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Love, sin and soap in "Downton Abbey"

via PBS

I’m a latecomer to Downton Abbey. Last month, I finally watched the first episode of this sprawling British drama that follows the aristocratic Crawley family, their country estate, and the servants that keep it running along with all their relationships, romances, and scandals set against historical events like sinking of the Titanic, World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic.

From the camera work to keeping all those characters from blending into a confusing mass to the near perfect revelation of plot, I was mesmerized. The minute I finished, I immediately queued the episode up again, pulled my husband from his office, and made him watch it with me.

We watched the other 15 episodes over 21 days and my appreciation for the acting, writing, cinematography, and characters in this period drama has only grown. But I find Downton Abbey’s greatest strength is its exploration of more timeless of concepts.

In particular, I love how the series explores why we make the choices we do—and how those choices change us. For example, many of the malicious and destructive choices made by the characters are born out of weaknesses, pride and fear. Edith Crawley resents that she isn’t as pretty as her sisters; she makes vindictive and injurious choices out of the fear that she that she will never otherwise attain the status or happiness that they seem to have. Thomas, a footman, hates his position and resents his status; his greedy and malicious scheming is born out of a belief that control and a position of power will bring him respect he craves. Richard Carlisle is a “self-made man” but he makes corrupt and ruinous choices out of a pride that masks feelings that he’ll never be as good as the aristocrats.

But when the characters choose not to give into things like pride, weakness or fear, they make choices to love: they sacrifice, mend, set right, forgive and show compassion for the weaknesses in others. Robert Crawley consistently chooses to do right by others even as he struggles with the pressures of aristocracy and status and the temptations of desire and selfishness. We also explore this in Daisy’s choices concerning William, Mary’s regarding Levinia and Edith’s related to the wounded soldiers.

As these characters consistently choose one thing or the other, they begin to transform—for better or worse. “When I tether myself more to generosity, to courage, to friendship, and to wisdom, I become more humane, more alive,” says Jeff Cook in Everything New. “On the flipside, when I attach my heart and soul to cowardice, to greed, to fear, to envious longings—I become less of a man.”        

But redemption is available to everyone at Downton. Some, like Thomas, squander their chances and keep making choices out of greed, selfishness or fear. Some, like Mrs. O’Brien, make a little progress (I love her words to Thomas: “I don’t often feel selfless, but when I listen to you I do.”). And others change a lot—like Edith, whose beauty begins to grow from the inside out as she cares for, listens to and serves wounded soldiers during the war.

And though wickedness and hardship persistently wreak havoc at Downton Abbey, love continually triumphs. Where there is viciousness, destruction, spitefulness and failure, there surely follows rescue, setting right, forgiveness, forbearance, and healing.

That love constantly wins in Downton Abbey should not be surprising—after all, as many have pointed out, it is a soap opera. And that isn’t as bad as you might think.
In graduate school, I took a course in early English novels and discovered the connection between the early morality novels and modern soap operas. Essentially, soap operas are a contemporary version of these morality stories. Both share a strong sense of right and wrong in a world where good ultimately wins over evil. In general, when characters make bad or immoral decisions, they suffer the consequences (or punishment) and when they make good or virtuous choices (though there be challenges and temptations) they are rewarded.

This makes more sense when you realize that both the novels and modern soaps have spiritual roots. Scholarship suggests that the early morality novels were viewed as tools for instruction based on religious morals. And as notes Ellen Leventry in “God and the Soaps” at Beliefnet, the early versions of our modern soap operas were created with an “avowed traditional Victorian morality, reflecting the religious beliefs” of the original soap creators Proctor and Gamble, who were “devout Protestants.”

In an article at The Jewish Week, Debra Orenstein gets at the implications when it comes to modern soaps:
Soap operas are modern morality plays in which kindness is always rewarded and lying is always exposed. With religion, the daytime soap asserts that redemption and healing are always possible. No sin is so grave that you cannot come back next season, do teshuvah, and turn from villain back to hero. My flip language reflects the genre, but the message of hope is serious and important.
Hope pervades Downton Abbey. Even as it challenges me to examine and helps me understand the motives for my own choices, it also reminds me of the larger Story in which we live—one where redemption and healing are always possible. Love and Life win over sin and death, injury succumbs to healing, what is intended for evil is worked to good. Ours is a story where there is rescue, forgiveness, repair, and restoration—where second chances are the order of the day and good ultimately wins over evil.

Unlike Downton Abbey, our Story isn’t ruled by punishment and reward but by a God who, out of a Love beyond measure, has been working from the beginning to set things right. But while life at Downtown doesn’t always mesh with the truths of the Story in which we live, the series is rich with echoes of the ancient stuff of love, sin, redemption and hope. And that brings God-talk into these open spaces.