Happy enough: Downton Abbey’s fairy-tale ending

Roll up the red carpet: It's all over, and now where are we going to get our fantasy helping of noblesse oblige?

Sunday, bloody Sunday: and now, after all that, what are we going to do with our Sunday evenings?

Here at ArtsWatch World Headquarters we freely confess we’ve been captivated by the grand soap opera/slash/fairy tale that is Downton Abbey, and we – alright, I – watched it trot off into the fox-hunting sunset with just a trace of a tear in my eye. Sunday’s wrap-up after six seasons on American television screens was also a bit of an unwrap, actually, tying up loose ends but also opening little gifts, unveiling a neat little dollop of happiness for just about everyone. Then again, the show’s British, so it’s happy with a footnote. As the crisp and cutting and utterly essential Lady Violet remarks after damp-mop spinster-with-a-kid Edith finally snares her fabulously wealthy Bertie and waltzes down the aisle of her storybook wedding, “They’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.”

All in the upper-crust family: It' been swell. Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited for Masterpiece

All in the upper-crust family: It’s been swell. Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited for Masterpiece

Way back in January 2011, when the whole escapade was just about to begin on American home screens, I looked on the series hopefully in this column as a showcase for the American actor Elizabeth McGovern, whom I assumed would have a leading role as the mistress of the estate. As it turned out, McGovern was key, and charming, a kind of quiet glue for her wayward and trouble-prone upper-crust clan, but only part of what truly has been an ensemble show (although more than once it might have sunk without the witty presence of the great Maggie Smith as the imperious and eminently quotable Violet).

What is it, besides the smart writing, sly humor, and fine acting, that fascinated so many of us about what has been, essentially, a tale of the one percent and the servants who seemed to happily devote their lives to them? (I mean, really, lords and ladies: you can’t dress yourselves?) Partly, I think, it’s the Greek Gods element: the pleasure of watching beings who are essentially bigger and bolder and vastly more powerful than we are behaving badly, and sometimes well, even if in spite of themselves, and having outrageous adventures, like Zeus and the gang. (In a more debased way, the antics of the Kardashians and the Donald fill the same role.)

Something else, I think, also might play a significant role: our nostalgic longing for the concept of noblesse oblige in an age of unabashed and perhaps unprecedented transfer of wealth away from the lower and middle and even lower upper classes to a new economic super-elite.

Whatever their quirks and excesses and failings, the friends and family of Lord Grantham believe it is their solemn duty to provide for the people of their household, their village, their county, their country, and – who knows? – maybe even the world. If the rich are always to be with us, isn’t it comforting to believe that their intentions, for the most part, are benevolent, and they’ll act, ultimately, in ways that benefit the culture as a whole? Even if we know better, it’s been nice to slip into the fantasy for an hour or so every Sunday evening. Lord Grantham for president, and we’ll just ignore that pesky not-born-in-the-United-States thing.

Because, outside of that hour with Downton Abbey, we’re pretty sure, most of us, that the noblesse isn’t feeling much obliged these days: if money corrupts, absolute money freshly accumulated appears to corrupt absolutely. The withering of the idea of noblesse oblige has had a deep impact on, among many other things, the health of our cultural institutions, which can no longer count on the sort of support that wealthy individuals and leading corporations once provided because they felt it was good for the community.

Plenty of that’s still around, of course, and those remaining traditional benefactors have been joined in cities like Portland by a new breed of activist underwriters who have smaller stockpiles of wealth but a determination to spend it smartly for the greater good. Still, it’s no longer a given – more and more money comes with what’s-in-it-for-us marketing strings – and for the most part the new super-wealthy could care less about what we now so quaintly refer to as “legacy” art and cultural forms. So we crowd-fund, which is democratic and scrappy and participatory and in many ways quite lovely, and maybe that’s just the way of the future, because the high-tech and big-energy Lord Granthams of today seem far more concerned with the economic advantages of the Cayman Islands than with the well-being of the tenant workers on the information farms down on the far reaches of the estate. After all, can’t a plucky peasant like Mrs. Patmore just start her own B&B? The lords don’t give much, but they surely taketh away.

So, yes: it’s been a swell escape, and we’ve been, well, obliged. We’ve really liked these people. And what if their real-life modern counterparts were to behave in something even close to similar ways? That might provide an ending, in Lady Violet’s words, that’s “happy enough.”

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