TV Club

Downton Abbey: A soap opera with a British accent.

O’Brien is a great villain, and Downton is a great soap opera.

O'Brien on Downton Abbey.

O’Brien is great to hate

Photograph by WGBH Educational Foundation.

Editor’s note: For the benefit of American readers who haven’t yet seen season 2 of Downton Abbey, please do your best to avoid spoilers when commenting.

Seth, Dan,

I am breathless with anticipation for Downton Abbey’s return. The three-month wait since Season 2 aired in Britain almost drove me to illegal downloading. I resisted, partly because it’s wrong, wrong, wrong, but mostly because I know I would never get a damned thing done if I cross that Rubicon and can watch British telly at will.

Seth, you ask why Season 1 was so successful. Forget all that fancy stuff about income inequality and longing for the clear distinctions of the past—Downton was a hit because it’s a bloody good soap opera, with some genuinely shocking “Oh no, you di’ent, m’lady” moments. And it’s on public television. If the bitchy lines are delivered in an English accent, and the show airs on PBS, all the guilt that soaps usually produce is expiated post-haste.

Soaps are still big in Britain, and they’re usually organized around physical locations—EastEnders takes place in London’s Albert Square (don’t bother looking it up in the A-Z), and Coronation Street is set in Weatherfield, an imaginary town near Manchester. These days, the shows are ethnically diverse, but the characters, like the neighborhoods they’re based in, tend to be solidly working-class. The genius of Downton—and of Upstairs, Downstairs before it—was to focus on a place that has both posh and common residents. Class is the conflict Brits do best—and the one they’re most obsessed with.

As for me, I’m obsessed with O’Brien—and not only because her hairstyle surely inspired Kim Jong-un’s. Of all the television I watched in 2011, the scene that stuck with me most—and still has the power to make me shiver with horror—was the incident with the soap. As you’ll recall, O’Brien feared that Lady Cora, implausibly pregnant, was scheming to fire her, so, seething with anger, she planted a bar of soap alongside m’lady’s bathtub. At the last moment, O’Brien realized this was too evil even for her, so she turned to undo her mischief … but too late. Lady Cora slipped on the soap and lost the baby, which, naturally, was a boy whose birth would have settled the business of the entail once and for all.

It was a horrible, murderous act of spite, but that split-second of regret, of catching herself and wondering how she could possibly sink so low, was beautifully done. O’Brien is great to hate—she’s a shit-stirrer of the first order—but I can’t help but feel sympathetic to her plight. She spends hours of each day doing everything for Cora, but their relationship is strictly business. At any moment, O’Brien could be out on her ear. It’s a perfect recipe for jealousy and resentment—no wonder she’s so bitter.

Frustration is also the dominant emotion upstairs. It’s not enough to be beautiful, rich, and clever (the last is a definite disadvantage, actually). If you’re a female aristo, you can’t inherit the family pile, so you’re stuck waiting for a man to ask you to marry him. There really isn’t any alternative. But high stakes make for high drama. I was rarely so glad to be an only child as when watching Lady Mary and Lady Edith drop the (full-length evening) gloves and sabotage each other’s potential marriages.

That’s why I find the nice characters the most puzzling. Look at Anna—kind, sweet, perceptive Anna. Why isn’t she surging with rage at the unfairness of it all? I suppose that would be a waste of energy; there’s no time for raging when she has so many baths to draw and beds to make before she retires to her Spartan quarters.

Where do I think this season will go? A show that begins with the sinking of the Titanic is never going to surprise us with the world events that drive the action—you can guess the larger plot outlines by studying an encyclopedia. But remember, Julian Fellowes sits as a Conservative in the House of Lords. I don’t think Carson is going to be leading the staff in a chorus of “The Internationale” any time soon.

Seth, don’t fret about the holiday special. Christmas will come to America in just a few weeks—we’ll get to watch the toffs unwrap their gifts and the servants clean up the mess on Feb. 19.

I’m looking you both up in Burke’s Peerage,