If the first five seasons of Downton Abbey—the British upstairs-downstairs soap opera that will have its sixth and final U.S. season premiere on Jan. 3—were about the structure of class divisions in English society, the last one is about those divisions crumbling.
In this season’s opening episode (warning: spoilers), it’s 1925, and the Abbey is cutting staff, leaving some in existential crises over their professional purpose. Middle daughter Lady Edith, a “modern” working woman, has left the family seat to oversee a magazine in London. Lady Mary, the eldest, whose hauteur has at times seemed impenetrable, uses her status to help her lady’s maid procure better medical care. Lord Robert, the Crawley family patriarch and seventh Earl of Grantham, asks mere minutes after the season begins, “Who lives as we used to now?”
Part of Downton’s genius is that it masquerades as a period drama, when in fact it’s a broad critique of the human manifestation of economics—a particularly resonant theme at this point in the English-speaking world. Downton premiered in the U.K. in 2010 and in the U.S. a year later, just before the rise of Occupy. Thomas Piketty aside, class division continues today as it did 90 years ago. This year, someone in the top 10 percent of earners in the U.K. will make 27 times the income of someone in the bottom 10 percent. In the U.S., the richest 20 percent of families control 89 percent of the country’s wealth, according to a recent Pew survey, putting it among the richest, yet most unequal, countries in the world.
Downton was a hit in its home country and became a global television phenomenon: On its first airing in the U.K., it quickly set ratings records, drawing an average of 8.8 million viewers per episode. A year later, when Downton came across the Atlantic and aired on PBS, it became the most popular drama in public broadcasting history.
Credit the show’s rich visual style and the comic timing of Dame Maggie Smith—whose performance as the Dowager Countess Violet alone was worth the time spent watching—for the continued strong ratings in the fourth and fifth seasons. Occasionally, however, creator Julian Fellowes seemed to be taking on too much. What are the implications of economic mobility, the show asked, and the mechanisms for achieving it? In a world of emerging technologies (by 1925, phonographs, telephones, automobiles, and refrigerators have come to Downton), how does a labor force change? What are the responsibilities of those with hefty manors and Roman numerals after their names?
These are some of the same questions that animate Downton’s literary antecedents, the great novels of Edith Wharton, the Brontë sisters, and, of course, Jane Austen. The sixth season (which has already aired in the U.K.) points to Austen deliberately when, over tea, the Dowager Countess and a cousin discuss the strangeness of hosting an open house at Downton to benefit the village hospital. “Even Elizabeth Bennet wanted to see what Pemberley was like inside,” the cousin remarks. The Dowager tartly replies, “A decision which caused her a great deal of embarrassment, if I remember the novel correctly.”
Like its literary predecessors, Downton has been accused of being mere post-Edwardian fluff, but it’s more substantial than that. Instead of ignoring real issues or filming them in sepia, Downton has addressed interracial dating, rape, gay identity, premarital sex, suicide, and post-traumatic stress, reveling in their inherent complexity rather than fleeing from it. The show leaves viewers with a sense of optimism about the future, a world where the difference between high and low is just a staircase anyone can climb.