What we should learn from him: honor, humility, impossible restraint
Oh, poor Mr. Bates. He enters the story with a physical impairment that seems to be a metaphor for his emotional baggage. He is a magnet for villainous intentions. Watching him remain silent while lurking Thomas spews forth false accusations against him (Season 1) and his vile “wife” blackmails him (Season 2) is a test of the viewer’s patience. Who is that resolute or restrained in real life? Aside from Christ, who repeatedly takes punches whilst refusing to fight back? C’mon, Bates, let ‘em have it!
There are two possible reasons for watching television. One is to be reminded of who we are. The other is to imagine what we can become. Our place in the world, our identity (both individual and communal), and our hopes and dreams are all shaped and reinforced by the narratives that play out on a small screen. Mr. Bates’ supernatural commitment to turning the other cheek and protecting the weak certainly isn’t who I am; it does, however, represent what I aspire to be.
Bates brushes off compliments and encouragement; he is humble. Great. But is refusing to speak the truth (especially when it would vindicate you and condemn your enemy) based on some moral code of absolute, stoic silence a desirable quality? Perhaps. He lives each day as if held in a prison of self-imposed purgatory, forever atoning for the sins of his life before Downton. While we would do well to emulate Bates’ sense of honor, kindness, and humility, in one way we should learn from his flaws: he cannot accept grace.
What we should learn from him: adaptability, courage
Ah, our white knight. Early on, Matthew demonstrates the courage to give up his former identity (as a lawyer) and tackle the responsibilities that come with being Lord of Downton. He demonstrates it again on the field of battle, and season two closes with him finding the courage to follow his heart and once again pursue Mary despite their complicated past.
Of course, there was the whole being-engaged-to-another-woman thing (Poor, Lavinia Swire), and yet, we still root for him. The audience empathizes most with Matthew because we most closely identify with him – like Matthew, we are quite disoriented and unfamiliar with the way things are run at Downton. Also like Matthew, we gradually learn to adapt our expectations and attitudes to fit the high society of early 20th Century English aristocracy.
He believes his late fiance “died of a broken heart”, tells Mary they are cursed, and resigns himself, like Mr. Bates, to a self-imposed prison of loneliness. However, unlike Bates, Matthew remains flexible, open to healing and change. At least, flexible enough to brawl with Sir Richard Carlyle in a cathartic (and yet awkwardly playful-looking) fight that was brewing all season. Matthew demonstrates just the right amount of courage, in love and war, that we would do well do mimic. Yet it is tempered with a humble flexibility that endears just the right people. Of course, there are others he drives away, but then again, “If everyone likes you, you are doing something wrong.”
Dowager Countess of Grantham
What we should learn from her: patience, wisdom, sauciness
Never underestimate the tea-time machinations of a motivated granny. As the most experienced member of the Grantham family, the Dowager Countess has seen many people and trends come and go, and yet has survived them all. She knows when to speak up, and when to stay out of things. Like Matthew Crawley, she gets to say all the things that the audience is probably thinking. This means she gets some of the best, most memorable lines in the show.
“If Mary doesn’t accept Matthew’s marriage proposal, we’ll just have to take her abroad. In these moments you can normally find an Italian who isn’t too picky.”
As a member of the older generation she has a vested interest in seeing things stay the same. She resists change. And yet she also speaks her mind. However, she has enough wisdom to know how to promote her agenda. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it isn’t.
Richard Carlyle: “Goodbye Lady Grantham. I will be leaving in the morning, and I doubt we will meet again.”
Dowager Countess: “Do you promise?”
The perspective that comes from a lifetime of experience means that she speaks up when others are afraid to. She is, of course, keenly aware of the appropriate level of decorum and propriety for any given situation.
Dowager Countess: “So what if I don’t like Matthew? I have lots of friends I don’t like.”
Lord Grantham: “And would you want your granddaughter to marry one of them?”
Dowager Countess: “…why do you always have to pretend to be nicer than the rest of us?”
Ultimately the Dowager Countess of Grantham is a force for good in the world of Downton. She has the family’s best interests in mind, is wary of maintaining their reputation, and treats her servants with kindness- (when they don’t mess up, that is. I want to live in a world where more people speak their minds, even if it is thinly veiled in sarcasm, irony, or condescension. We should all be so lucky as to live a long life, surrounded and respected by family, wielding the truth in love. What has her lifetime taught her? How does she feel about hope and love in the grand scheme of things? How does she council her heartbroken granddaughter?
“Don’t be so defeatist, dear. It’s very middle-class.”
What we should learn from her: prudence, patience, positive peer picking
We are introduced to the the fantastically foul woman Sarah O’Brien in the very first episode when she trips a man she doesn’t like (in front of very important people) in an effort to get him fired. The company we keep shapes us. Skulking around with Thomas all the time shaped O’Brien into a morose, vile woman. Fortunately, she was so vile as to increase my vocabulary. In one episode, after O’Brien leaves the room, Lady Sybil, after watching her leave, remarks to her sister: “…Odious woman.” I had to look it up. Odious: extremely unpleasant; repulsive.
Sarah O’Brien demonstrates why it is important to be careful about whom we choose to surround ourselves with. As ½ of team villainy in Downton, she serves through the entire first season mostly to plot, lurk, creep, and generally be a “debbie downer” for everyone other than her partner in crime, Thomas. He is her only friend. She apparently spends all of her free time out behind the kitchen smoking, either alone or with him.
However, unlike Thomas, O’Brien demonstrates the capacity for change. Season two finds both Thomas and O’Brien humbled. When Thomas’ ill-fated attempt to peddle black-market goods blows up in his face, self-preservation prompts him to come crawling back to Downton in search of employment. He seems slightly nicer than before, but it is a ruse. O’Brien, believing Lady Crawley (surprisingly pregnant with a son and thus an heir to Downton!) to be replacing her, leaves soap on the ground, causes a post-bath slip, and successfully causes Crawley to miscarry. O’Brien immediately regrets her misdeed, and shame is heaped upon guilt when she learns that Lady Crawley was actually searching for a replacement for the Dowager Countess, not for herself. Much like Sauron in Lord of the Rings when Frodo throws the one ring into the lava of Mount Doom, O’Brien, in one horrific flash, realized the magnitude of her error. This prompts a genuine change of heart in her, and the duration of the series (so far) sees her with a newfound humility and compassion. The rest of the staff notices this and comments on it.
The prudence and patience we can learn from O’Brien is demonstrated early on. She gathers, distorts, and disseminates information through whatever means necessary to suit her interests. She manipulates Thomas and Lady Crawley like puppets. Yet all the while she never implicates herself or is in any real danger; she remains just outside the fray. We would do well do think more about our futures and act carefully; we need not, however, be deceitful in our activity. O’Brien realizes that sometimes it takes a long time to get what you want. Of course, in her case, it was getting rid of Mr. Bates, but for us it might be cultivating a relationship, getting a raise, saving up for a vacation, whatever. And if we have good friends to surround ourselves with, they can encourage us along the way.
What we should learn from him: dignity, honor, compassion
“We all have different parts to play, and we must be allowed to play them.” – When Lord Grantham spoke these words to Matthew Crawley, then just an aristocratic newbie, in Episode 2 of the first season, the whole world of Downton finally clicked for me. Until then I had (like Matthew) viewed the whole idea of Lords and Ladies, servants and valets as very silly indeed. Lord Grantham’s rebuke brings to mind 1 Corinthians 12: ”For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
The Lord Earl of Grantham, although in possession of much, is aware of the needs of those with little. He sees that there is honor and satisfaction in fulfilling one’s role, whatever it may be. Whether a janitor or a CEO, we are to work as if for the Lord (Col. 3:23). Lord Grantham does not see privilege as an end unto itself (as contemporary culture views wealth) but is aware he lives only to serve the estate of Downton Abbey and ensure its preservation. He is keenly aware that he is but a steward.
Lord Grantham’s demonstrates dignity and patience shine particularly when those lacking show up in Downton. He is the consummate lord of the manor: when those with nefarious intentions threaten the ones he loves, he firmly yet calmly defuses the situation; when spurious claims arise he is not quick to judge; as a loving father and kind employer he is the glue that holds Downton together. Despite occasionally being relegated to the role of the oblivious, obtuse father (apparently he was the last person in Europe to learn about Mary and Mr. Pamuk), Lord Grantham has much to teach us in the way of compassionate, honorable leadership.