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Downton Abbey season 3: Masculinity in crisis

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Warning: this post contains significant spoilers for seasons 1 & 2 of DOWNTON ABBEY, including the season 2 Christmas special. It also contains mild spoilers for the 3rd season and its Christmas special. Proceed at your own risk.

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In season 3 of DOWNTON ABBEY, the Earl of Grantham tells his mother, his wife, and two of his daughters to do something. He is stupefied when one by one, taking their cue from each other, all four say no.

DOWNTON ABBEY, the British period drama chronicling the lives of the up- and downstairs of the titular estate, had often been accused of being a high-class soap opera. This is understandable, especially considering some of the more ludicrous developments in season 2: the sudden pregnancy and equally sudden miscarriage of Lady Grantham; Matthew’s fertility-endangering injury, which was then magically cured overnight; the appearance for one episode of a burn-victim claiming to be a long-lost relative; etc. Even without those, there are enough side-ways glances, nefarious plans and stolen kisses to qualify for the epithet.

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The series has furthermore been criticized for presenting the aristocratic system of early twentieth century Britain in too idealized a light, with a just and benevolent house of the household and servants perfectly content in their position, even fighting to preserve the system that keeps them firmly downstairs. I’ve always wondered about writer/creator Julian Fellowes’ nostalgia: he seems at times to yearn to go back to a time when people of his class and gender had many more advantages, even if people of his sexual orientation decidedly did not.

Still. Soap operas have been known to put a human face on larger societal trend, and season 3 seems to have a more ambivalent view toward the era it depicts. Talk of change is prominent to the point of parody: not everyone can see it yet, but estates like DOWNTON are doomed. And so is the ideal of masculinity it stands for.

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The Earl of Grantham is the avatar for this change. Left and right, people stop listening to him. One of his daughter’s already disobeyed him by running off with the chauffeur. This season, one of his other daughters pursues first a man and then a career he couldn’t approve of less.  Even his wife, who already became much too independent for his taste in season 2, has realized she can simply refuse to do as he says. Furthermore, his reward for letting his son-in-law in on the business side backfires, as they have fundamental disagreements on how to run the estate.

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You’d almost feel sorry for the man: he’s all too aware of how superfluous he is becoming, and he clings desperately to the way things used to be. It’s a good thing, then, that Fellowes doesn’t let us forget the drawbacks of the Earl’s way of thinking. He bankrupted the estate, twice if I understand the early chronology of the show correctly, and would again if he had his way. Worse: his discomfort with the peculiarities of the female anatomy and his trust in status over skill lead to one of the most tragic events of the season.

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It’s interesting in this context that season 3 finally does something with the sexual orientation of everyone’s favorite villainous footman/valet, Thomas. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that his plot illustrates just how tricky it must’ve been to find a balance as a gay person, but is ultimately hopeful. Thomas represents a new model of masculinity. He shows us that the change in society may be bad for some man, but can be good for others, too.

DOWNTON ABBEY is quite unique as a TV show because it reflects the vision of just one man. It is normal that it mostly reflects his perspective: that of a gay man of aristocratic descent who clearly longs back in some ways to the days of the empire. You can tell, however, that just writing this show is helping him examine some of his feelings, and realize that the fall of the old system was not just inevitable but maybe also desirable.

There’s much more to discuss about this season, of course. The neutering of Branson’s revolutionary instincts, the Jane Eyre-story Edith is saddled with, the strange one-episode subplot Mrs. Patmore gets… However, these feel like doodles in the margins in the story of how men stopped being in charge, and started having to find another way to define themselves.

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