of the Nazis, the Feds, the Soviets. We’ll get it right, this time, so we like to tell ourselves.

    We just have to make it through this war …

  3. I gave up on Downton Abbey after the second (?) season, so I’m not sure how faithful my impressions are to later seasons, but I feel that part of the appeal is being able to occupy the favoured position of the White Dude that you’ve so often described: being on the side of power and a victim at the same time. The last of the landed aristocracy are obviously rich and powerful, but they’re also tragic heroes doomed to be submerged by the tide of Progress so it’s a win-win! I don’t follow historical dramas very closely, but my impression is that the late-19th/early-20th century aristocracy is a favourite subject for this very reason, rather than eg. the 16th or 17th century aristocracy that simply was power and not also the victim.

Comments are closed.