Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
“I think in life there are people who are unlucky — the bread always falls with the butter side down,” Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of Downton Abbey told The New York Times, during an interview that marked the close of the PBS Masterpiece drama's 5th season.
“Edith is an example of that.
“Bates and Anna have that, with a key difference, which is that they have a very strong love with each other. Anna is one of the most admirable characterstv in the series. She’s come from a tough childhood, we know now, and yet she hasn’t allowed it to distort her,” Fellowes added, hinting at the Catholic-friendly natural law principles that undergird human relations at Downton. “We live in this great excuse generation, where nothing’s ever your own fault and everything’s always because someone was terrible to you. I think that our lives are the result of our own choices, and when I see that in action I really admire it."
Is this why we like to watch Downton Abbey — it offers old, but seemingly fresh solutions to the patterns of behavior that leave so many people unhappy and alone?
The finale definitely caused a pang in the Desmond house. Despite the improbable soap opera elements of the plot, the weekly ritual of watching the Downton household navigate domestic crises, react to larger developments and reveal flashes of virtue has stirred rich conversations every time.
Most high-rated television dramas, like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, explore the mindset of anti-heroes and their outlier ethos. Downton takes a different approach. It celebrates our human need for communal life: the comforts of married love, parents’ devotion to their children, and the gift of true friendship. This is a Catholic vision of community nourished by unconditional love, compassion and mercy.
For those who have not finished Season Five: THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT.
1. ‘Turning the other cheek’ can melt the hardest of hearts.
Mr. Barrow may finally be on the road to redemption.
In previous seasons, the reliably poisonous footman collaborated with an equally poisonous ally— O’Brien, the lady’s maid for Lady Grantham.
Subsequently, Barrow recommended a new lady’s maid, Baxter, who arrives at Downton with a good deal of emotional baggage. Barrow plans to use his knowledge of Baxter’s criminal past to extract any confidential information she might pick up about household members.
So we expect a replay of the Barrow-O’Brien dynamic, but Fellowes surprises us.
First, Baxter draws the sympathy of Mr. Molesley, the goofy footman, who stands up for her. Before long, she tells Barrow that she won’t help him, even if he tells Lady Grantham about her past.
As Baxter regains her self respect, she turns the other cheek, and tries to help Barrow come to grips with his own personal struggles.
Like Anna, Baxter has chosen to be good, irrespective of the hand she has been dealt. And by the end of the season, Barrow seems less poisonous as he begins to confide in Baxter and to pull back from his own machinations.
2. A working community blunts the siren song of class warfare.
When Branson ends his relationship with Sarah Bunting, the show makes a subtle, but important point about the foundations of a just society.
Branson — the Irish radical and one-time chauffeur, who married Lord Grantham’s youngest daughter, Sybil, and is now a widower — takes up with a fiery socialist, the school teacher, Sarah Bunting. Both seek to establish a more just society and are inspired by the promise of the Russian Revolution.
Initially, Branson excuses her intemperate attacks on Lord Grantham while she is a guest at Downton. But when Sarah asks Branson if he shares her contempt for his in laws, he realizes that he has grown to love his wife’s relations, even if he doesn’t share their politics.
That epiphany leads Branson to end his relationship with Sarah and finalize his plans to move to America, another land that offers hope to those yearing for a new order.
Branson’s flirtation with Miss Bunting plays out in the early years of the Russian Revolution, before the Gulag and the annexation of Eastern Europe. We sense the temptation and the danger posed by Sarah’s visceral hatred of the aristocracy.
Before Branson ends his relationship with the schoolteacher, Lord Grantham warns him not to forget what he has “learned” during his time at Downton. The earl does not explain further, but I would venture to say that Branson and his in laws have discovered that communal life, when lived with mutual respect, justice and forgiveness, can bridge the class divide, and lead both sides to join forces for the common good.
This truth, anchored in Christian realism, may sound banal. But history has proven that it yields a far better outcome than Lenin’s revolution.
3. No man is an island: Reciprocity should be welcomed, not feared.
Reciprocity fuels communal life at Downton. Husbands and wives give and receive, as do blood relatives and in laws, aristocrats, household staff and tenent farmers.
Lady Mary and Anna, Lord Grantham and Bates, Violet, th Dowager Countess and Princess Kuragin are all bound together by mutual need and affection or obligation.
Violet chooses to help Princess Kuragin, once her rival and now a penniless victim of the Russian Revolution, because, long ago, the princess stopped Violet from running off with her husband, the prince.
“With Violet, what she enjoyed from seeing Kuragin again was that sense of being loved, of being a desirable woman,” Fellowes told The Times.
“It reminded her of her great passion for him when she was young, but also the nearness that she came to making a great mistake that would’ve wrecked everything.”
This disclosure of the Dowager's brush with scandal serves another purpose: It exposes the fragile underpinnings of family stability. If the princess had not stopped her husband and Violet from abandoning their families, Downton would be a very different place. Violet understands that, and is moved by gratitude to assist the princess.
Meanwhile, Vilet's improbable friendship with Mrs. Crawley continues to deepen, as the passions of youth are mitigated by the wisdom of old age.
4. New Testament Trumps Old Testament
Conscious that Mrs. Patmore, the cook, is deeply hurt by the exclusion of her relative from the county’s new war memorial, Lord Grantham finds a way to recognize the dead man’s service.
Lord Grantham also welcomes Edith’s fatherless child, Marigold, into the family, and withholds recrimminations regarding her behavior.
His powers of forgiveness are further tested when he finds his wife in her bedroom with an ardent suitor, and must accept her word that the man arrived without an invitation.
Lady Grantham allows Baxter to stay, after she learns the maid served a prison sentence for stealing a previous employer's jewelry.
Lady Rose saves her hostile father in law from public humiliation by presenting his former mistress and their illegitimate child as family friends. In doing so, she reveals a striking ability to rise above petty grievances, despite the example of her parents.
Should we conclude that Julian Fellowes has a bone to pick with the l the “stiff necked” people of the Old Testament, as played by the hidebound conservative, Carson?
I don't think so. For all his predictable devotion to tradition and class privilege, Carson is valued for applying justice without fear or favor, while keeping the trains running on time. He is rewarded for that faithful service with the love of Mrs. Hughes, Downton’s thoroughly New Testament housekeeper.
Soon after Mrs. Hughes reveals that she has spent every penny of her earnings on the care of a disabled sibling, she receives a marriage proposal from Carson, who has learned something about unconditional love during their many years together in service at Downton Abbey.