Lady Sybil’s death marks the end of an era for ‘Downton Abbey’. Her untimely demise violates the unspoken principle that the series has stuck to from the beginning; other shows might indulge in the gratuitous, mindless slaughter of key characters, but Downton, with its intellectual, aristocratic veneer, presents itself as above that sort of thing. Certainly, antiques salesmen might be emotionally crippled by the scandal of Lord Grantham’s missing snuffbox, and pastry chefs by the tragedy of the salty pudding, but the lives of most viewers are far removed from the trials and tribulations of Downton’s aristocrats. While shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Wire’ plunge their viewers into the violent world of the meth trade and urban crime and corruption, ‘Downton Abbey’ wraps them in the warm, cozy blanket of old fashioned nostalgia. If leading man Matthew Crawley is “the cat that walks by himself”, to quote his own romantic and slightly schizophrenic confession, then ‘Downton Abbey’ as a whole is a slightly overweight feline that sips cream and luxuriates among finely embroidered cushions. With this most recent series, however, it has at last unsheathed its claws and leapt at the unsuspecting viewer’s throat.
So does Lady Sybil’s death mean the birth of a newer, tougher, grittier Downton, a series that has as little reverence for its viewers’ feelings as ‘The Wire’ or ‘Breaking Bad’? Will the Crawley family have to pay for their estate by entering the meth trade? The episodes following Sibyl’s death may help to quell such anxieties; Downton Abbey clearly retains its stability and dignity in spite of her absence. The nobility continue to take a gracious interest in the lives of their servants, the servants continue to take pride in their positions, and daily life at the Abbey proceeds with all the stately predictability of Mr. Carson’s cutlery arrangements.
Of course, the insolent housemaid Mary O’Brien and ambitious footman Thomas continue to weave unnecessarily complicated plots and stratagems in the shadows, but their presence is as essential to the Abbey as that of the virtuous Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. All establishments define themselves in relation to their enemies, and Downton Abbey is no exception. Without O’Brian, Thomas, and more recently Mary’s terrifyingly bourgeois fiancé, Sir Richard Carlisle, to provide them with a breath of fresh air, the Crawleys and their staff risk being suffocated by the sheer nobility of their principles. But with enough heroes to revere them and villains to revile them, their way of life at Downton looks set to continue forever. Historical events occur only on the periphery and are never allowed to compromise the integrity of any member of the Crawley family; the writers acknowledge that the world outside Downton might be rife with prejudice, but inside Lady Sybil and Lady Edith campaign tirelessly for social change, with Lady Sybil even going so far as to promote the career of her maid. Evidently, any time traveler in search of nascent liberality and modernity need look no further than the British upper classes of the early twentieth century. Countries might rise and fall, wars begin and end, and social standards undergo irrevocable transformation, but the moral record of the Crawleys remains unblemished. As a family they not only determine the twists and turns of the central plot, but the moral foundation upon which the series stands. Granted, one of them is now a casualty of a tragic plot twist, but the viewer has every reason to hope that Downton will recuperate from the blow. As Mr. Carson would affirm, as long as God’s in his heaven and the fish knife is to the left of the butter knife, all’s right with the world.
PHOTO/Karen Wasylowski, Evian Tsai, Frea