Countess Violet Crawly of Grantham and some other old ladies are chatting about the upcoming flower competition because that’s basically the only thing they were allowed to do back then. My eyes glaze over as I passively look at the TV wondering when something’s finally gonna happen. Seemingly out of nowhere, my girlfriend laughs.
I glance over at her, bewildered.
“She basically challenged her to a flower duel, right to her face.”
“Huh? Like, just now? I didn’t catch any of that.”
My girlfriend loves Downton Abbey, a show that makes me feel like a dog trying to watch C-Span. If I wasn’t with someone who took interest in it, I’d have written it off as the most boring show on Earth, never to look back. But the fact that she was able to perceive something that I couldn’t intrigued me. What is this secret language that the show is speaking, that she’s hearing, that’s somehow outside of my perception? As it turns out, trying to understand Downton Abbey is actually a lot like trying to resolve communication issues in a relationship.
You can either:
A. Declare them as an unknowable mystery.
B. Ask as many questions as it takes until you learn something.
If you’ve chosen Option A, you can quit now. Get a Mountain Dew, play some Counterstrike, and don’t worry about learning any foreign languages. If you’ve chosen Option B, I have a few pointers to aid you in your quest. Don’t worry. You don’t have to go it alone. I’ve got your back.
#1. You’ll need a lot of patience.
The first few episodes all might seem like a whole lot of nothing because (in terms of plot points) almost nothing happens because it takes a long time to develop the characters, and with good reason. In an era of such strict conformity, it takes FOREVER to really get to know anybody. People are expected to act a certain way and in effect few characters can be defined by how they look or even what they do. Granted, there are some like Daisy and Thomas who stand out for being peculiar, accident prone, trouble-makers, or idiots. Meanwhile, the likable characters take time to stand out. If you can manage to make it through the first four episodes, you’ll be rewarded with sex, death, scheming, and enough cliff-hangers to make the show actually worth watching, but without first becoming acquainted with the world in which it all takes place, you might miss them.
#2. Everyone looks alike at first.
At first I had a hard time telling most of the characters apart. It took until episode three for me to figure out that Mr. Carson and Mr. Bates were not the same guy and it took until episode five before I recognized that Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. O’Brien were not the same lady. When I’m not wearing my glasses I still have a hard time telling if I’m looking at Mary Crawley or her mother Cora. In cartoons, good character design dictates that everyone ought to be identifiable by their silhouettes alone. Downton Abbey isn’t just a cartoon, it’s the antithesis of a cartoon. Every aspect of the show relies on a level of subtlety that demands your full attention.
#3. With the exception of Violet, no one ever says what they really mean. Ever.
The show takes place in a society that’s so concerned with politeness that you might feel like you’re suffocating. At times, I imagine running through Downton’s halls, screaming obscenities and smearing feces on the walls before burning the place to the ground. Luckily, there’s Lady Violet, the Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) AKA one of the few characters on the show that’s old enough not to worry about offending anyone, although she still does so in a way that conforms to the era. This goes even further when considering the relationships between characters. Most of the time, people only elude to having feelings for each other, and only ever in hypothetical circumstances spoken of in the third person. Again, it feels like suffocation, but that’s what makes the eventual changes down the road that much more satisfying.
#4. You will gain a superpower.
Having completed the first season, I think I’ve got the gist of it. I’ve actually enjoyed the last two episodes and can’t wait to catch up on season two, which is something I’d never thought I’d actually say. Being able to pick up on all the subtle nuances of this strange world where the only substance behind people’s words is what’s unsaid makes me feel like I’ve acquired X-Ray vision or telepathy. Understanding the show has trained me to pick up on all kinds of other unspoken communications that I could only vaguely detect before. As it turns out, women aren’t a mystery. You just have to learn to speak Downton.