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Why I Quit Watching ‘Downton Abbey’


Mar 8 2016
This isn’t just a pretty period drama. It’s a show about terror.

I remember the first time I stopped watching Downton Abbey. It was several years ago, in the midst of the ups and downs of the third season. Lady Sybil (the youngest daughter of Lord Grantham, master of Downton) died post-childbirth from eclampsia, suffering a stroke and leaving behind her newborn daughter and bereft husband.

Watching the show by myself, I began to reckon with a question I’d never before considered: What is the appropriate response when you watch someone die on television from something that nearly killed you?

For me, the response was visceral. I tried to catch my breath. My heart pounded, reminding me of what it felt like to have my blood slamming in my temples, with machines and medicines keeping my heart from stroking out.

Like everyone else, I focused relentlessly on the present, on living, on surviving, and I didn’t appreciate the reminder of my own mortality. Nor was I quite prepared to dwell on how recent the medical developments had been introduced to our world, how I was incredibly fortunate to have been pregnant in the 21st century, in a western country, on health insurance. From my work in refugee communities I knew—although I had tried to forget—that I was still in the minority as a survivor, that women around the world perished just like Lady Sybil and continued to do so at alarming rates.

Yet, here I was, watching it happen on a wildly successful period drama from public broadcasting. I closed my laptop and swore off Downton for good. The jewels, the dresses, the intrigues and petty fights, the crackling one-liners from Maggie Smith—they no longer were enough of a distraction from what I was beginning to sense was a real, if unintended, theme of Downton.

The more I watched, the more I had a sense that being a woman in our world is very, very hard. Money can help, and social privilege smoothes out the rough edges for sure. But the truth remained: no matter if you lived upstairs or downstairs or comfortably in the American middle class like myself—women have had a long history of trauma in our world, and few of us are quite sure what our response to that truth should be.

I recently started watching Downton again, sure that public broadcasting must be doing something right since so many of my friends and acquaintances were terribly excited about the sixth and final season, which concluded on Sunday.

Trauma, Smoothed-Over

It is, as PBS has mentioned several times, the most-watched drama in the history of the channel. Afraid of missing out, perhaps, or curious to see how much more heartbreak and rigmarole could be packed into these lives, I returned into series. While this time I did not experience such a clear physical response to the plotlines, I still found more than a few moments of horror sprinkled liberally throughout the pastoral landscape of England in the 1920s.

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Why I Quit Watching ‘Downton Abbey’