From Subjects to Citizens: Downton Abbey Video Recap

Continuing their new video series, the Overthinkers recap Downton Abbey Season 3, Episode 3.

We’re trying something new—recaps and discussions of our favorite shows recorded via Google Hangout. We’re starting with Downton Abbey. There might be some Mad Men or some Breaking Bad in the future.

Please let us know what you think, both of the discussion and of the new format.

5 Comments on “From Subjects to Citizens: Downton Abbey Video Recap”

  1. Lavanya #

    Your discussion of Sybil’s liberal tendencies being co-opted by her marriage brought to mind something about Matthew. He himself is co-opted by an institution he joins, the aristocracy in his case. Way back in Series 1, a lot of the jokes in Matthew’s early scenes are based in how (upper-)middle class he is compared to the upper-upper class Crowleys. In particular, I’m thinking of that short subplot where Matthew tells his butler that he thinks it’s silly to have someone dress him when he’s been dressing himself, and laying his own clothes out, all his life.

    The butler is horribly put out, and eventually word makes it back to the Earl. He takes Matthew aside and dresses him down, telling him how that, by laying out his own clothes, he’s taking a job and self-worth from that butler. There’s a very heavy tone to the scene that Matthew has transgressed the aristocratic system, and is undermining the noblesse oblige that the Crowleys preen themselves on throughout the series. And I’d argue that the show itself isn’t neutral in the argument being given, as it upholds the Earl as a righteous man (like getting his lowly cook cataracts surgery) while Matthew is played as a bit of a dick when he’s explaining to his butler why he thinks the way he does.

    Of course, Matthew never counters the Earl on his argument. He could say “No, I like laying out my own clothes, but that’s just me and I’m happy to help find my butler another position somewhere else” or “No, a man’s self worth doesn’t — and shouldn’t — depend on him laying out clothes for a richer man” or even, if you’re a radical Irish chauffeur, something like “We should lay out our own clothes, and stop oppressing a vast segment of the population by indenturing them to us as personal servants. Their lives can be happier, and they can enrich themselves and society more, but finding a different sort of job.”

    Instead, Matthew accepts his butler’s subservience as a necessary and vital part of the world order, and begins his slow process of becoming absorbed into the aristocracy. While he still has flashes of bucking the system, like his talk with Mary in S3 about where they should live after the marriage, it’s very watered down to what it was (and even then, Matthew’s sentiments were fairly weaksauce).

    Downton Abbey, in S1 at least, is the story of how establishments perpetuate themselves, and how the members of them are willing participants in perpetuating them even if they ultimately shortchange them. Wanna dress yourself? You’re stealing a man’s job! Wanna have pre-martial sex? He’ll die in your bed and now your mother will always think you’re a slut! Wanna become a secretary instead of spending your life as a housemaid? You’re a silly girl, and you better damn well hope that someone in a social rank above you will step in to lend you a hand to give you what you want, you uppity pleb.


    • Gab #

      Well-said, all of that. :)


  2. Gab #

    I’d also posit juxtaposing the marriage Edith wanted to the one Mary didn’t, meaning the one to the cousin that died in the Titanic. Someone somewhere even says at one point that, apart from his “infirmary” or whatever, Strallan was rather an ideal match for Edith. Heck, he would have been good for Mary, too. He was rich, powerful, had lots of property, kind, and Edith loved him. But that match, once taken seriously by Edith, was seen as a terrible idea. Mary’s marriage to the cousin was arranged, and while he, too, was rich (or going to be, anyway), as well as a good guy (or so we’re led to believe, at least, from what they say about him), Mary didn’t love him. Now, the main reason for Edith not marrying Strallan was I guess the one-two punch of his age and disability, and I’m under the impression Mary’s marriage to the cousin was imposed to keep Downton in the family. But I suppose I find the two matches a good contrast because young girls marrying old dudes happened all the time to preserve noble blood lines, as did the inbreeding. Also, don’t forget, Strallan was introduced as a potential fix for Mary’s almost-scandal over Pamuk, the Turkish guy that died in her bed. It wasn’t until Strallan was wounded that he suddenly became a terrible match for anybody.

    So this makes me think the age thing wasn’t really the biggest deal, but the disability (or perhaps that combined with the age). And disability is kind of my thing, so now I’m going to give a little essay about how this is messed up and Edith is the most progressive of the bunch (or at least tied with Sybil). Note I’m not going to bother with the language used (“a cripple”- yuck), so much as the perceptions of disability.

    Strallan lost use of his arm in war. And to avoid taking too long with this, the bottom line is it freaks everybody else out, but Edith doesn’t really care (at least not in a negative way). Everyone else, Strallan himself included, talks as if he’d be unable to walk in a few years, even though there is absolutely no indication whatsoever he has any sort of health or mobile issues apart from the arm one. Edith focuses on how happy they’ll be, how they’ll be there for each other and have a family and life like anybody else’s. While everyone else is saying she’ll be a wet nurse, she flat out denies it and instead tries to take the focus away from the arm issue.

    This parallels different trains of thought about disability. While nowadays there are all sorts of legislation to get us to think beyond the disability or treat it as no big deal, it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that the UK passed any sort of legislation to provide any sort of protection for persons with disabilities, and that was in the shape of the Disabled Persons Employment Act of 1944. Much like our own Rehabilitation Act, it was designed with the purpose of helping veterans returning with injuries to get jobs and education. So even though Strallan is a war vet, he’s a vet of the wrong war in everyone’s eyes- except Edith. Edith cared for him before he left, and she grows to love him after he returns. The disability doesn’t scare her away the way it did everyone else. Edith cares more about inclusion and having a normal life than acting like the world is over because of a disability.

    And as a small bonus, Edith was also the only one to be at all receptive to the idea that the guy with the burns was indeed who he said he was. And when a few other family members made snide remarks about his scars (especially Mary, ugh), Edith intervened.

    Also, there’s potential to compare this to how the family approached Matthew’s almost-paralyzation. The wet-nurse thing was tossed about again, and everyone was against Matthew marrying Mary except Mary- but there was also the addition of Lavinia into the mix. Had Matthew not miraculously recovered, and had Lavinia not died, aaand, if Matthew had somehow given into Mary and let her marry him, Mary would have grown really bitter really fast. Sure, this is speculation, but I can see that match turning sour. If she even went through with a marriage- I think it’s even more likely she’d get cold feet and pull a Strallan. And while yes, being paralyzed and unable to have children (or sex, for that matter), is more severe of a disability, I think that makes the point more solid.

    Disability used to be viewed as a black-and-white issue that had to be isolated and kept away from what was/is “normal.” But even since the 1960s, when kids with disabilities started being included in regular classrooms (or at least schools), it’s been viewed as more of a scale. In the past, a disability became all or most of a person’s identity and worth in the eyes of others (a view that would then get internalized by the person). And those people were shunted aside. But things have moved beyond that. Institutions are gradually being closed down, kids are being immersed in non-special-ed rooms whenever possible, varying levels of supervision for persons living on their own. Nowadays, had Strallan and Matthew been around, they would be accommodated accordingly in ways specific to their individual needs, rather than both tossed aside in the exact same way. And Strallan most certainly wouldn’t have been treated like he was already entirely useless because one of his arms was paralyzed.

    So I guess I’m sort of saying that Edith’s perceptions of disability are more akin to those of people in modern society, while everyone around her is stuck in the past. Which I suppose isn’t bad commentary on the rest of the group, but rather a demonstration of how society has progressed since then.

    I’ll say this, I used to really dislike Edith, but I’ve come to like her quite a bit since the middle of S2. My only fear now is that she’ll go psycho over this Strallan thing and do something drastic, like smother Sybil’s baby.


    New topic: How about the way the Upstairs keeps getting manipulated by the Downstairs? I mean, my GOD, are these nobles all complete idiots? Especially Cora. I know there’s a lot of political analyzing potential there, but after the above, I’m not going to go there on this episode. Given how in every. Friggin. Episode. At least one noble gets duped by a servant, I’m sure there will be ample opportunity to overthink that in the future.

    But, I will say this is part of the formula of the episodes, what y’all were getting at with tone/tune/whathaveyou each episode. You know when O’Brien or Thomas gets “that look,” you know they’re about to do something shady, whether it be lie to a fellow servant, or have some sort of manipulative conversation with a noble. You could make a drinking game out of it. I suppose you need some sort of antagonism, other than the need to find the right food ingredients or something, but you’d think that at least the rest of the staff would figure out not to listen to a damn thing they say, and that Mr. Carson would have figured them out ages ago and told Lord and Lady Grantham about their behavior. I mean, when O’Brien told Ethel that Cora had asked for her in S2, we saw no ramifications for O’Brien- but given how tight a ship Mr. Carson seems to want to run, you’d think that would have led to at least a scolding/talking-to of some sort from him and/or Mrs. Hughes. It just baffles me that everybody seems to realize Thomas and O’Brien are horrid people, but they still keep their jobs.

    Okay, I could go on about other stuff, but I’ll stop for now/ this week.


    • Gab #

      *”had Lavinia not been around to die tragically”, my bad


    • Gab #

      Also, come to think of it, I retract the wording of “pull a Strallan.” Strallan left Edith because he didn’t want her to be held back by him and whatnot. Mary would leave Matthew because she’s selfish. So same action, different reasons.


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