Downton Abbey has always been a show primarily about the evolution of culture—in particular, the way the twentieth century grabbed British society by the throat and dragged it into the modern world. But tonight’s episode seemed to jump forward a few decades. When even a character as tied to tradition as Lord Grantham acknowledges that sexual orientation is not a choice, you know you’re no longer in the 1920s, but somewhere much closer to our own era.
The most dramatic plot of tonight’s two-hour episode had gay valet Thomas at its center. Misled by the Machiavellian O’Brien (once his partner in crime), he makes an unwanted pass at the new, flirtatious footman, James, and all hell breaks loose.
While Carson, the conservative head of the downstairs staff, declares himself “revolted” by Thomas’s sexuality, before long, he is revealed to be alone in that judgment … and eventually, even Carson learns to feel compassion for the besieged Thomas.
It’s worth noting that the setting of Downton Abbey is closer to the time of Oscar Wilde—sentenced to hard labor for acts of “gross indecency”—than that of Harvey Milk. The way the other characters rally around Thomas and turn the tables on O’Brien and her vicious scheme is, of course, anachronistic. Surely there were such broad-minded, practical people in those days, both upstairs and down, but the preponderance of (almost) politically correct opinion among this crowd stretches credibility.
But Downton isn’t speaking to a 1920s audience. It’s speaking to us. And we have had enough tragic stories where gays and women are crushed by society. We don’t watch Downton Abbey for verisimilitude.
We watch it for Maggie Smith’s zingers.
So perhaps I can pardon myself for guffawing at an inopportune moment, when Carson first learns about what happened.
“The world can be a shocking place, Alfred,” says Carson to the footman who witnessed the incident, “but you are a man now, and you must learn to take it on the chin.”
I’m afraid that if Alfred learned to take it on the chin, Carson would have a much bigger problem on his hands.