Thursday, March 01, 2012


I've wanted to write about Downton ever since I ever watched the the whole series, twice, in a week, earlier this year. Obviously, I'm a huge fan; the characters, the writing, the cinematography, the costumes, the acting; - they all wrap up neatly in a hugely satisfying and fascinating world in which we're happily immersed. (Not to mention, very pleasant narratives of  romance that are not overly sentimental and actually shows significant restraint, though I don't make excuse for the unnecessary and heavy dose of soap opera during the second season that pandered to American audiences...) Also, when there seems to be a cultural vacuum in entertainment, this series caters to virtues long forgotten in our culture: loyalty, integrity, fairness, and just plain old good nature. There's something to be said that of a leading cast of ~20 characters, only about one and a half of them might be considered the "bad guys" (Thomas, half of O'Brien, who actually is a softie inside). Anyway, aside from these factors that define good entertainment, there could be deeper reasons for this obsession and some people have picked up on this with articles such as:

Of Noblemen and Investment Bankers; Why we can’t take our eyes off Downton Abbey, or,The Upside-Down Appeal of ‘Downton Abbey’

The backdrop of at the time of writing was the widespread "Occupy" movements against the "1%" of our societies. In the first article, Roiphe points out an anachronism - do we hate the 1% (e.g. Occupy) or do we love them (e.g. Downton and other glimpses into the rich)? In the second, Chocano points out an oft-unspoken observation: the Earl of Grantham is such a nice guy to the point of being ludicrous, and that the show's focus is not on romance but on the master-servant relationship, "a fantasy in which an enlightened overclass and a grateful underclass look deeply into each other’s eyes and realize that they need each other, that there’s a way for them to live together in perfect, symbiotic harmony." (Yes, she's cynical.)

But I don't find our fascination all that weird. Perhaps the master-servant relationship is a long-outdated illustration, but don't we all hope to find jobs where our employers are understanding, treat us with dignity and respect, and look out for us when we need help? Find any study having to do with "best employers to work for" and you'll find these factors. True, the master-servant relationship of this time didn't allow room for our age's obsession with "self-actualization", but there's something comforting and peaceful about the certainty and orderliness of this arrangement. The take home pay might not be much, but there's no need for major anxieties regarding basic needs of food and shelter. Plus, you might even get promoted if the opportunity arises.Our industries used to work something like this, and thus was born the middle class, which apparently worked quite well (I wonder how the Japanese look at Downton?).

Yet, in this day of short-term loyalty and "careerists" offering career advice as this blog, make your life more stable by changing jobs more frequently, these securities belong to the past. Of course, the nature of industry has to do with it, but the credo of "self-actualization" has exasperated the discussion into the delusion that these basic securities are insufficient; "be all that we can be," they say. So it hit me one day:

I am Thomas. As are we all; we live in a world of Thomases. The ambitious footman, the bad egg of the cast. Our competitive world and human nature propels us to claw our way up the ranks, and any shortcut to riches is too tempting. Despite the sufficiency of basic needs, we choose instead the route of anxiety as we enter the chaos of the world. But I don't mean to focus on our labour markets, instead, Thomas embodies our hearts.

This ambition of going out on our own is core to our human nature. We like our independence, to design our own destiny, and answer to no one but ourselves. Unfortunately, this self-centred worldview is very much anxiety-ridden, burdensome, and more often than not, meaningless. Playing God in our lives is actually really tough as we navigate through the chaos ourselves. In contrast, consider Jesus Christ's offer to us:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30.

Christ calls us to submit to his yoke, that is, to humble ourselves, confess our need, and live faithfully under his lordship. But he's not an oppressive master, like the symbolic Egyptians, but a kind and gentle one. As the redemptive Saviour, he's the only one who has the ability to give us rest, or peace in its truest sense; shalom. Back to Downtown, considering Lord Grantham in his role of "lordship" is obviously infinitely lacking, but his promise of basic needs and loyal care and the orderliness of the arrangement serve as a glimpse of a heavenly home for our heart. Where is yours now?

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.