Downton Abbey returned to PBS last night with the two-hour premiere of Season 3. While the show's delay in crossing the Atlantic has presented a problem of spoilers for some American viewers (including me; a Telegraph headline unfortunately gave away a key plot point), there is still much to look forward to, and the first episode, resuming the story of the Crawley family and their servants in spring 1920, did not disappoint. Branson is still horrid. Dowager Countess Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) is still magnificent. Mr Carson is still everything that made Britain great. And the irritating smugness of Whiggish Americanist triumphalism (Shirley Maclaine) arrives with a vengeance as the consequences of the War That Ruined Everything are felt. After the show concluded I was inspired to create this chart of the reigning European monarchs of 1912 (beginning of season one) and 1920 (beginning of season three), showing how much had changed in only eight years, and also came across this interesting article on royal references in Downton. I've also resolved to include the show's very real location Highclere Castle on a future visit to England, perhaps as soon as this summer.
It's probably fair to say that in the world of Downton Abbey, more than any other "Downstairs" characters, the dignified butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter), who last season was clearly thrilled with his employer the Earl of Grantham's gift of a book on the royal families of Europe, and Lord Grantham's Irish radical chauffeur-turned-son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) represent the two basic opposing ideological camps of the early 20th century. Mr Carson stands for tradition, duty, loyalty, hierarchy--everything that the First World War would undermine or destroy. Seldom has a fictional character so perfectly encapsulated the worldview this blog tries to defend. (While Monarchy per se is rarely mentioned, when it is, there is no doubt that Mr Carson is on our side.) In contrast, Branson, who believes that morning coats are "uniforms of oppression" and cheers on the fall of European monarchies, represents the rising forces of egalitarianism and republicanism that will make the twentieth century a horrifyingly bleak and violent one, and not only for monarchists.
As one who feels a strong urge to throttle him every time he is on screen spouting his leftist views, I have been unable to discern any reason for the popularity of Branson, whose revolutionary political agenda led to the deaths of millions, among some Downton fans other than that they think he is good-looking. Therefore I propose that the next big PBS period drama should be set in World War II France and sympathetically portray the Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier (1915-1996), who has described as having been "unusually good-looking, almost pretty, with wavy blond hair, delicate features and deep-set, intense blue eyes." Perhaps he or a character like him could attain an affectionate following as well. If looks and charm trump all, why not?
I suppose some people watch Downton Abbey (enthusiasm for which has been criticized as "un-American," as I reported last year) and think, "how horrible that they had such a rigid class system back then." But true Downton fans watch the show and think, Yes, that's the way things should be (at least in the first season), because inequality and hierarchy of some sort are inevitable and it's better to be honest about it. And whatever flaws Downton may have, it deserves traditionalists' gratitude for portraying an Earl (Hugh Bonneville) who is both a believer in the aristocratic tradition he has inherited and a sympathetic character, as well as his heroic butler Mr Carson with whom all monarchists of humble birth can identify.