A scene from <i>Downton Abbey</i>
Associated Press/Photo by Nick Briggs (PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE)
A scene from Downton Abbey

The worst sin in Downton Abbey


With the long-awaited season three of PBS’s sleeper hit Downton Abbey now in full swing, many who have not yet succumbed to DA fever are wondering what they have been missing.

Some would say: Not a thing.

On Facebook this week, a friend asked:

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“What makes Downton Abbey quality TV? Many people who normally snub the standard in our culture—sex, vengeance, deceit—are enraptured by this drama. I have watched enough of it to see that it’s just another soap opera.”

She has a point, some might say. There’s certainly a fair amount of sin in the show. Married Lord Grantham kisses a maid. Miss O’Brien causes Lady Grantham to miscarry. Young Mary falls into bed with a Turkish diplomat who dies in her bed and has to be surreptitiously removed from the premises. Officer Charles seduces maid Ethel, and Thomas, the footman, flirts with a series of young, pretty men.

There’s sin everywhere in Downton, yes. And sex, vengeance, and deceit aren’t the half of it. There’s enough jealousy, hatred, undermining, manipulation, selfishness, greed, discrimination, and lust to understandably deter any morally upright viewer from the show.

But, as an unapologetic DA fan, I have a different worry when it comes to the sin on the show. One reply to my friend’s Facebook question said, in short:

“Yes, there is sin in Downton Abbey, but it’s always dealt with justly! The ‘bad’ ladies and gents always get their just deserts! Good reigns in the end!”

Yes, it (mostly) does. But such responses remind me eerily of when the vengeful Inspector Javert in Les Misérables speaks (well, sings) of wanting to see men get their “just reward.” Our preprogrammed nod to grace cringes at such words, but only until Ethel gets pregnant and we find ourselves silently clapping with delight: Serves her right, the little hussy.

Something’s wrong with that. Is watching Downton Abbey justified for no other reason than because, in the end, the sinners get their “just reward”?

Sin is bad, and none of us here would promote it. But lest we become, quite literally, like the Pharisee who, while gazing at a group of sinners, said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men,” we might double-check and see if perhaps we are exactly like other men. If we were even a shred honest with ourselves, we’d admit that the sins of Downton Abbey are sometimes nothing compared to those cozily ensconced in our own hearts.

The sin of lust comes in all forms, you see, including the lust for justice. Before gladitorially drooling over justice for others’ sins, perhaps we ought to pause and consider where we’d all be if any of us “perfect folk” got a taste of it ourselves.

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.


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