Period television shows such as “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey” differ from many historical movies in that they’re not about pivotal figures — unless, I suppose, you think the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad is a seminal event — and their characters change slowly, rather than all at once. The seven seasons of “Mad Men” spanned just more than a decade, from March 1960 to November 1970, while the six seasons of “Downton Abbey” took the characters from the April 1912 sinking of the Titanic to Jan. 1, 1926.
This difference in pacing can make historical television series seem staid. When we look back on our varied pasts, we want to be reassured about what we’ve left behind us, to be buoyed by the idea that our forebears displayed the vision and moral fortitude to embrace the great changes advancing upon them. We don’t want to imagine that they made accommodations that would allow new eras to sweep over them, disguising their prejudices in order to keep believing in them and holding onto their privileges with a tight grasp.
So if the characters on “Downton Abbey” move forward slowly, circling around the same issues over and over again, whatever boredom and impatience we may have felt with them over the years is our boredom and impatience with the pace at which change becomes permanent, coming first to the Tom Bransons of the world and last to the Lord Granthams and Mr. Carsons.
Watching the early seasons of “Downton Abbey” again, I’ve felt more impressed by how — despite all sorts of soap opera-y diversions along the way — series creator Julian Fellowes has managed to weave the essential threads of his characters’ personalities throughout the series’ run and lead them to satisfying conclusions.
Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the countess of Grantham, may have initially been put out by the prospect of turning Downton into a convalescent hospital during World War I. But the experience awakened her to the pleasure of productive work. But the end of the series, she’s acting as head of the hospital, the same position once occupied by her mother-in-law. Where Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith) accepted the job as a tribute to her dignity, Cora has taken it as an opportunity to be of service. She hasn’t transformed the class system from which she’s benefited so much, but Cora has recognized that it’s possible to do different things with the power that accrues to her.
In a similar way, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), about whom I wrote at length last week, first tried to break out of the constraints her class imposed on her by playing at being someone else. During World War I, she brushed off Violet’s admonition that “you are a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall” to drive a tractor for Mr. Drake (Fergus O’Donnell), one of Downton’s tenant farmers. When Drake’s wife (Cathy Sara) caught them in a kiss, she hired a man to help around the farm so Edith wouldn’t have an excuse to volunteer anymore.
But if Edith had lost her first opportunity to do real work, she was transformed by the experience: “You’re far nicer than you were before the war, you know,” her sister Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) told Edith. It would take Edith years to find her proper role, as a magazine publisher, and to recognize that the right man for her would be one who helped her with that work, rather than providing her with an opportunity to leave it behind.
Other changes are smaller. Robert (Hugh Bonneville), who likes to believe himself to be in control of events despite voluminous evidence to the controversy, has learned that he is not actually the architect of the world around him. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) has learned from Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) that the perfection that he demands of others is not so easy to achieve when he tries to live up to the same standards himself. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), perhaps the least changeable of the bunch, has at least learned that she doesn’t have to add more wealth and position to her own by marriage and can instead prioritize love and sexual compatibility. Violet, of course, has always shown flashes of unpredictability; she may be the same person at the end of the series that she was at the beginning, but the precise composition of her character has always been less stuffy than her exterior might suggest.
If what I’m describing sounds conservative, perhaps it is. Certainly, Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) journey from revolutionary chauffeur to fully assimilated member of a grand family and owner of a respectable business suggests that he’s been co-opted along the way.
As “Downton Abbey” comes to an end, the social stratification that existed at the beginning has largely been preserved, even if the layers themselves have taken on different form. Economic changes have made estates less profitable and shrunk the ranks of those in service, pushing some of them out into the world to become secretaries and teachers. And members of the nobility have managed to preserve their lofty perches through a series of escape valves, be it Cora’s hospital service or the grand house tours that slake public curiosity about the sorts of lives people conduct inside these grand edifices.
But for all that “Downton Abbey” depicts a sumptuous way of life in decline, the show doesn’t mourn the past. Instead, I can’t help but think that that the sum of the progress accomplished by the characters both upstairs and downstairs might outweigh — or at least equal — Branson’s mostly theoretical revolutionary ambitions. Change comes slowly, and it doesn’t always bring about the scale of transformations that we’d like, but it does come. What makes the heroic characters of “Downton Abbey” admirable isn’t simply that they accept the alterations to their world, but that they become better versions of themselves in response to their shifting circumstances. Edith may be nicer, Cora may be harder-working and Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle) may have learned to think better of himself. And their little revelations will continue to change the world they live and work in, even if only an inch or two at a time.