Downton Abbey and the Car-Wreck of Fiction

by Kurt Wiesner

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading now if you have not seen Downton Abbey through Episode 3 of Season 4.

If you do not watch Downton Abbey, you may be wondering why your Downton watching friends are either angry or horribly depressed.

You see: there are these characters that we’ve really grown to care about…

We see them in part as friends and family. Yes, we know they are fictional characters, but they and their relationships with other characters reflect some of the things that we either value in our own relationships, or wish that we had in our real lives.

When characters become “really good”, it usually means that they so reflect humanity that we invest fully in their fates. Be it triumphant or tragic, we want to witness what happens to them. We want to know their story, good or bad, with only one real requirement.

It has to ring true.

But the problem with these characters is that they are subject to the real lives of the actors who play them, and the writers and producers who ultimately decide their fate.

Season Three killed two prominent characters in Sybil Branson, and Matthew Crawley.

While there was great grief at Sybil’s death, it was completely believable. She died giving birth to her daughter. Then and now, it is a tragic reality that women die in childbirth. It happened this way mostly because the actress wanted to leave the show, but it was not obtrusive to the plot. It fit the story.

Matthew Crawley, on the other hand, died while “daydream driving” after the birth of his son, crashing and upending his car on top of him.

Any Downton watcher will tell you how much of a stretch this was on the believability scale: the event as it happened seems completely out of Matthew’s character, and the events prior to it…making “everything perfect” just before it all gets blown to hell…makes it completely contrived.

And it was contrived: the actor who played Matthew insisted on leaving the show.

I’m not without sympathy for those who are charged with telling the story. There were only so many options, and I am aware that the actor gave them little notice. But the primary thing I ask of story writers is that they are faithful to the story they tell. Yes: we all would have endless complained if they had replaced the actor with another. But we would have understood. Perhaps season four needed to begin with something like the final Frank Burns episode in M*A*S*H: a story writing him out, even as they did not have access to the actor. Yes, car accidents can happen to anyone, but the way it happened made us call foul.

The same thing happened to us in the latest episode shown here in the US, when the character of Anna was viciously raped.

I can handle shows going dark. I’ve long been an advocate for the dark season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a season many loyal viewers balked at for the downward spiral the whole cast took. It was tough to watch characters we cared about struggle so greatly, but I found it to be real. In life, bad things certainly do happen.

But is this plot concerning Anna believable story?

Strong women certainly do get raped: there is no doubt about that. The choice and circumstances of Anna’s attack, however, rings false for a few reasons.

Anna and Bates have had one thing after another happen to them to “destroy their happiness”. A marriage that can’t be dissolved (an idea now recycled for poor Edith), the marriage finally gets dissolved, they get married…only to have Bates convicted of murdering his ex-wife. And now that Bates is free from prison, the attack on Anna. It seems absurd that all of this would happened to them, especially concerning the circumstances of it all.

The rape was carried out when the entire household was upstairs listening to opera (which follows another often used movie device of contrasting the beautiful passionate music while horrible violence is happening at the same time elsewhere). It is also all but unheard of for truly EVERYBODY to be upstairs, but as Carson says grumpily, "times are changing” (convenient). Anna goes downstairs, not feeling well. The rapist sees this (himself, a visiting servant), followers her downstairs, tries to seduce her, and when she resists, bloodies Anna up and rapes her. He leaves her in the head servants' office, and goes back upstairs to his seat with others. There’s no way in the world that he could have possibly believed that he could get away with such a thing…Anna is, after all, the personal lady’s maid for the powerful Lady Mary. And yet, Anna is the one person who would have some reason to hide the fact that she’s been raped because her husband was once imprisoned for murder and would certainly “kill the rapist and then be hung” (something the rapist would not have known she would do).

Additionally, many people have voiced that the warning at the beginning of the episode was nowhere near strong enough: that viewers were not prepared to see something as disturbing as rape. I agree, but ironically, the warning brought on a hollow pit in my stomach. Somehow, I suspected a physical/sexual attack on Anna: not for any logical clues in the plot, but because I could see such a thing used by the writers for future conflict between Anna and Bates. I also think I guessed this in part because, in Matthew’s death, they had already shown a willingness to sacrifice the story to suit their purpose. I sort of EXPECTED a contrived plot device such as this, and that’s not good.

Many have labeled Downton Abbey a “PBS soap opera”. I’ve rejected that label in the past, but perhaps the writers are trying to prove me wrong. Unlike soap operas, Downton Abbey has multidimensional characters who have good and not so good qualities. Their relationships seem real, and reflect much of real life situations (just with awesome costumes, dialogue, and scenery). It’s fair to expect that some things will feel contrived…but at what point do things stop being believable?

Downton needs drama, but as the viewer, I’m no longer sure I believe the story. If plot continues to be sacrificed for the spectacle of the wreck, I will likely be looking away.


The Rev. Kurt C. Wiesner is rector of All Saints' Episcopal in Littleton NH, loves his role as a Spiritual Faculty member of CREDO, and writes a blog called "One Step Closer: Religion and Popular Culture". He's a big fan of U2, everything Joss Whedon, and all Judi Dench films and series (but maybe no longer Downton Abbey). He is the Wednesday news blogger for Episcopal Café.

Stargate SG-1, Orthodoxy, and Imagination

By Benedict Varnum

I recently (last night!) finished a lengthy project of mine, and finished watching Stargate SG-1 on DVD, putting me several years behind those who followed it on-air. For those who don't know, the show had a mixture of religious themes, mythology, romance, humor, and the US Air Force going into space by walking through wormholes in the Stargate. But this morning, walking to work (following my own busgate trip), I found myself thinking back over my time watching it, and while I found it a fun romp, I realized that I disagree with (at least) one of the basic assumptions of the show's fantasy.

Now, good sci-fi or fantasy will mix the real world with some elements that aren't in the real world. When it's done well, this mixture affects us somehow. It may hold up a mirror to our current lifestyle and practice (I was struck recently by the "meat-cloning vats" used to sustain an Earth population in the billions in Peter Hamilton's Nights' Dawn trilogy; certainly a reflection on our contemporary factory farming, writ larger).

Or it may offer us an escapist hope to wonder at (I think of Picard's speech to the de-cryogenized business tycoon in Star Trek's "The Neutral Zone" episode, about how in the future, we've evolved beyond the need for money, and everyone's task in life is to improve herself. The Star Trek franchise makes lighter of this in Star Trek IV, against the backdrop of feminism in the 1980s, when Kirk's marine biologist date is forced to pay for their meal, saying something like "I suppose you don't have money in the 24th century?" "We don't!").

Or you can get worlds as complex as the real one, which serve as soothing reminders that we can always grow and reinvent ourselves, simply by displaying character after character developed in a thoughtful way that takes advantage of the nuances of their fantastic otherworld (Han Solo's career commitment to the ship he loves flies him not only across the galaxy, but from seedy cantinas to medal ceremonies before a hopeful new republic, and even lets him grow large enough that he can hand the steering wheel back to ol' Lando, freeing his heart and arms to hold onto Leia, non?).

So what's my problem with SG-1? On the one hand, nothing. They commit early and hard to holding the characters together through a mix of romance, duty, and humor (often through the characters annoying each other). They paint these everyday lives against the epic backdrop of a galaxy constantly on the brink of war or the destruction of all life. They hold up over and over again the value of a single person, both by the way in which any character's actions might be the crucial difference between not just life and death, but the destruction of earth, or even the universe, and not. They firm that up by standing several episodes on the principle "We don't leave our people behind," even when it doesn't make military sense to stage a rescue. Again, individuals make the difference, and it's fun for us to watch the bonds between the characters grow stronger.

So what's NOT to like? Well, for one thing, you've got to table any kind of cultural humility you have: the series stands pretty firmly on the assertion that whoever this team goes out and meets, whether they're far more or far less technologically advanced than we are, they've always got a thing or two to learn from the good ol' US of A. Most of the other cultures are either childlike and naive or warlike and arrogant. Very few cultures are ethical and emotional peers for the Stargate team, and in most of them, that budding kinship is embodied in one or two individuals, who are usually a minority voice in the face of an overbearing dictatorship. Humility is not a strong suit for the human race in this series . . . to the point that eventually even the Goa'uld, who have spent most of the show impersonating Egyptian gods, have to point it out. There are justice things to say about the show's target demographics, its treatment of women and minorities (did all those early season Jaffa slaves HAVE to be black?), etc. It does get better as the show goes on.

But the gift of insight that I got out of reflecting on the show this morning is this: many of the show's episodes, especially near the beginning and the end, operate by suggesting that every earth mythology is nearly-literally true, and based on powerful alien technologies being misinterpreted as magic. For example, Merlin was actually an ascended being who returned to this plane of existence to battle the meddling of other ascended beings, who are trying to kill anyone who won't worship them. The magic? That was his technology, protecting him as he attempted to build an anti-demon superweapon.

Many of the gods of ancient cultures show up: Celt, Chinese, Egyptian, Sumerian. All the stories? Turns out they're true accounts. (The exception is that the show is reluctant to touch Christianity; they have one of the Goa'uld impersonate Satan, but won't go so far as to say the God of the Abrahamic faiths was any kind of alien, though they toe the line in the last few seasons with a virgin birth).

The problem I have with this is in its "theological anthropology" (which may match up well with some of my problems above with their cultural anthropology). Theological anthropology has to do with what the fundamental or metaphysical essence of human beings is. What is a human being? The image of God? A fallen creation? A little more than beasts, though less than angels?

Part of the answer in Stargate is that human beings are on the way to ascension (with a quick stopover en route as the "Fifth Race" in a sort of elite, enlightened galaxy-trotter club). But the other major part is that human imagination is something that obscures facts into stories, taking us further from the truth, rather than inviting us to wonder our way towards it. The ancient stories and relics the team encounters are usually clues, pointing to new technologies or hidden alien friends, but the process of interpreting them is about recovering the factual history, dispelling the myth.

Intriguingly, when the ascended beings are shown in a few episodes, they're either comically distracted from the pragmatic and real, or else sitting in a mock-up of an eternal diner, relatively uninterested in their surroundings, except to read the news about the physical universe. So ascension is immortality, but without imagination, novelty, or wonder. Like the ancient Greek gods, these ascended beings are mostly defined by when and how they choose to interfere with the mortal realm.

The more I thought about how Stargate treats our imagination, the more I thought about what we do to our own stories and history. In Christianity, the word "orthodoxy" is often raised. The force of deploying this term is usually a conserving one, suggesting that somehow, someone has wandered too far afield to be part of the conversation, the community, any longer. The assumption in orthodoxy is that truth used to be much clearer, and that part of our task is to conserve it, guard it, return to it. The word "innovation" gets the opposite emotional and moral force from the way it's used in, say, scientific learning (indeed, there's no doubt much to say about the intersections of science, atheism, religious scientists, orthodoxy, the Christian tradition(s), and the history of "the West").

Innovations, orthodoxy would usually claim, are things that obscure the truth further. They're the cloudings of the story that Stargate holds our imagination to be serving up over the course of centuries, and the project of Christianity is in some way to push them aside and get back to the "original" (and therefore true) Christianity.

The problem, as I see it? First, you don't have to read much of the Bible to realize that the early Christians had a strong history of misunderstanding Jesus (Gospel of Mark, anyone?), disagreeing with one another (Council at Jerusalem, the discrepancies between Paul's self-account and those in Acts), and blending Christianity with the cultures of their day. The more I read and re-read scripture, the more clear I am that becoming as close to Peter (who, after all, Jesus called Satan) isn't the fullness of life and relationship to God, Christ, self and others that I'm called to.

And there's the further layer that Jesus didn't provide a systematic manual of what the truth is. Rather, he told parables: stories that pointed people back to their own lived experience. Now, on a certain literal level, maybe that means that the only way to know God is to become a farmer, a landowner, a maiden waiting for the bridgegroom to arrive and a traveler passing Samaritans. But surely the message is richer than that? Surely this method demonstrates in some way that our lives are holy and bring us to the holy?

Thinking that way requires that we use our imagination, not because we, like the oppressed peoples of Stargate's past, can't understand the higher technology or God-power that we're witnessing, but because imagination lets us wonder at where we are already seeing the holiness of our selves and one another.

Orthodoxy's Greek roots translate to "right opinion," which has nothing intrinsically historical or conservative about it. In fact, one might well argue that to make sure your opinion is right, you need to interrogate what came before -- not throw it out haphazardly, but certainly really engage it. Imagination is surely part of how we find new possibilities that can lead us to greater truth or help us see around the incomplete truths (we ARE human, after all) that those before us have handed down.

No offense, SG-1 writing team; I did enjoy your series.

Benedict Varnum is a postulant for holy orders in the priesthood, and is currently serving as a chaplain for an intensive care unit and other areas in a Chicago hospital. He holds a Master's of Divinity from the University of Chicago, and keeps an occasional blog at http://rootweaving.wordpress.com

What I found in "Lost"

By Peter M. Carey

I am a big fan of the television show “Lost.” If anyone doesn’t know by now, the set-up of this show is that a jet airplane crashes on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and when no rescue happens, the passengers have to contend with surviving on an island that is increasingly dangerous, and mysterious. What begins, perhaps, as a 21st century Gilligan’s Island, develops into a far more complex, interesting, and confounding story. I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on Lost, and was very interested that in a recent Speaking of Faith broadcast on NPR, Krista Tippett discussed “Lost” among other television shows as a “Parable of our Times.”

There is one aspect in particular which has been quite instructive to me as I continue my ministry in the church. I am interested in the ways that the creators of the series have chosen to reveal the back-story of each survivor on the Island. At first, the viewer is merely observant of behavior and dialogue of characters stuck on this island. However, as time goes by, like an onion being peeled, we are treated to see the stories of each of these characters. The viewer sees how one character ends up in the custody of a federal marshal, how another character becomes a priest without ordination, how another loses, and regains, use of his legs, and how another becomes a multi-millionaire. Several episodes are dedicated to tell the story of a different survivor, bouncing back and forth between the present and the past.

Of course, the world view, behavior, and attitudes of each of the characters is formed in part by their history. They are not blank slates. They each bring their history and their “baggage” with them. As the series has moved through the various seasons, the writers have also been courageous enough to allow the characters to be formed and changed by one another. The selfish thief begins to show leadership qualities, the recovering drug addict shows selfless love for his friends, and a diverse and eclectic group is transformed.

There are many ways to reflect upon this rich television show, but what I have found most helpful as I have entered into a new church community is the ways that each member of our church has many layers, and has a history that is fascinating to discover. We each have our stories which inform who we are both in ways we are proud and in ways that we are not. We all bring our gifts and our baggage with us wherever we go. Recognizing this fact can help inform the way that we treat each other and the way that we treat ourselves! Our history does not define us in total, but it certainly affects who we are.

When I have the patience to really sit and hear someone’s story I am treated to their own “backstory” which, of course, informs their world view, behavior and attitude. At times, I wish it were easier to learn these stories, but, of course it takes patience, presence and prayer to open up a space to listen. Of course, we each have our stories (including pastors and priests), and we are also formed, in part by our own history.

Like the individuals washed up on the beach, each of us enters a church for the first time as strangers, maybe sometimes feeling out of place in a strange land. At times, this feeling of being lost can also occur over and over after we experience tragedy, doubt, or grief. As people of faith, when we have the courage to listen, and to share, we are no longer “Lost” strangers on the beach, but persons in communion with God and one another. When the church is at its best, we allow people to share their stories, and we offer friendship and love both “because of” and “in spite of” our stories.

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is associate rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

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