On the last episode of the wildly popular PBS drama Downton Abbey, one character tells another: "You've broken the rules, my girl, and it's no use pretending they're easily mended."

The popular British import, set in World War I, portrays the aristocratic Crawley family and the cadre of cooks, maids, and butlers who tend to them, in all their relational and class-based drama. The show is all about rules, whether bowing to class structure or honoring commitments from the past. The rules present the extraordinary obstacles in this show … except that they're not so extraordinary, really, and that's one of the many reasons this show works.

Downton's surprise success is often chalked up to an unrealistic sense of nostalgia over an intriguing and lavish lifestyle at the turn of the 20th century, borne out by the inevitable market surge of "inspired by" books, clothes, food, and jewelry. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's easy to understand why this show is considered a soap opera that appeals mainly to women.)

But my favorite aspect of Downton is its emphasis on humans' agency and accountability despite social and economic barriers. The characters are never excused for their choices by circumstance, class, gender, time period, or even the unfairness of the rules to which they so tightly cling.

Part of Downton's popularity is its resonance with Jane Austen's books and the movies inspired by them. As in most Austen adaptations, the lives of the heroines in Downton—women dress for dinner and idle away the day—demand improvement. The daughters cannot inherit their family's estate (a common theme of Austen's), and society ...

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