Culture

The Downton Years

For so many of us, these were the Downton years. No other way to describe these past six, when “Downton Abbey” became the most-watched series in the history of public broadcasting. Years over which a drama set in Edwardian England ameliorated fears that Western Civilization as we prefer to know it is slipping away. Ending, like the last episode on the last Sunday night, when characters we knew as family slipped from our screens, never to be quite new again.

The Downton years drew us million-fold to something beating hard and resiliently within us. The hunger for benign, aristocratic order. A ruling elite that cares. A societal system enjoining the future in heartbeats, while keeping chaos firmly at the fringes of the empire.

We waited each season, knowing (and not caring) that all time is experienced in Dickensian best-ofs and worst-ofs. That the afterglow we experienced was not the whole story. Understanding that the present always seems worse because the worst is happening at this very moment somewhere.

We escaped to Castle Highclere, lived its misfortunes and triumphs amid the glow of intricate lamps and muted gray sun over the sweeping manor. The majesty of grand balustrades, gilt chandeliers, and beautiful people.

We mourn the happiness writer Julian Fellowes bestowed upon his creation when the final episode aired, and we thank him for that.

We found the same solace in Downton that we found in Princess Diana. It is the solace of upholding. Diana upheld something valued, even as Britain’s revered ancestral lines were disparaged and discredited by an ethos of unwashed egalitarianism. Her death came suddenly, and we stopped paying attention because she stopped playing her role.

Fellowes eased us out of endings, but the void is remarkably similar. Goodbye England’s Rose. Farewell, upstairs-downstairs families. At essence it’s the families that bound us to Downton, the separatism of aristocratic custom and how humanity finds tributaries in structural norms, until the norms change, and humanity must seek elsewhere.

Millions will search the dial for that elsewhere, but we shan’t see the likes of Downton Abbey again. We will never live another six years like the last six, ever again.

Downton is part of what the best lights of the new millennium made of drama. The hallmark performance of a present shadowed by the aggressive usurpation of traditional hierarchies and denunciations of homogenous societies. The seasons reanimated an era in America’s mother country that was only quaintly fading then. At series-end we can stop the clock just then on what is irretrievably gone now.

We will see these actors in other roles, and look for them as new characters. Lady Edith as a sly modern investigator. Lady Mary in a big-budget Hollywood soap. Mr. Carson, our head butler, showing up on a contemporary PBS sitcom. If show business is smart, the panoply of the Downton cast will survive on marquees in the British Isles and beyond. And yet the dazzling likeness of the characters they were will forever haunt the periphery of appreciation.

Will beneficent storytelling at sometime in the future bestow a measure of warmth and order on our times?

The Downton years were dark around us. When they mothball the sets and Highclere returns to the stewardship of Great Britain, we will remember that the last, best story of the British aristocracy came in our years, and provided much needed comfort.