Like just about all the people on the Internet, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my run through Downtown Abbey. We caught up on the whole first season on Netflix, just about in time for the new season to get going on PBS, and now I’m happy enough to have a reason for a date with the TV for the next five Sunday evenings—both for the show itself and for Patton Oswalt’s hilarious livetweets of each broadcast. The whole experience of Downton is delightful—there’s really no other word for a program that features moments like Maggie Smith decrying the swivel chair (invented by Thomas Jefferson) as just another skirmish in the eternal battle against the Americans.
But, from what I can tell, the main viewership of Downtown consists of people who feel on some level that they really ought to know better. It’s unavoidable, really—the show is built around the kind of strict division of classes that our enlightened era is supposed to have moved past, and angry chastisement and semi-bewildered apologia alike situate their discussion of the show in terms of its portrayal of “upstairs and downstairs.” Roger Ebert somewhat less conflictedly finds the appeal of the show in its comforting conflict-free recreation of a life where “there is pride in doing one’s job well, in being the epitome of a footman, a ladies’ maid, a butler, a valet, or an Earl.” I haven’t had quite the same reaction. While the idea of every individual carrying out her duty and inhabiting her hierarchical place to the best of her ability is expressed more or less explicitly within the show by the Earl of Grantham and several other characters, and while it’s this idea that brings Matthew Crawley into the fold, allowing him to stop worrying and drop the egalitarian pretensions he brings with him from his former life as a middle-class lawyer and start loving his valet Molesley’s constant attentions, the show’s smart enough to know that intelligent modern viewers won’t swallow that line entirely. So we get Lady Sybil’s budding progressivism, for instance, or the Marxist/Irish revolutionary chauffeur, to let us know that Downton Abbey itself isn’t entirely unaware of the contradictions at play in this idyll. But these conflicts aren’t the point any more than Grantham’s naïve endorsement of class division. The characters’ responses to that part of their situation are there just enough to satisfy our itch for realism, letting us enjoy the characters and the wit of the dialogue all the while knowing these class divisions are a thing of the past.
I don’t mean to suggest there’s nothing problematic about that—I just don’t agree that the appeal of the show really has much to do with its treatment of class one way or the other. A much more interesting aspect of the show is the way the Granthams themselves are depicted as being subject to their own wealth, rather than the other way around. It might be possible to see in this a conservative argument about the unacknowledged burden the wealthy are supposed to suffer under—some of the wealthy characters essentially say as much—but again I don’t think the show really expects the intelligent viewer to buy this idea so much as to understand that these characters have talked themselves into it. It makes them loveable, even though we know they’re a little bit deluded. I think there’s another aspect of the economy of Downton Abbey that a contemporary audience might find more fundamentally appealing.
There’s a really spectacular article in the New York Times about the economic pressures that have led Apple computers to move the majority of its manufacturing overseas, to China. The article provides a clear glimpse into the thinking of Apple executives who believe, due to economic realities far beyond their control, that Apple products must be manufactured overseas, in factories capable of performing astonishingly quick restructurings of their operation like this: “…just weeks before the device was due on shelves, Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories… Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames.” Obviously, no American factory could ever do something like that. But since Apple has found this kind of manufacturing flexibility to be available, the economic benefits it provides are clear, and there’s no going back to American manufacturing. While I was reading this article, it occurred to me that the sin this story convicts Apple of is precisely the comfort Downtown Abbey provides for us. We might not wholly buy Grantham’s argument that living with his wealth is really a kind of sacrifice, but where we do find our own comfort in Downton’s world is in its argument that wealth should be fundamentally grounded, tied to the land, committed to the town and the region where the people who are subject to its wealth live and work. It’s horrifying for us to see that beneath the reasoning of those at Apple is a total absence of loyalty to any place—Apple is in business only to increase the value of Apple; it harbors no responsibility beyond that.
Of course, we’re aware of this fundamental reality about the economic world we live in. We know that corporations exist in a realm that lies mostly outside the concern of region and nation. But we also believe that on some level this is wrong, and if Downton Abbey is reassuring it’s in the conviction with which it argues for us against the separation of wealth from its place. The central sacrifice of the whole series is that the Earl of Grantham must recognize his distant cousin Matthew, someone he’s never known, as the heir to Downton Abbey. In doing so, Grantham, with no male children, is likely going to pass all of his wealth away from his own immediate family, leaving his daughters with no inheritance. At one point in the first season, he explains to his eldest daughter that he won’t fight the inheritance laws, because to do so would require removing the wealth of Downton from the Abbey and all the people who have worked there. The nobility of this decision isn’t in Grantham’s bowing to an outmoded law of aristocracy and inherited wealth. Rather, as Grantham himself only partly understands, it’s in his recognition that ultimately wealth is not simply the property of its nominal owners, but is in fact rightfully and much more complexly tied to and owed to the community of people who live out their lives in the maintenance of that wealth. This is just the sacrifice that we know no contemporary corporation will make. Grantham calls himself merely a steward of the property and the people of Downton Abbey, and even though we know this is part of the ideological trick that keeps him from acknowledging the unfairness and inequality inherent to that economic system, it’s also an argument that wealth is fundamentally collective. And more than some deep-seated conservative nostalgia for the rigid class structure that the show makes its setting, if part of Downton Abbey’s appeal is to be found in the way it responds specifically to our own uncertain economic times, I think it’s in this argument against the free-floating irresponsibility of corporate wealth.