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.

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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.

Downton Abbey — a soap opera for the intellectual crowd

Have you watched Downton Abbey yet?  Or perhaps a better question is, have you even heard of Downton Abbey?  I’ve been aware of it for a couple of years, because I read Britain’s Daily Mail.  The show has been a monster hit there and, during the season, the Daily Mail has a steady stream of articles about the plots and the actors. I only started watching it recently, though, when it crossed my husband’s radar.  I didn’t have any reason to ignore it before; I’m just not a TV person.

The easiest way to describe the show is to say that it’s a 21st version of Upstairs Downstairs insofar as the plot tracks the lives of an Earl’s family and his staff, all of whom live in a magnificent English country house.  The first season, which is available on streaming video and disc, begins in 1912 and works its way up to WWI.  The second season, which is currently showing on Masterpiece Theater, picks up with the war and clearly intends to take us into the post war years.

The series is absolutely gorgeous.  I’m madly in love with every single “upstairs” costume the women have worn, silly hats included.  Highclere Castle serves as the set, and it really takes your breath away every time you see an exterior shot or an interior “upstairs” room.  Typically for a high-end British production, the acting is superb.  Every character seems is a fully realized person.

Putting all that aside, though, fundamentally the show is a soap opera for the elite crowd.  There’s illicit sex, homosexuality, cross-class romances, heroism, death, brutal sibling rivalry, class warfare, etc.  About halfway through the first season, I became exhausted with the dragging soap opera feel of it.  Take away the historical story line, the lovely clothes, and the Castle, and it could be All My Children.

There is really only one thing that distinguishes the show from any other soap, and that thing is a whopper:  Maggie Smith.  Smith plays the family matriarch, and she is so magnificent in the role, I think that when she wraps up her career it will be considered her finest moment.  The following clip shows Smith in action.  She is at her best when she is sparring with the heir’s mother (the Earl had no sons, so the heir comes from a middle class line), a kind woman whose slightly over-officious work ethic deeply offends Smith’s character.

I’m not suggesting that you rush out to watch Downton Abbey, but I do think you might enjoy it if you get the chance.