The Clash Between Ideals and Truth: Downton Abbey vs Game of Thrones
This is going to be a long post. For the longest time I’ve been conflicted as to how I can possibly enjoy two shows that are, at their core, diametrically opposed. One presents a world where ideals are reality, and the sanctified boundaries of class, gender and race do not imprison but rather shape characters into the best possible version of themselves. The other takes place in a world further back in history and deeper in fantasy and yet manages to be much closer to the reality of human relationships set against the backdrop of dysfunctional social systems. One is completely, irrefutably, ‘family friendly’, with almost zero violence, without the faintest whiff of sexuality or nudity, while the other is teeming with moments of horrific violence, torture, sex and sexual violence.
Downton Abbey is essentially six seasons of wish fulfilment. It is a love letter to a world and a way of life that cost generations of suffering and two world wars to overthrow. Nothing is quite so romantic as looking over one’s shoulder at a bygone era and lamenting its passing. Nothing sustains a romantic like the idea of a lost, better world swept away by the tides of time. Downton Abbey would have us believe that the world was a better place when it was simpler, when everyone knew their place without the worrying notion of equality ever taking seed.
Edith’s storyline is a good example of the standards to which the show holds its characters, the ideals that they strive for. After seasons of being overlooked and rejected by virtue of being the least attractive and most desperate Crawley middle child, she finally comes into her own as an independent, competent woman. That she also found love with Bertie Pelham was a pleasant surprise. After all, she was never going to have a string of glamorous courtships like her beautiful elder sister, nor a passionate and ultimately tragic love story like her beautiful younger sister. That Edith found both her independence and a partner is impressive- until one considers that Bertie is a Marquess. Robert and Cora are thrilled not because their perennially overlooked, plain middle child has finally found love, but because the man in question happens to be an elite member of the aristocracy, outranking them all. In one stroke the show makes it disturbingly clear that it values class and social standing over real human relationships.
Then there’s Mary and Matthew. For the moment, let’s pretend that their falling in love and getting married wasn’t a laughably convenient way to circumvent the issue of the entail which prevented Mary inheriting the estate. Even when one chalks that down to sheer coincidence, there is the whole storyline involving Matthew’s fiancée, Lavinia Swire, who conveniently contracts Spanish flu soon after watching the man she loves (and was willing to nurse through criplehood) dancing and kissing another woman. As if this isn’t bad enough, she gives them her blessings on her deathbed. Worse yet, Matthew is later able to bail out Robert on his bad investments using the money he inherited from the Swire family. Lavinia wasn’t a character at all. She was a mechanical plot device used to bring together the two characters viewers really care about, as well as neatly resolve a problem that may otherwise have threatened to dissolve the Grantham legacy. If that’s not textbook wish fulfilment, I don’t know what is.
Let’s not even get started on Tom. On the surface, Tom Branson is supposed to stand as a transgressive character, an example of how benevolent and flexible and accepting the Crawley family can be, to embrace him into their fold. But Tom is not transgressive at all. Because when Tom marries into the family, he is no longer Branson as we know him. He leaves behind his fierce Socialist identity, his Irish heritage, and his fire for social equality along with his role as a chauffeur. In order for Tom and Sybil to be validated, Tom had to stop being Tom, and become instead a shadow of his former self. Insofar as the audience needed to be treated to a scandalous, out of bounds and exciting relationship between the Socialist Irish chauffeur and the lady of the house, he was the real Tom. But in order for that relationship to cool down and progress into marriage, the character of Tom had to be reworked. Never again do we catch a glimpse of the fiery Socialist whom Sybil fell in love with. The show mentions the contemporary Amritsar mutiny, but not the Irish revolution for independence, which was also contemporary. No, the new Tom is too busy being gentrified and becoming a part of the Crawley family, Irish roots be damned. In many ways, the new Tom is by the show’s standards a redeemed Tom, and the climax of his redemption arc comes when he rejects Sarah Bunting, whose passion for social equality and brute honesty was once channelled by his own former self. The implication, of course, being that anyone who speaks out against the system and our beloved brood of toffs is rude, coarse, and unsophisticated.
The heart-breaking irony of the whole thing is that smooth interactions with, and blind respect for the presiding ideals of an era is exactly what keeps revolution at bay. In order for things to change, there must be friction- the kind of friction the old Tom and Sarah Bunting introduced to the polished Crawley way of life. Friction is unpleasant, and brute honesty is jarring, but the truth has never been an easy thing to face. Downton Abbey appeals to the romantic in every one of us, playing on that deep rooted social instinct to find a place within an established hierarchy instead of sparking friction and battling through it to create one’s own place. Instead of creating realistic, complex characters whose inability to fit into rigidly defined social roles is something we as modern human beings could empathize with, Downton Abbey peddles a fantasy wherein everyone naturally falls into their rightful place, and conveniently finds happiness in their prescribed box.
And then there’s Thomas. Poor Thomas. He is the only character at the end who hasn’t found a partner. After seasons of being the only gay character and a scheming plotter, Thomas doesn’t find anyone. A secret but happy same sex relationship for him should never have been off the cards. If a chauffeur and the daughter of an Earl can marry and ultimately win everyone’s approval, it baffles me as to why a butler can’t enter a quiet but happy relationship with some footman or the other. This would not have been a big deal at all if the show had been the tiniest bit realistic, and refrained from giving just about everyone else a perfect conclusion. If that had been the case, I would have valued Thomas’s arc as one that echoes the struggles of his historical counterparts. But that’s not the case here. Everyone else has got their happy ending. So why not Thomas? I can only guess that it’s because a gay love story just isn’t romantic enough, just not real enough, just not important enough to figure.
Let’s consider the juxtaposition between the rape of Anna Bates in Downton and the rape of Sansa Stark in Thrones. Anna is punished for being friendly with a man other than Mr. Bates, for laughing at another man’s jokes. In Julian Fellowes’s world, this behaviour warrants punishment, and her character is duly raped because she dared to be on friendly terms with a man her husband did not approve of. Said husband then has a storyline where he sets out to murder the rapist, reassuring his wife that he does not think any less of her because of what happened to her. Anna and Bates end up more in love with each other than ever. I understand this. I really do. As someone who was repeatedly sexually abused for months at the age of twelve, I wanted nothing more than a Mr. Bates in my life. Not necessarily a husband or even a lover; just someone who recognized and understood the full extent of what I had been through, and who would want to protect me at any cost and keep me safe. Like Anna, I thought I could tell no one. Like Anna, I felt polluted and dirty and inexplicably ashamed, growing up as I did in a culture where all things vaguely sexual are tabooed. I desperately wanted a Mr. Bates.
But it was Sansa Stark who taught me to exorcize this desire. Sansa Stark was sold to Ramsay Bolton, a sadistic and cruel man who had already made his fondness for torture well known. When Ramsay ripped off Sansa’s clothes on their wedding night and made Theon watch as he raped her, the camera pans to Sansa’s face. It then pans to Theon’s face, a man who has grown up as a brother to Sansa and been personally tortured and castrated by Ramsay. We hear Sansa’s screams and cries of pain, and Theon’s face mirroring the viewer’s feelings. Unlike Downton, Thrones has never shied away from nudity or sex scenes, but when this episode was aired it shocked everyone. I may be in the minority who believes that it was one of the most important scenes in the entire series.
Downton may have made it clear that there is no shame in being a victim of rape, but by not actually showing the scene it contradicts itself. Thrones, on the other hand, brought us face to face with the real horror of rape. It is not graphic. We only see faces. But it’s so sensitively done, so artfully portrayed, that it chilled me to the bone and brought memories of ten years ago rushing back. Later on, when Sansa reunites with her elder brother Jon, and he swears to protect her and never let Ramsay touch her again, she coldly tells him that no one can protect anyone. I understood, then, in that moment, why Downton’s treatment of rape irritated me. It made rape less about the incident itself, less about the actual experience of the victim, and more about the protective, avenging husband whose instincts had been proven correct. Bates was right to warn Anna not to get too close to the other man, and Anna was wrong to dismiss his concerns, and she suffered the consequences of disobeying her husband. In short, Downton’s treatment of rape was a deeply patriarchal one. Thrones exposes rape for what it is: a horror that befalls young girls so often that there is almost something casual about it and yet a horror that most people have never been brought face to face with. It is a crime too frequently normalized and pushed to the margins within the narrative of the protective, avenging man.
I love Game of Thrones for not making rape about anything other than rape. I think it may well be the only series in the history of television to focus entirely on the sheer cruelty of it. Yes, after the Battle of the Bastards, Jon does get to pound Ramsay Bolton into the ground, but Thrones never lets us forget who it was that really suffered, and who was made stronger by surviving that trauma. Sansa recruits the Knights of the Vale, saving Jon and effectively winning his battle for him. Sansa takes matters into her own hands, playing Petyr Baelish like he plays everyone else, becoming Lady of Winterfell, and it is she who has the last word with Ramsay, as she visits him in his cell before setting his own hounds on him. I loved seeing that dark smirk across Sansa’s face as she walks away from a dying Ramsay. Some might say that it’s too dark, too unpleasant, too bitter. I would agree, and I would add that it is also terrifyingly real, and therefore utterly relatable.
And now I will say this: I loved watching Downton Abbey. Very few books, television shows or films have given me that level of satisfaction and enjoyment. After all, who among us does not secretly crave a world where things could be that simple, where we all fall in love with the right people and everything is OK in the end? Where a valet is his master’s best friend, and the ladies’ maid is confidante and advisor to her employers? At every turn Downton Abbey succeeds in obscuring the dynamics of power that must necessarily underscore these interactions, slowly giving rise to the lie that real equality actually can thrive even in the presence of an archaic class system. Worse still, it presents an idealized world where the aristocracy are all kindly disposed towards their inferiors, where the wealthy masters are the champions of their downtrodden employees, and generously see to their welfare.
Who doesn’t long for this particular brand of fantasy, where those in positions of power actually look after those in their charge? Who does not want to shutter out the miserable lives of millions of working class citizens and colonial subjects that slaved away behind the scenes to ensure that families like the Crawleys could enjoy their estates, their servants, their lavish lifestyles? Who does not want to seize the chance to close their eyes and shut their ears to truth that lies at the heart of all warfare and suffering: that all throughout human history, people have exploited power and abused those below them? Downton Abbey has been a place of comfort for me, a kind of refuge and home that some of us never find in real life. It fosters those ideals that form the core of all fairy tales and old children’s stories: that those who serve will be looked after, and those whom we follow will never let us down. The first and most important lie of our lives. The lie upon which the twin pillars of religion and government are built.
And so I am forced to conclude that Downton Abbey is really more of a fantasy than Game of Thrones, with all its dragons and White Walkers and witches, will ever be. My favourite Thrones characters are the ones who weren’t born to their roles the way Mr. Carson or Lady Mary are. My favourite Thrones characters are the ones who outgrow their assigned place, the Arya’s and Brienne’s and Tyrion Lannisters of the world, the exiles who yearn for a home they have never known and all the abandoned children who are forced to fight just for the right to existence.
I’ll close this rambling post with one of my favourite quotes from Arya Stark, younger sister of Sansa, who is finally home at Winterfell again six years after she left and watched her father being executed. She stands overlooking a courtyard at her ancestral home, reminiscing about a time when she was practicing archery despite being a girl.
‘There was one arrow in the target. There was no one around, just like now. No one to stop me. So I started shooting. And every shot, I had to go up there and get my one arrow and walk back and shoot it again. I wasn’t very good. Finally, I hit the bull’s-eye. Could have been the 20th shot or the 50th. I don’t remember. But I hit the bull’s-eye, and I heard this. (clapping) I looked up, and he’s standing right here, smiling down at me. I knew what I was doing was against the rules. But he was smiling, so I knew it wasn’t wrong. The rules were wrong. I was doing what I was meant to be doing, and he knew it.’
Game of Thrones – Season 7 Episode 6: ‘Beyond the Wall’ (7×06)