I can pinpoint the moment in the Downton Abbey movie when my class-warfare hackles rose their highest. Lady Mary Crawley, a key member of the movie’s central family, was wondering whether the time had come to sell the grand British estate—a house roughly the size of a cruise ship, home to a handful of aristocrats and their army of servants. Maybe, Mary mused from her dressing-table chair, as she was getting primped and groomed by her personal maid, the family should move to a more reasonably-sized large manor and turn Downton into something useful, like a school.
But the maid begged Lady Mary to keep Downton in the family forever, a symbol of glory and honor for the staff and the surrounding town. This was what the little people wanted: aristocracy!
And there you have it, the overarching message of the film that topped the U.S. box office last weekend, beating out Rambo: Last Blood, Brad Pitt’s new space flick Ad Astra and It: Chapter Two. Granted, the success of Downton Abbey owes something to nostalgia, the power of all-American Anglophilia and the comic stylings of supporting actress Dame Maggie Smith. But the movie’s appeal is still a little vexing. At a time of raging populism and unprecedented income inequality, in the United Kingdom and the United States, why are Americans lapping up a love song from the servants to their masters?
The Downton Abbey franchise, which originated on Britain’s ITV and aired on PBS’s “Masterpiece” from 2011 to 2016, always took a romantic view of the economic hierarchy. The show, set in 1910s and ‘20s England, flirted with the social turmoil of its time; there were subplots about male primogeniture, class mobility, women in the workforce. But it was mostly a soap opera of manners, filled with untimely deaths, secret babies and forbidden love, wrapped in gilded costumes and an unspoken promise that the servants knew their place.
The movie, set in 1927, doubles down on that class consciousness. The plot centers on a one-night visit to the estate from King George V and his wife, which leaves the Crawleys a bit frazzled—whatever will they wear?—but the servants thrilled. Mr. Carson, the butler who embodies respect for the Old Order, is even lured out of retirement to make sure the silver is sufficiently polished.
But then the Buckingham Palace staff arrives at the estate, snooty and sneering and fully intending to bigfoot the locals. And rather than celebrate a rare night off, the proud Downton servants decide to defend their honor. A caper ensues: a little drugging, a little telephone fraud, and soon enough they’ve dispatched the king’s staff—some sent back to London under false pretenses, some locked in their bedrooms in the servants’ quarters—and grabbed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve canapes and wine to Their Majesties.
Dear lovers of the aristocracy, there’s more! The one Irish Republican character—a former chauffeur who spent time in the Irish resistance—finds a dramatic way to prove his loyalty to the king. (He also unwittingly convinces the princess to stay in a loveless marriage; “the crown,” she declares to her parents, is more important than happiness.) Another noblewoman passes off her illegitimate daughter as her maid, a circumstance that seems to bother no one. In the final scene, Downton’s butler and housekeeper walk into the moonlight, hoping out loud that the feudal system carries on forever.
Yes, this is a period piece, written by Julian Fellowes, that most period-y of British period writers. (He’s also a conservative member of the House of Lords.) And yet so much of actual 1920s history goes unseen.
At the time, the British labor movement was gaining traction, notes James Vernon, a professor of modern British history at the University of California-Berkeley. While British newspapers were breathlessly covering the social lives of the aristocracy, some people were pushing for the abolition of hereditary titles and demanding that the nobles’ land be taxed. In 1928, working-class women would get the vote. Within 20 years, the entire system would fall apart—and domestic service would go from being one of Britain’s largest sectors of employment for women to being virtually nonexistent.
Few tears were shed, among the working class, for the end of that era. The happy harmony of Downton is “a complete fantasy,” Vernon says. “It’s a fantasy based upon the idea that the people who are in domestic service long to be looked after by what we would now call the one percent. And they’re grateful for the living that they are provided by them. And that’s basically the natural social order.”
The pleasure in upending that order—watching some people rise, and others topple—is usually at the core of American entertainment. Yes, we’re fascinated with the current British royals, but that’s less aspiration than voyeurism. We know they’re essentially paid actors in a reality soap opera; the salary and benefits are great, but the job is terrible.
For the most part, though, when it comes to watching wealth, we layer aspiration with resentment. On fictional shows like HBO’s Succession, about a family that owns a global media empire, luxury porn goes down with a chaser of self-satisfaction. Those grand summer homes and helicopter rides are symbols of moral decline and corrupted souls. In real life, we lap up the college admissions scandal and the nouveau-riche ostentatiousness of Real Housewives, taking satisfaction when the rich people’s self-serving tackiness catches up with them. And we know that the waitstaff is watching with clear eyes and the power to topple the system from within—like the bartender whose secret “47 percent” video helped to doom Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
In Downton Abbey, there are no such threats; the worst that might happen is that a valet will spill some soup. And that stability can feel like a comfort.
Vernon notes that the show premiered in the heart of the global economic turndown. Now, the movie comes out as political turmoil, in the United States and the United Kingdom, reaches fever pitch. “The world has been turned upside down for many people,” he says. “And I think Downton Abbey speaks to those of us who long for a quieter, gentler, apparently more stable time.”
But it’s not just stability that Downton represents, says Priya Satia, a Stanford University history professor who studies modern Britain. There’s also the prospect, however unrealistic, of a kinder set of relationships between rungs of the social order. The servant characters in Downton, like the maid dressing Lady Mary, feel a bond to their masters that isn’t just economic, but emotional. And the aristocrats feel an obligation to their servants’ welfare, and appreciation for even the dressing-and-polishing skills they bring to the table.
“We’re wise enough to know that this is a romantic, very idealized depiction of servant and master relations, but we just find it so attractive,” she says. “If we’re going to have inequality, can it at least be nice? Can the dignity of every kind of work be acknowledged?”
This is, it’s true, the difference between Downton-style inequality and the transactional relationships of today’s economy. Gone are the days of benevolent corporate paternalism, a social compact that ranged from pension funds to full-on company towns. Now, pensions are outsourced to 401(k)s; health care costs are passed on to employees; and within the confines of the gig economy, employer-employee relationships don’t exist at all.
Maybe, as Satia suggests, we’re longing for a fantasy version of a time when the rich and poor felt interconnected. When someone like Carson, unlucky enough to be born without noble blood, could still be rewarded for his skills and talents with a middle-class life and an identity—a sense, however imagined, that without him, the system falls apart.
Indeed, Carson’s arc throughout the Downton series represents a dignified way to manage upheaval. In the early days, he was often comic relief, flummoxed by new technology. But over time, he became the center of his own small sphere of power—at least someone still knows how the polishing gets done.
In real life these days, on both sides of the pond, older men are doing their best to upend the system. But Carson has been around long enough to know that this might be the best he’s going to get. He’s made peace with the imperfections of the world, so long as he still gets to pour the wine.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine