The Gilded Age
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Downton Abbey, the astonishingly successful BBC television production which follows the changing lives of British Aristocracy and all of the staff of fictional Downton Abbey is in its fifth season. Speculation has run amok about the future of season six, because Julian Fellowes has another series in the works, The Gilded Age. For those of us who have grown to look forward to our weekly fix of a glimpse into the lives of the people at the turn of the last century this news causes high anxiety. Before you look through your shelves for a nerve pill just take a deep breath and say OOoooohhhmmm. The scripts for season six are ready to go into production. Fellowes, though, has said he can’t run to series at the same time. So, go ahead and send your mourning clothes to the cleaners; season six will be the last.
Truthfully, I didn’t know how they could make a season five. It seemed as if at the end of season four everything had been said, but then new conversations started during season five as the Irish son-in-law headed off for America, Mary continued to be Mary, and the homely middle sister struggled to find a way to be part of her child’s life.
What is the secret of the attraction of this show for Americans? It certainly has surprised all of us. It’s not just Anglophilia. There has always been a substantial fragment of the American public which dotes on the Queen, follows the minute details of the lives of the Royals, and lives out some fantasy life vicariously. The following of Downton Abbey is much larger than that segment. What seems more probable is that everyone wants some constancy in their lives. The residents of Downton Abbey know the rules. There were rules for the downstairs staff and rules for the residents upstairs. Every time of day and every occasion required a certain dress. Dressing required a valet or a maid who knew the exact items needed, had them immaculately cleaned and ironed and saw to it that everyone was properly attired. Butlers, footmen, maids, valets, cooks, assistant cooks all had a place and that place had a hierarchy. Dining required the right china, the right silver, the proper glasses; everything had order.
One’s first reaction might be one of disgust. What a lot of fal-de-ral. The aristocrats were lazy fops. The staff members were stupid to work for room and board and pittance. What possible difference could it make whether you were called a valet or a footman? Why would anyone do these things when they could go work in the city? The simple fact was that there weren’t jobs for everyone, and jobs in a factory were much less desirable than those in the mansion
The aristocrats knew this. They operated under a code that the French termed noblesse oblige; the obligation of nobility to provide work, and care for those who were needy. The obligation tended to end at the gate, but the sense of duty was there. There were strict rules governing everyone’s life. Americans would chafe under all of those rules, but they like the order. In reality the staff chafed at times. Thomas Barrow, the secretly gay, scheming, backbiting under butler, is an example. Placed in an untenable position by a society that not only would not accept him, but could execute him for his sexual proclivity, Tom endeavors to control the lives of others by threatening to use theri own dirty secrets against them.
Daisy, the assistant cook, wants to be her own person. Stress on the fabric of their order is present everywhere.
The stress that will eventually rend the fabric is embodied by Mister Bates. John Bates occupies a strange place in the order. He walks with the use of a cane and is seen by the rest of the staff as unqualified for his job as personal attendant to Lord Grantham, but he fought in the Boer War alongside Lord Grantham. Lord Grantham knows that it could just have easily been he who was wounded and walked with a limp. He knows that in war he and Bates were reduced to equals, and they will both always know that. The Great War brings this equality to an even greater view and following World War I things could never be the same again.
If we look at other series that have explored the society of late 19th and early 20th century Britain we can look at the series that ran for years, Upstairs, Downstairs. This was also a very popular series that exploited this same yearning for order.
On the other extreme is Monarch of the Glen. If you have never seen an episode of this series you can find it on Netflix. This is a comedy series set in a sort of post-apocalyptic castle in Scotland. The Laird is an elderly man who likes a wee dram and lives in a dream world of what was. His wife who seems doe eyed and clueless is actually quite aware of the castle’s predicament as it turns out. The staff members speak with nearly unintelligible brogues at times, and work to keep their own little fiefdoms intact. The tension revolves around the son, Archie McDonald, who has gone to London to make his way as a restauranteur, but is called back to straighten some mess out and never gets away. His love interest in London wants him back, Lexie, the cook has an attraction to him and Archie sort of blunders along irritated by the fact that he has some sense of responsibility and desire to pull the castle out of the hole, and, at the same time, would like to be unencumbered.
Julian Fellowes, plays the part of Kilwillie, the successful Laird across the loch. The tension is related to the enduring obtuseness of Archie to the love interests of the women around him, and the world of the past that the Laird lives in and the present day situation of trying to keep bankers at bay. All of the ventures – like turning the castle into a high class B&B – run into major snags.
We laugh alongside the characters in Monarch of the Glen, but we don’t get as captivated because the orderliness of Downton Abbey it not there. “Monarch” looks a little too much like modern day reality.
So, what will NBC’s The Gilded Age be like? Personally, I find the robber barons of the gilded age reprehensible just as I do the present day robber barons on Wall Street. There is no concept of noblesse oblige in America. We don’t have an aristocracy. We just have a small group of very wealthy and powerful families who have, for the most part, no sense of obligation to anyone. So, how will Julian Fellowes make these characters likable? That is the essence of any tale; there has to be something likable in even the worst characters. If you saw the movie, No Country for Old Men, the character Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, is a chillingly terrifying stone cold killer. In one scene he is talking to the man he has come to kill and he admits that he has grown to like him, but… he said that he would kill him and he has no choice. This dedication to his word is seen as the thing that you can like about his character. I don’t know if that is enough. Tony Soprano was given enough admirable traits to make people like him despite the character that he played.
I am waiting to see how the characters of the Gilded Age can be made likable. I’m optimistic. With Julian Fellowes as sole writer and executive producer there is a chance that we may be highly entertained.