I have been a fan of Downton Abbey since the very first episode I watched; there is no denying that it is a very entertaining TV show, and personally I never seem to get tired of pan shots of the Abbey and its surroundings. Although after watching three seasons, and skipping through its final Christmas special, I’ve become suspicious of the sneering attitude of the show towards the working classes. There are many examples of the same theme in various episodes.
It seems that in Downton Abbey, working class people who aspire to have a higher role in society, and people who are not content with serving their masters, are hardly ever displayed in a positive light. Of course the most obvious example is the contrast between Mr Bates (the valet) and Thomas (the footman). Mr Bates is a good servant, always serving and grateful. He knows his place in society, and he is wonderfully happy with just serving a privileged and a very good-hearted Lord Grantham. Thomas on the other hand is not content with the way things are and he is portrayed as evil. But is he evil because he likes to have a different life?
In the first episodes, we notice that Thomas is evil because he takes an immediate dislike to Mr Bates, who we later find out has taken the job that Thomas wanted. Mr Bates’ success at acquiring this job cannot be through qualification, since he has a limp and has a hard time carrying things around for the ever grandiose Lord Grantham. However, it is through his friendship with Lord Grantham that he has landed this gig. I wager if both Thomas’ and Mr Bates’ qualifications were compared Thomas might have had a better chance at taking this job.
We also very quickly find out that Thomas is gay, and that he is ready to take desperate measures to change his standing in society, such as blackmailing an influential lover, but he of course fails miserably because in the Downton Abbey world you have to be happy with the status quo, and blackmail and being gay doesn’t get you anywhere in life. In a later episode Thomas fails again, when he tries his hand at business. He stocks up on flour and other groceries to be able to sell them later during the war, on the black market. But the Downton Abbey world is against change and before you know it, Thomas is conned out of his savings.
Are you ashamed of who you are, or who you were? Is that why you won’t take your dinner with us?
There are also other plot lines that are testimony to the right-wing ideology of the show. The Irish chauffeur Branson ends up climbing the social ladder, only when he repents and abandons his revolutionary ideas. In the recent Christmas special, he is scorned by a newly arrived maid, Edna, for his new social status, which makes him unsure about his new lifestyle. However he is set right and assured by the good servants of Downton Abbey, that there is nothing wrong with what he has become and he must embrace his new position.
You let Edna make you ashamed of your new life.
(You will be glad to know Edna the housemaid was summarily fired.)
There is also the mean maid, O’Brien, who is pretty much a female version of Thomas. She started off her career as a professional evil person, by tripping nice Mr Bates in the first episode. Since then she has done much worse things.
Let us not forget the other housemaid who ended up snogging the pure lips of Lord Grantham, in one rather pointless sub-plot. The housemaid had to be let go as well, as Lord Grantham fought the urge to allow the maid to be intimate with him. It seems that dealing with the working classes has unpredictable consequences and it should be avoided to maintain the equilibrium of Downton Abbey.
There was also the pregnant housemaid, Ethel Parks, who dreamed of bettering herself by initiating a sexual relationship with an army officer during the war. She ended up in the streets, which to be fair was sort of an improvement to a life spent serving an upper class family.
These are the examples that I can recall right now – please do let me know if you agree with my point or not. Or if you have any other example of the portrayal of the lower classes in a bad light in this TV show.