If you look past the English accents, the hereditary titles, the fussy costumes and the early 20th-century setting, the PBS drama “Downton Abbey” offers a metaphor for today’s United States. Amid the decline of the British nobility back then, or the current squeeze on a once-dominant American middle class, the status quo looks unsustainable. But what takes its place?
No one knows. That’s where all the drama comes from.
“Downton Abbey,” whose final episode airs Sunday night in the United States, features the tribulations of the upper-crust Crawley family at a country estate in the 1920s, a time when many others in the gentry were running out of money and selling off their land. Even if you’re a small-d democrat with a distaste for period drama, the series has been worth watching — not as a celebration of a bygone era, but as an illustration of how modern mores slowly undermined it.
In the “Downton” universe, a changing economy claims two categories of victims: Beyond the downwardly mobile aristocrats with titles but no source of money for their expensive hobbies, there are lifelong servants who’ve become redundant as household staffs shrink.
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Even Thomas Barrow, the bitter under-butler searching fruitlessly for a new job, becomes an object of pity. His human capital is outdated. After years of scheming against his co-workers, his personal brand is worthless. He’s too old to change careers but too young to hang on until retirement. He’s stuck.
Even many PBS watchers know his predicament firsthand. In our time, the anxieties that began with factory workers and manual laborers have spread to office clerks, accountants, journalists and lawyers. A couple of years ago, no less an authority than Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary and Harvard president, published an Op-Ed entitled “America risks becoming a ‘Downton Abbey’ economy.” Or maybe we’re already there. By some estimates, income inequality is as profound right now in the United States as in Britain a century before.
Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton,” is also a Conservative member of Britain’s House of Lords, and his show mostly scoffs at using public policy to address the class divides of the time. The Irish socialist chauffeur who married one of the Crawley daughters in an earlier season evolves into a bland overseer of the family’s business. He used to praise the Russian Revolution; now he sees the Crawleys’ castle as his true home.
The heroes in the waning weeks of “Downton” have been those servants who survive through personal reinvention or entrepreneurship. The sad-sack footman Mr. Molesley finds his calling as a teacher. Mrs. Patmore, the Crawleys’ longtime cook, opens up a bed-and-breakfast. In real life, it turned out that the eclipse of the British upper class ushered in generations of increased economic mobility.
As trends here move in the opposite direction, the outcome is hard to predict. The most prominent American socialist, Bernie Sanders, draws crowds but got bogged down on Super Tuesday. Meanwhile, supporters of Donald Trump hope a billionaire developer can turn back the clock in a way that British aristocrats couldn’t.
One lesson of “Downton” is that economic systems eventually run their course. Someday, there’ll be costume dramas set in the days when the carried interest loophole for investment managers finally vanished, when glitzy downtown penthouses were subdivided into micro-apartments for students, when the remaining letters on a shabby Trump Tower spelled out “RUMP” and “OWE.”
Then again, the English nobility’s slide into irrelevance took centuries. As “Downton Abbey” ends, a tiny gentry still owns more than a third of England’s agricultural land. Another lesson of “Downton” is this: Once social arrangements become ingrained, they keep shaping the world long after they stop making any sense.