There’s been some criticism of the BBC show Downton Abbey for being a bit of a soap opera. I agree in some ways, especially when contrived plots (the deus ex machina of both money troubles and solutions, a legal drama over a man being framed for murder, and an excessively drawn out romance) can sometimes fill up space. In sum, however, I feel that the central theme of the show remains sound: tradition versus “progress.” As a seriously acted and interesting reflection on living lives in a changing and ever-more-alien world, it both resonates with the American experience of the early 21st century and many individuals families in these uncertain times.
Further, even at its most dramatic the show can remain quite grounded in an realistic depiction of its characters and historical period. Consider, for instance, the recently jilting of Lady Edith at the altar. Though certainly played for emotion, the way we regular watchers have gotten to know her over the past 2 seasons made the her loss all the more weighty. Her emerging life as a “modern woman” fits well with the times, as does the awareness that so many young men her age were lost in the Great War.
And there there’s last night’s heartbreaking episode. Quite unexpectedly, the Grantham’s youngest daughter Sybil died following childbirth. The death scene was painful to watch, as all the family gathered helplessly as her young life convulsively ebbed before their very eyes. Such a death seems rather unlikely to us in our world of modern medicine, but in some parts of the world today and throughout the overwhelmingly majority of human history, birth and death often mingled together in similarly unfortunate–and sudden–ways. The way the family began to mourn following her passing was hard to watch…but it was authentically honest about the human emotions contained in such a loss. Most devastating was a scene when the aged Dowager Countess–normally witty and cantankerous–walked slowly down a hallway carrying the emotional weight of Sybil’s loss together with all those experienced over her long years.
It is moments–and times–like these that make Downton more than just a soap opera. At its best, it is a picture of human life in all its contingency…and for all the honesty about our complex and broken world that involves, I appreciate it.