In the show’s first season, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) writes a letter intended to ruin the marital prospects of her sister Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Lady Mary retaliates by dissuading Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) from his impending proposal to Edith. This is the first of two times Mary ruins a proposal to Edith, who spends the rest of the series cycling between deviousness and punishment. During World War I, footman Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) tries to get rich quick by selling rationed goods on the black market, and loses what for him counts as a fortune when the goods he has bought turn out to be bags of sawdust. Barrow’s accomplice Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) causes mistress of the house Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) to have a miscarriage and suffers a fate that, for “Downton,” is every bit as bad as death: Her character leaves the show, thus depriving her of the redemption guaranteed to so many of the show’s other villains, including Barrow.
The unfailing karma that infuses the show is every bit as intoxicating as the decor and decorum. Like “Judge Judy,” now in its 24th season, “Downton Abbey” presents a fantasy version of justice, where comeuppances are doled out swiftly and regularly. Art historian Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant) makes a pass at the married Cora Crawley and ends up clobbered by her husband, Robert (Hugh Bonneville). Maid Edna (MyAnna Buring) blackmails the Crawleys’ son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and ends up fired. Maid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) has an affair and is driven into prostitution. Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk (Theo James) talks Lady Mary into having premarital sex with him and ends up dead. Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) has premarital sex with Lady Edith and ends up dead. Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) blackmails Mr. Bates and ends up dead. Mr. Green (Nigel Harman), a visiting valet, rapes lovable maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and ends up dead. Downton Abbey is a very bad place for schemers and evildoers to visit.
In the movie, this system of justice is turned on its head. The schemers not only succeed but are also the heroes of the story — though to be fair, their hijinks are largely in service of their own reputations, rather than intended to do grave harm to anyone else. In a plot so low-stakes that the only out-and-out villain, a would-be royal assassin, is dispatched halfway through the movie, the conspiracy at hand is not a matter of life or death but of pride and propriety. The servants, displaced by a series of snooty royal attendants, hatch a plan to drug the royal chef, send the royal footmen on a wild goose chase, and lock up the royal butler — I’m sorry, the “king’s page of the backstairs.” All this so they can be the ones to do the cooking and the bowing and scraping.
It was silly enough for lady’s maid Anna, the show’s great exemplar of keeping one’s head down and keeping the faith in eventual happiness, to stand up in the movie as the ringleader of the servants’ plot. But when even Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the butler who always has the final word at Downton, ultimately gives his stamp of approval to the insurrection, it is a breach not only of protocol but also of the show’s great scheme of anti-scheming.
Perhaps that’s an acknowledgment that even Downton Abbey, a place seemingly out of time, can’t stay that way forever. After all, scheming isn’t just for cutting in line but is also for getting ahead legitimately. By taking their rightful place, the Downton maids and valets could finally be showing some of the entrepreneurial spirit they’ll need when they leave behind a life of service. As the show — and the movie — remind us over and over, Downton Abbey stays the same, but the world is changing.