The Crawleys, The Skywalkers, and Inherited Sin

On New Year’s Day I went to see Episode VII of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” again with a friend, having seen it for the first time on the evening of Christmas Day with my siblings – it deserved a repeat viewing. As has been observed by others, Episode VII has many similarities to Episode IV, or more formally, “Star Wars: A New Hope”. However as my friend pointed out, because so much of Star Wars is drawn from mythology, where gods, humans, and their offspring often repeat the mistakes of the past, even though they can choose to do right or wrong, it is hardly surprising that patterns repeat. That idea stuck with me through the weekend, and so I must tip my hat to his perceptiveness.

I had a similar thought in watching the season premiere of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday. Now in its final season, this sixth outing trotted out many of the same things we have seen before. Lady Mary is once again in danger for getting caught in a sexual dalliance; Lady Violet and Cousin Isobel are at each other’s throats; the downstairs staff make perpetually cute (Carson and Mrs. Hughes) or perpetually woeful (Bates and Anna) or perpetually irritating (Daisy). One could say that, like seven Star Wars films, there is not much more to say in six seasons of Downton Abbey. Yet in taking this attitude, one forgets that family inheritances in these tales are very important. For lightsabers and estates hold a greater symbolic importance here.

Given the irrepressible human need for novelty, it is understandable that some would criticize both of these popular franchises for being repetitive. Of course, even high art can be viewed as repetitive, as the over 100 examples of works of art depicting The Annunciation in the National Gallery here in Washington alone demonstrate. (One also wonders whether the structural similarities between many of Mozart’s Piano Concertos also thereby eliminate them from being worthy entertainments.)

To me however, the stories of the Crawleys and the Skywalkers are not repetitive, but examples of how the same situations can and do appear, time after time, thanks to human nature and Original Sin.

We are all familiar with the saying, “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son”, meaning that the descendants of the unjust will continue to feel the ill effects of the bad choices made by their parents, grandparents, etc. We can see this at work in Star Wars, and we also see it in Downton Abbey. The Skywalkers marked their ascendance by the shedding of blood, the Crawleys by the accumulation and protection of wealth. Each succeeding generation of these families is, at least to some extent, restricted by the choices made by those of the preceding generations. And in many instances, those choices were poor ones, the same temptations appealing to members of the same family, one generation after another. One need only read Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” for a real-life example.

If you have ever studied the Bible, you know that it is replete with examples of repeated offenses within families, and the effects such offenses have on the descendants of those who made them. In fact such repetition is so common to come across in the Books of Kings and Chronicles that it is almost as if the author was just dialing it in. One repeatedly reads of how a King of Israel started well, but “he did evil in the sight of The Lord,” such as in committing murder or worshiping idols. Eventually he is succeeded by a son or another relative, who usually ends up doing more or less the same thing.

Although the stories may seem repetitive, it is through their very repetitiveness that God makes his point. David, blessed and specifically chosen as he was by God, screwed up royally, as it were. So did his son Solomon, when he came to the throne, despite being blessed with the greatest of wisdom. By themselves they were incapable of avoiding sin. And yet God was able to make use of them anyway.

The history of mankind is one ongoing struggle, as a result of Original Sin. Our first parents chose to abandon their innocent state and enter into sin. As their descendants, we inherited not only the Free Will they had been given to make that decision, but also their attraction to sin in our own makeup, so that we keep facing the same choices and struggles that they did. To show us how power, greed, pride, and all the rest are offered to each generation in turn, and how each of us must choose, therefore, is not repetitive: it is a reality, one which all of us must learn for ourselves, often over and over.

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The Quivering of the Stiff Upper Lip

Last evening PBS aired the final episode of “Downton Abbey”, a costume drama which was made for ITV in Britain and here in America was run on “Masterpiece Classic”, the subdivision of the venerable old “Masterpiece Theatre”, of blessed memory. If it has been some time since you watched PBS, gentle reader, then you may be unaware that “Masterpiece” has absorbed the formerly distinct “Mystery”, in order to show films featuring characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Kurt Wallender, and the like. “Masterpiece Classic” features works either taken from literature or set in an historic period, while “Masterpiece Contemporary” deals with works set in the present-day. While the divisions make some sense from a programming aspect – and this writer for one has no complaints whatsoever with seeing introductions from the always-charming Laura Linney on the “Classic” showings – it does seem to lend something of a schizophrenic nature to the brand.

In any case, “Downton Abbey” is not in fact a classic work of literature, but rather a period piece developed and written by Julian Fellowes, of “Gosford Park” and “The Young Victoria” writing fame. It follows the inner workings of life at an English country house in the lead-up to World War I, with the Earl of Grantham and his family at the top of the pecking order and the household staff at bottom. The series is beautifully shot, the costumes and attention to detail are wonderful, and there is a golden light that often suffuses the film and gives us a sense of a world unaware that it is about to pass away.

As to the story itself, “Downton Abbey” is little more than a re-hash of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, with more sex and less believability. Fellowes has charted this territory before, in the intensely boring murder-mystery “Gosford Park” which, despite some few, electric moments, was doomed to Yawnsville from the start in being made by the late Robert Altman. In “Downtown Abbey”, the great Dame Maggie Smith, playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has little more to do than play a variation on her twittering like a perturbed canary as she did in “Gosford Park”, “Tea with Mussolini”, etc.; one of the guests and the servants carry on a clandestine same-sex affair (“Gosford Park” again); the inevitable maxim that it is tacky to talk about money, but then of course everyone does so, incessantly (natch); and the requisite younger bluestocking playing the Bolly Bolshevik (ditto.)

One of the more “icky” aspects of the script arises through the interactions between staff and family: moments which this reviewer found rather eye-rolling at times. It is very difficult to believe the amount of physical touching, embracing, back-talking with no consequences, and general familiarity on display between the Earl’s family and their household staff. At least “Gosford Park” had, in its one spectacular on-screen moment, a scene in which a servant dares to speak out of turn at dinner – Kristin Scott-Thomas’ face is simply astounding – and knows without having to be told that she is sacked. “Downton Abbey”, by contrast, gives us a closing scene of the butler embracing the eldest daughter of the Earl, out on the grounds in the middle of her parents’ garden party, after her engagement fails to come off. Someone please pass the smelling salts.

There is a tendency in contemporary British film to reduce the blue-blooded to some sort of emotional, tender heap of feelings, presumably in an effort to make them more comprehensible to the masses. One of the writers at The Daily Telegraph, in reviewing “The King’s Speech”, has referred to this as the “Dianafication” of the British monarchy: let’s forget that these people are different and knock them down a few pegs to make them seem somewhat cuddly underneath those forbidding exteriors. Yet in doing so filmmakers and indeed the public forget that is precisely what puts an Earl, a Countess, or a King at a distance from the common people which preserves the system by which they remain where they are, and not merely Louis and Marie Capet from down the street. There is a magic in monarchy that is lost when we know too much, or when the lofty become too familiar.

As a decidedly middle-class, middle-brow entertainment there are worse things than “Downton Abbey”: the work of Robert Rauschenberg comes to mind. We were informed – perhaps the more choice word is “warned” – at the conclusion of last evening’s episode that a second series of “Downton Abbey” is in the works. Oh dear.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, used as the set for “Downton Abbey”