February 5, 2014 | by Kathi Wolfe
Who needs the Olympics? We have ‘Downton’
Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Downton’ engagingly tackles social and political issues that were just beginning to change in the U.K. after the end of World War I. (Photo by Richard Munckton; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

We shout and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we must all die.

But don’t let that get you down. “That’s cheered me up,” Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, said to Mr. Carson, the butler, after hearing his inimitable take on life, “thank you.”

That’s just a delectable moment from the addictive PBS “Masterpiece Theater” series “Downton Abbey,” now in the middle of its fourth season, just out on DVD. Even the Super Bowl couldn’t keep “Downton” aficionados from watching or DVRing the show.

In season 4, it’s 1922 and the story of the Crawley family, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, the Dowager Countess and their daughters, along with their servants, (which began in 1912 after the Titanic sank) continues. Lady Mary is mourning the death of her husband Matthew. Thankfully, the horrid maid O’Brien, the confidant of Thomas, the queer footman, has left Downton. In her place, we have the new maid Baxter. We don’t know much about her except that, for mysterious reasons, she’s beholden to the nefarious Thomas.

I’m so addicted to the program that I’m fighting the Revolutionary War all over again. I can’t forgive the Brits for being able to see “Downton” months before we do (the series airs in the U.K. in the fall before it’s shown in the United States in the winter). Watching “Downton,” I revel in its lords and ladies; dukes and dowagers; servants, estates, footmen and wonderful costumes and savor the catfights. Especially, the barbed battles (who needs the Olympics?) between Isobel Crawley (played by Penelope Wilton), the Dowager (played by the fabulous Maggie Smith), and Mrs. Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine).  “How you hate to be wrong,” Isobel told the Dowager last week on “Downton.”

“I wouldn’t know,” replied the Dowager, “I’m not familiar with the sensation.”

Why am I hooked on “Downton,” though I’ll never be a dowager; I can’t imagine having servants; and I’d wager that the conditions for people “downstairs” in real life “Downton Abbeys,” in Edwardian England were far worse than they are in the fictional series? I’m drawn in by “Downton,” in part because no one I know is likely to ever lead a life like any of its characters. I’d bet that today even British aristocrats and their employees don’t live like the Crawleys and their servants. It’s fun to enjoy the politically incorrect pleasures of a life that’s largely ended.

Joking aside, as a lesbian and feminist, I’m fascinated by “Downton” because the series engagingly tackles social and political issues that were just beginning to change in the U.K. after the end of World War I. The most shocking storyline of “Downton” this season has involved the lady’s maid Anna, a strong, kind, smart woman, who’s married to Mr. Bates. One evening, Lord Gillingham and his valet Mr. Green are staying at “Downton.” While everyone is listening to an opera singer perform, Mr. Green rapes Anna. She’s afraid to contact the police and can’t keep from blaming herself for the assault. Today, women who’ve been sexually assaulted still struggle with feelings of shame and fear. As Julian Fellows, creator of “Downton Abbey,” said in a recent BBC interview, “I don’t think we ever have a sense that [Anna] leaves it behind.”

On a lighter note, Thomas is more loathsome than ever. He constantly reminds the mysterious Baxter that she must tell him “stories” about the Crawleys. I used to have some sympathy for Thomas. He’d spoken about his sexuality not long after Oscar Wilde had been arrested for “gross indecency” and offered comfort to wounded World War I soldiers. But that’s gone. Isn’t it great? We’ve come so far that we can hate the queer villain.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

1 Comment
  • I disagree. So far we’ve seen a queer Thomas become more loathsome, while the one gay man who made Thomas’s sexuality more real, just had to commit suicide.

    It’s Fellows who needs to get past his homophobic stereotypes. PBS donors ought to give him a noodge.

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