Monday, 4 March 2013
Straight from the Abbey
I stand awed by Julian Fellowes. Not only is he writing the most aesthetically beautiful, marriage-affirming, charity-affirming drama on television, but hardly anyone seems to notice how unapologetically Catholic these wildly popular episodes are. And I've come to think that that is exactly his plan.
For a while I wished he'd just come out and be more explicit about his lofty moral designs. I felt that it was just too subtle and PEOPLE WERE MISSING IT! But after reading this article I began to think that the problem is not that Downton Abbey is too subtle, the problem is that there aren't many other television shows that have ventured out of the "Christian ghetto" to stand in solidarity with Downton.
Now, I have taken some criticism in the past for commending the show as a great example of Catholic television. Not everyone agrees that the very hairiest moral issues of our day make for wholesome media viewing. I respect that. But Fellowes' skillful handling of those issues are the very reason for my own admiration. Whether we like it or not, these issues are the stuff of modern entertainment and we desperately need someone addressing these issues from the Christian perspective - and doing so in a way that actually appeals to people who are not hardcore Christians.
Richard's Valentine's gift to me was to sit with me and watch all of Season Three, marathon-style. I love my husband. (In about three days, when he gets around to reading this post, and realizes to his horror that the entire 62 people who read this blog now know that he watches Downton.... well, our relationship might get a little rocky around that time. Pray for me on or around March 7th....)
I wanted to post immediately on what most struck me, but I forced myself to wait until the season finished airing in the States. It has. I hold back no longer. In order not to make this into a massively long post, I'm just going to skim through some of the areas in which I most appreciated Fellowes' counter-cultural and Catholic innuendos as he brilliantly depicts the complexity of navigating the modern world as it came of age, showing "normal" people grappling with the mysteries of sin (as these sins were abruptly losing their taboo). Alongside, he quietly explores the mystery of suffering and demonstrates the potential for growth in goodness that suffering offers not only to the sufferer, but to any who merely witness suffering.
I was really pleased to see the sanctity and goodness of faithful, life-long marriage being portrayed from so many different angles. This attitude is so completely atypical of television. Most abundant in these episodes is the intense joy and beauty in the faithful love between Anna and Bates, Sybil and Tom, Mary and Matthew. Additionally, Fellowes tastefully highlights the very particular joy that the latter couple derive from the fullness of marital intimacy after a thoroughly pure and chaste courtship. He also quietly but powerfully emphasizes the joy that babies bring- not only to their parents, but to the entire community that receives them. This is true both in regard to the babies born to the Crawley girls (as the good and much-desired fulfilment of their marital love), but also in regard to the little boy born to poor Ethel.
Though Lord and Lady Grantham go through another (understandable!) rough patch in their marriage following Sybil's death, their loving appreciation of each other is renewed (plus some) many months later when they witness the painful relationship between Shrimpy and his wife in Scotland. In contrast, the full tragedy of Shrimpy's marriage is depicted - and though that sort of slow deterioration of friendship and affection is utterly cliche, Fellowes handles it with genuine compassion and shows it to be no less tragic for being so common.
Furthermore, the problem of adultery is handled from a few vantage points, and in every case is denied to be a good, true or beautiful choice. Matthew Crawley, ever the defender of what is pure and honorable, is quick to speak and act on behalf of marital fidelity in the two most explicit and "justifiable" cases: young Rose's dalliance with the man married to the "horrid" wife and the pursuit of Edith by the newspaper editor married to an institutionalized woman. Although Edith's last words about the matter indicate that she intends to move forward with the affair, I believe that if she does in fact do so, Season Four will fully explore the suffering she will bring upon herself and others by such a decision. Edith's own words, when she initially contemplated the affair, "I just can't see a happy ending...." will undoubtedly prove prophetic. I am confident of such, because utterly absent from three seasons of Downton episodes has been a single instance in which dishonoring the Christian ideals of marriage has brought any true or lasting joy to a single character. Fully to the contrary. Are any other television shows out there echoing this eternal truth? I know of none.
Julian Fellowes has very few flat characters who are always saintly or always evil. True, it seems Matthew Crawley and Mrs Hughes unfailingly choose the good. All the rest are just normal people who sometimes (or often) betray their weakness, vice and sinfulness in every area common to man. And the few who characteristically tend towards evil, malice and vice are shown to be wounded and vulnerable souls deserving of compassion. In other words, Fellowes hates the sin and loves the sinner - and invites us to do the same.
I'm thinking particularly of Thomas, whom I have "loved to hate" for three years. I found, at the end of this past season, that he has almost become one of my favorite characters. Only now, I love to love him. I'm gratified that Fellowes has never made Thomas to be the insipid, ubiquitous stereotype of a homosexual that litters most of television. In this season particularly, Thomas defies those narrow cliches with his physical strength and bravery. In the pain and humiliation he endures, and the vulnerability and courage he shows, and in watching the beautiful process of him learning to love chastely, he has taught me much about the virtue of charity. Julian Fellowes has written the drama of Thomas brilliantly, exposing the lies that the religious tell themselves about homosexuals. In fact, I think my favorite line of the entire season is when Thomas turns at the door, looks Carson in the eye and softly states, "I am not foul." Characters compassionate to Thomas are heroic. Falsely "moral" characters reveal their own uncharity, hypocrisy and ugliness (this is true not only as they react to Thomas' dilemma, but also as they react to that of Ethel, the reformed prostitute). Watching the treatment that Thomas and Ethel received (both the best and the worst of it) caused me to think deeply and examine my own heart. It also helped me understand how the "moral" underpinnings of an entire culture came undone so rapidly. It was well that such false morality came undone! Now it remains to be rebuilt - authentically.
I did know in advance that Fellowes intended to "introduce an explicitly Catholic story line" in season three. I do not know if he intends to continue it in season four. My first reaction after viewing all of season three was that he really had not done very much with the Catholic story line. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. Initially. However, in a season replete with quotes from Scripture and explicit dialogue about both Christ and the Catholic Church, the scripted protests voiced against the Catholic Church are absurd and are depicted as narrow-minded bigotry. Maybe that's all he is intending to do explicitly. Far more pervasive was the very subtle and unbroken upholding of Catholic moral theology in every one of the wide and varied issues the episodes touched upon. Marc John Paul Barnes would say, I think, that Julian Fellowes has chosen the better part. May it not be taken from him.