Everything Bad That Happens in 'Downton Abbey' Is Lord Grantham's Fault

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The grandeur, the nuance, the amazing way nothing happens until the final scenes of an episode... In its glory days, I could spend hours describing the delight that is Downton Abbey. Yet anyone who’s watched the show since the beginning can see that it’s a shadow of what it once was. If it wasn’t for the pragmatic wit of the Dowager Countess, the intermittent brashness of Tom and the simmering affection between Carson and Mrs. Hughes, I don’t know if I could have made until the end.

So I’ve been contemplating the big question that plagues many great shows that receive high praise at its onset: what went wrong? Was it the death of beloved characters like Sybil and Matthew? A tone shift as the characters clumsily dealt with the drastic differences between pre-war frivolity and post-war austerity? Or had it reached its peak in the third season and we’re watching its slow decline into mediocrity?

Or perhaps it’s the problem Downton has been grappling with since the start: over-privileged men, specifically Lord Grantham (a.k.a. Robert Crawley a.k.a. the blustering, bumbling head of the family). At the start, his oblivious follies created dramatic plot points and added tension to the show. Now, despite (and sometimes because of) his intentions to protect the family name, Lord Grantham seems to cause and/or aggravate many of the Abbey’s catastrophes during these, as Lady Mary likes to point out, “changing times.” He epitomizes the dangers of unchecked male privilege.

Let’s take a quick look at Lord Grantham’s low points from the past five seasons:

- With his terrible money management and lack of good decision-making skills, Lord Grantham basically ran Downton into the ground. He lost his and Cora’s money based on a bad investment decision he made without consulting her.


- Feeling ignored by Cora (who was busy running their house-turned-makeshift hospital) and useless during the war, Lord Grantham almost starts an affair with a maid.

- He tries to pay off his son-in-law, Tom Branson, because he is of a lower class. He later owes much of his renewed success to said son-in-law.

- When his youngest daughter Sybil was in labor, Robert ignores the doctor’s warning that she was showing signs of preeclampsia and needs to give birth in a hospital. In spite of everyone else’s concern, Robert insists that she remain at home, where she later dies after giving birth.

- Out of some combo of paternalism and jealousy, he attempts to prolong Mary’s mourning to keep her from playing a role in running the estate via her husband’s will.

In all of these scenarios, Lord Grantham unwittingly finds himself at the center of some disaster. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions, the mess is promptly cleaned up by the women in his life (chiefly his put-upon wife and nonplussed mother) and servants. What’s worse, he not only is blind to his part in the problem, he tends to see himself as the victim.

Of course, the above only scratches the surface of much deeper and complicated issues. Whether he’s bemoaning the fate of the estate he couldn’t properly manage or fuming over a lack of respect when someone dares to express an opinion contrary to his conservative views, Grantham makes sure his wounds are visible.

This isn’t just some deep character flaw, it’s indicative of a larger theme within the series. When the men, particularly Lord Grantham, go unchecked, bad stuff happens.

Born into wealth, Lord Grantham benefits from the dual privilege of manhood and money. Spending most of his life in a world that bends to his will, he has no need to care about how his actions can negatively affect those around him.

One can blame the era of Downton, a time when men talked, women listened and servants tried to stay out of the way, for Grantham’s behavior. Although the world of Downton is quite insular, show creator Julian Fellowes ensures that hot-button issues from outside of the Abbey’s walls seep in. Women were seizing opportunities for independence, proving their capabilities extended beyond polite conversation. Simultaneously, the working class that made estates like Downton possible realized they could have careers outside of the kitchen and began organizing to have their voices heard in the upper echelons of government. We see these glimmers of progressive thinking in the likes of Edith, who now owns a publishing company, Dr. Richard Clarkson, who learns to value the input of feisty Isobel when treating wounded soldiers, and former chauffeur Tom with his socialist leanings.

They stand as needed contrasts to Lord Grantham’s antiquated ways, yet Donk’s actions aren’t that different from how many men act today. Just think of manspreading on public transit, insistent and unnecessary mansplaining, and the mere fact that male is the default for human. These are only a few of the subtle reminders that the privilege of being a man is not having to make an effort to see the world from someone else’s perspective. The job titles may be different, the dress less formal, but men in power acting a fool remains the same.

There’s no denying that Lord Grantham is a fundamentally decent man who wants what he thinks is best for family and vast estate. But in these changing times, what he thinks isn’t the only thing that matters. Lord Grantham is learning that the hard way.