Downton Abbey tackles abortion (SPOILER ALERT)

downton-abbey-wallpaper-8SPOILER ALERT!!! I’m going to be discussing last night’s episode of Downton Abbey.  If you haven’t seen it yet, and are still planning on watching it, STOP READING RIGHT NOW.





Okay.  Are those of you still with me okay with a spoiler?  Good.  Let’s get going with this post then.

We started watching Downton Abbey when it first came to America.  In the first and second seasons, it had everything an anglophile history buff could desire:  A ridiculously gorgeous setting, breathtaking pre-WWI fashions, solidly good acting, and an interesting plot-line that followed the upstairs and downstairs life of an aristocratic household on the verge of a war that exacted a great toll on England and fundamentally changed the British landscape.

And of course, it had Maggie Smith, who is a delight in every single scene.  As the Dowager Countess, a proud, loving woman struggling to accept all the changes in the world, she is witty, acerbic, and an absolute low-key comedic joy.

Downton Abbey is now in its fourth season and is dragging us through the 20s.  When I say “dragging,” I mean that pejorative deliberately.  The show has bogged down into being a classy, costumed soap opera.  I still watch for the costumes and for Maggie Smith, but otherwise it’s mostly a yawn.  Something interesting happened last night though.

As some of you may already know, the Earl of Grantham’s upstairs family began the series with three daughters:  Mary, the beautiful, snotty oldest (now a widow); Sybil, the beautiful, free-spirit youngest (now dead); and Edith, the ordinary looking, catty, uninteresting middle child.  Edith has consistently been unlucky in love, including being dumped at the altar.

Things finally started to go well for Edith last season when she met a handsome newspaper editor/publisher who fell in love with her.  The only problem was that he had a mad wife (shades of Mr. Rochester) and couldn’t divorce her to marry Edith.  Eventually, he decided to move to Germany (a scandalous thing to do immediately after WWI) and become a resident there, so that he could get divorced.  Sadly for Edith, he has since disappeared in Munich, and we don’t know what’s happened to him.  (By the way, if you’re British and do know what’s happened to him, please don’t tell me.) Even worse for Edith, she’s just discovered that she’s pregnant.

One of the threads in yesterday’s convoluted plot (complete with a boring rape story line) was Edith’s decision to go to London to get an abortion.  It’s obviously a difficult decision for her.  The aunt with whom she’s staying forces her to reveal her plans and, instead of being angry at unmarried Edith for being pregnant, is compassionate, and tries to talk her into having the baby.  Edith, though, is terrified of being a social outcast.  She loves the father, she wants the baby, but she cannot bear the thought of complete social ignominy.

So off they go to the abortionist.  I assumed that this would be the point where a compassionate 1920s doctor makes a speech about the evils of illegal abortion.  Instead, after being admitted in a clean, unadorned waiting room, by a clean, unadorned receptionist/nurse, Edith realizes that having the abortion will cut her off from her family just as surely as having the baby will.  She would no longer be able to stand going into the nursery where her niece and nephew live.  This promise of future regret overwhelms her . . . and she leaves the abortionist.

In a show full of hackneyed soap opera twists and turns, I did not see this one coming.

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  • shirleyelizabeth

    I haven’t seen the most recent episode yet, but I was fine with the spoiler, as anyone could have seen the battle coming. This show keeps trying to teach today’s current morals in a setting where they didn’t exist. The whole acceptance of Thomas (despite being widely known as an absolute horrible person) just because he was gay? Never would have happened. 
    Also, if you haven’t seen Jimmy Fallon’s riff on the show, it is worth it only for the introduction of the daughters.

  • Texan99

    I don’t find Mary snotty at all.  She’s nearly my favorite character:  a woman of strong, generous feelings and immense dignity, who never lets anyone manipulate her with neediness or impertinence, and never fails to take responsibility for her own feelings and desires.
    I think the scriptwriters are going back to the Romeo-and-Juliet well just a tad too often.
    I was amazed and pleased that the script treated Edith’s second thoughts about an abortion realistically and compassionately.  I don’t think people are generally aware how difficult it is for any relationship to survive an abortion.  There aren’t many actions that so vividly express a profound vote of no confidence in the tie between the parents.

  • TnMom

    I watched the episode last night and was quite surprised that Edith admitted she would be killing the child of the man she loved, and that she would not be able to go into the nursery to see her nephew and niece. I was actually shocked that the unborn child was acknowledged! HOW  REFRESHING!!!!

  • Ymarsakar

    No idea what Downton Abbey is. But judging from the comments, women demographics are connected or involved.

  • Charles Martel

    This is a tangent, but I think relevant to the discussion of how abortion is treated in the cinema and on TV.
    My wife and I recently watched an indie film from 2008, “The Village Barbershop,” about a struggling barbershop in Reno owned by a character played by John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin in “Cheers”). He is mired in grief over the death of his wife 11 years before, and pretty much dead to the world. A young woman, with her own set of problems, comes into his life and wrangles a job as the second chair at his shop. Of course she works some magic, slowly bringing him and his business back to life.
    But she’s pregnant by a white trash trucker who has abandoned her. You can tell she’s excited by the pregnancy, but troubled at the prospect of having to carry on with no support. She goes to Planned Parenthood, where the movie starts to derail by having the wise older woman counselor there tell her that she, too, carried her firstborn to term years before despite the incredible drag having a child put on her medical studies. (To my pro-choice wife’s irritation, I guffawed loudly at the likelihood of anybody at Planned Parenthood would advocate for anything other that fetal dissection.)
    The girl begins seeing a very nice barista, whom it is obvious is quite taken by her. But she’s not ready, yadda, yadda, and drives off one day to “start my life over.” Her first stop is the Planned Parenthood abortuary, where she hesitates, riffling through various papers and coming across an envelope that her new sweetheart had handed her just before she told him goodbye. In it was not only a sweet message of anticipation and joy about the child she was carrying, there was also money to help her with expenses through her pregnancy. Those touching gestures make up her mind, and she drives away from the charnel house.
    Two takes on this: 1.) I was surprised to see that the writers even considered letting the kid survive. Then I realized that an abortion would have gone completely against the grain of the movie and her character–a celebration of life restored would have become yet another Hollywood celebration of Death by Choice.
    2.) A woman alone finds out how much the man in her life is thrilled by the prospect of her child–not even his own–and willing to stand by and support her. I think that for many isolated, lonely women, facing rearing a child by themselves can be the decisive factor in choosing abortion. The film made a fairly subtle suggestion in this regard, reminding me that much more than most women, certain men adore abortion because it literally eliminates the need for any sexual ethics.