What makes us tune in to see Downton Abbey? Is it Lady Mary’s prickly behaviour? Is it the dowager countess whose quips are the subject of so many viral gifs? Or is it our obsession with how the rich and powerful (used to) live?
Only partly… because whilst these are embellishments without which Downton would be (admittedly) more dull… they are not what compels us to keep watching. Death does.
It’s one of the hotly denied aspects of our lives, that we are in fact obsessed with death of all kinds. Constantly (to which the traffic jams alongside accidents can attest). Steadfastly (because it is the only thing of which we can be certain). And not only in the physical kind. Social death driven by ‘unacceptable’ acts was in Britain at least, once worse than physical death. We only need to examine literary history to see it. From Vanity Fair, to Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations all of which demonstrate the impossibility of survival in ‘good society’ if you have suffered a social death. In some societies even now, social death may propel you to take your own physical life if you are so inextricably bound up with your identity.
And so in Downton, social death is indeed a large part of why we keep watching, but social death is also supported by a plot supported by physical death at every turn. Want great ratings? Give the viewers a spoonful of death with their afternoon crumpet.
In 2010 Downton Abbey kicked off as it intended to go on, with death. The sinking of the Titanic and the death of the earl presumptive meant the future of Downton and the family was at stake. Robert and Cora who had no sons, might have been usurped ‘lock stock and barrel’ from Downton by an upstart of a middle class toff. In plot terms it was a mildly exciting incident… but then in episode three we got a double whammy. Potential social death by Mary risking her ‘purity’ with the dastardly Turk Mr. Pamuk followed by his physical death… naked in her bed. Thanks to Violet the incident is encapsulated in astounding upper class snobbery and from that moment on we were hooked.
No sooner do things get dull in Downton than we see the plot dabble with a bit more death. The cliffhanger at the end of season one is Cora’s fall resulting in the death of her baby and the announcement of World War 1, which heralds yet more death.
When season 2 opens then, we are fearing death, namely the death of Matthew, who may well die before he and Mary can resolve their troubling love affair. And lo, Sybil enters the picture – risking her own social death by falling for an Irish Chauffeur (that would be two counts against him in English upper class society). The risk of death hovering around the season, we have one soldier who might be the long lost earl presumptive coming back from the dead, one soldier dying after having been married briefly to Daisy, and one ex-wife dying – perhaps at the hand of her husband Bates (subject of the Christmas special…a bit ‘o death with your cranberry sauce never goes amiss). In the grand finale, it is the death of Matthew’s fiance Lavinia which liberates him finally to be with Mary and sets the scene for season 3.
And so financial ruin faces the Crawley family. Luckily, due to Lavinia’s death, Matthew is in a position to save them all from ignominious social death this time… an option which is not open to Ethel the pregnant servant, who has become a prostitute. Meanwhile Mrs Hughes may have cancer (ooh, some nice death below stairs) whilst upstairs Sybil goes one better than her and does in fact die… The season ends with the risk of exposure of Thomas’ homosexuality (a sin viewed by many at that time as a mortal one). Without the cliffhanger of death to satiate our appetites, the Christmas special comes up trumps. And this time it’s Matthew who dies. Fabulous.
His death puts a strain on the estate once again because of death duties. Dealing with the repercussions of death is – as it turns out – expensive. But all this pales in comparison to the Anna’s rape by the valet Green, not because of her great acting and her utter shame and misery which strikes justifiably into our hearts… but because we know, that Bates may well kill her rapist if he learns of it. Murder, that most violent of deaths, is highly addictive (and the show writers know it). The specter endures throughout season 3 supported by the potential social death of Edith who has become pregnant with a married man and who has disappeared in Germany …is he dead? By the end of the season Green is, no surprise, dead. Is Bates his murderer?
And so we arrive at season 5. A socialist government bodes death to life at Downton as we know it.
‘Our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for.’ ~ Robert Crawley
The rise of the working middle class, is the theme that holds the first episode together which will presumably run throughout the entire season. But it will be nothing without physical death which has pushed every season forward since the outset. It’s been rumored that the Dowager Countess – who is growing ever more frail – has a brilliant plot line in this season and since Maggie Smith has long since requested to be written out so she can pursue other projects it may well be a ‘killer’. The show writers don’t give much away. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from past seasons of Downton, the grim reaper is sure to make an appearance.