Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama: A TSW Masterpiece Classic

Downton Abbey Season 3 SPOILER ALERT!

With Mr. Bates in prison, Lady Edith jilted at the altar, a Catholic conundrum, and Carson facing Downton Abbey’s first electric toaster, who can cope?

You might have been on summer vacation when I wrote “Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an i-Pod World” last July. It was about prison drama, and an obscure 1955 prison film entitled, “Unchained.” TSW readers who survived the Sixties were surprised to learn that “Unchained Melody” – the alluring ode to love ingrained in our romantic consciousness by the Righteous Brothers in 1965 – was first written in 1955 for “Unchained,” a classic prison movie starring Todd Duncan. In a central scene in the film, Duncan sang the doleful song in a state of despair in his prison cell while mourning his forced separation from his beloved wife. Because of that song, “Unchained” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Score in 1955. The song was later entitled “Unchained Melody” solely because of its association with the prison film.

I thought of “Unchained Melody” – both the song and my post of the same title – as I watched a few recent episodes of Downton Abbey. Mr. Bates, formerly valet to the Earl of Grantham, is now in prison – and it seems unjustly so – separated from his beloved new wife, Anna. In one of the episodes, Mr. Bates was suddenly cut off from all visits and letters from Anna because he was caught up in the subversive plots of other prisoners.

Prisons haven’t changed much since that depiction of a circa 1920 British dungeon. Guards still tear cells apart looking for contraband – sometimes put up to it by the rumors of others getting even for some perceived slight. There is never a shortage of nefarious schemes among prisoners. The constant vigilance required to understand the daily score sheet of enemies and allies, and to see these plots evolving in advance to fend them off, is exhausting. I keep the Prayer to Saint Michael solidly affixed to my cell wall, and it’s not just a decoration. It’s a prayed necessity. Lots of prisoners ask me for copies of that prayer.

I found myself wanting to give a copy to Mr. Bates a few weeks ago. Though one of the more worldly characters of Downton Abbey, he was completely unprepared for the dark twists and turns of prison drama. I don’t know whether Mr. Bates is Catholic, but Anglicans come from the same tradition so Saint Michael was as much needed in his prison as in mine. No one watching Downton Abbey could not be moved as Mr. Bates the prisoner and Anna the Ladies’ maid were each given a stack of unposted love letters that had been caught up in, then delivered from, the evil plots of prison intrigue.

While writing this post, I was a little shocked to realize that all the dramas described in my introduction took place in just two hours of Downton Abbey, and there were many others. Virtually every character was in crisis mode at the same time. Everything tells me I should not even admit that I’m hooked on this British soap opera, but resistance is futile. There is no known treatment for Downton withdrawal.

In TSW’s “Hits and Misses of 2012,” I wrote of my undying admiration for this PBS Masterpiece Classic. My friend, Leo Demers, TSW’s Facebook editor, was once Senior Engineer for PBS, and one of his duties was the final editing of Masterpiece Classics. Not many prisoners watch Downton Abbey despite my glowing reviews. I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the vacant stare I received last week as I described Downton Abbey to my friend, Ralph, who asked what it was about. “It’s an historically accurate drama set in post-Edwardian England during and after World War I as the age of the British Nobility diminished under sweeping cultural changes,” I told him soberly.

All of that describes why I find Downton Abbey to be riveting, but I would swear Ralph actually lost consciousness for a moment somewhere around “post-Edwardian.” “Oh,” he said, as he furtively slipped away, never to raise the topic again. Our friend, Pornchai, who heard the exchange, said, “I think your TSW posts are better than your TV reviews.”


All the drama aside, I think the strongest lure of Downton Abbey, for me anyway, is the accuracy of its history. I love history. Pornchai says it’s because I was there for most of it and it brings back memories. Nice! Downton’s writers did their homework, portraying the post-World War I climate of sweeping cultural change in Europe and America with some hints of how we got to where we are today. History is the uncredited but most welcomed guest star of Downton’s weekly drama.

In a recent episode, the Earl of Grantham’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil – who “married beneath her” when she ran off with the Earl’s Irish Catholic chauffeur – arrived back in Downton after fleeing a riot in Ireland. Lord Grantham learned that his new son-in-law is a dedicated and vociferous rebel against British dominance, and a member of Sinn Fein which supported the Easter Rising of 1916 against British rule of Ireland. Downton Abbey’s setting is at the brink of the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.

The anti-Catholic sentiment of the British nobility was given new power in the Irish rebellion, and this episode of Downton Abbey put it on center stage. The Earl of Grantham had invited the local Anglican Archbishop to dinner. In the midst of the distinguished guests and hovering servants, Lord Grantham’s son-in-law showed up having fled British authorities when he dragged the Earl’s daughter into an attack against the British nobility in Ireland. This really happened, and seeing this included in Downton’s drama was compelling.

It resulted in a fascinating exchange between the Church of England Archbishop – who was unaware of the simultaneous drama going on – and the Earl of Grantham whose daughter was missing in action while his fugitive Irish son-in-law, Tom Branson, stood in the next room:

Archbishop: “Well, I don’t want to sound anti-Catholic.”

Lord Grantham: “Why not? I am! I don’t want thumbscrews or the rack or anything, but there’s always something so Johnny-foreigner about Catholics!”

Indeed! And no doubt he had Branson in mind. His Sinn Fein son-in-law brought the air of rebellion to Downton Abbey and “shook things up a bit.” Perhaps spurred on by her sister Sybil’s excitement, the middle daughter, Lady Edith – recovering from being left standing at the altar by her intended groom – shocked the Earl more than any of them in the same episode. She published a letter in the local newspaper demanding voting rights for women. “GOOD GOD IN HEAVEN!” Lord Grantham bellowed over his newspaper at breakfast.

Then tragedy came to Downton Abbey, terrible tragedy. In a heartbreaking episode, Lady Sybil died in childbirth. Her dying wish was for her anti-Catholic family to honor her Irish husband’s faith, and to Baptize and raise her child as a Catholic. The Crawleys are tested to their limit, and there is drama to come.


In a post last year entitled “Downton Abbey Blue Bloods Touch Falling Skies Upon Criminal Minds,” I wrote briefly of the role of television in modern prison life. Things have not changed all that much from the attitudes and atmosphere endured by Mr. Bates trapped in a 1920 British prison, but the trappings have changed. Back then, no one went to prison for 67 years.

This prison, like many, learned long ago that TV is probably the most cost-effective method of crowd control ever, and an effective cost saving measure. It’s a win-win for both prisoners and society. Prisoners purchase their own small personal televisions in the prison commissary, and prisons get to impose some conditions on that purchase. It requires a modicum of behavior, a prison job or work as a full time student, and the saving of funds in advance. A prisoner owning a small TV costs taxpayers nothing, while staffs would likely have to be doubled without it just to maintain order.

One New Hampshire taxpayer, reacting to the gross over-crowding and mindless expansion of state budgets due to vastly longer prison sentences, published a letter to the editor in a local paper demanding an end to all prisoners’ rights. He suggested downsizing the prison and staff by assigning three prisoners to each bunk and letting them sleep in 8-hour shifts with the remaining 16 hours spent in forced hard labor. I wonder if he watches Downton Abbey. I doubt it. 

Not to belay the point, but I am in the midst of a personal crisis of my own that caused me to reflect on the addictive nature of Downton Abbey. I awoke one morning at the end of January to my normal routine, but it met with disaster. After Lauds (Morning Prayer) in my cell, I stirred some instant coffee into a cup of hot water, and then sat down to type. First, as is my habit, I reached for my small television to turn on the news. At least, I tried to. To my instant alarm, the small, 10-inch television I purchased in the prison commissary a few years ago would not turn on. It had died in its sleep during the night.

Immediately, the grave reality of loss crept into my consciousness. For a prisoner, this small, hard-earned TV is a window to the outside world – the only such window – and my sudden disconnection from life beyond these stone walls felt alarming. Prisoners cannot simply go purchase another TV. It takes a month or longer to jump through all the necessary hoops to replace it. After an hour or two of trying CPR on my little TV, I thanked the Lord for its service and began the paperwork process to purchase a replacement which I hope to have sometime around mid to late February. I had to have the broken one shipped to a friend who is adept at repairing such things, but I will never see it again.

My first notes of panic, however, had nothing to do with missing the news channels that keep me informed and help me to write. My alarm had no connection to the void left by not having this window to the world, or the fact that my writing may suffer a sudden vacuum in awareness of world events. It was none of that. In front of that little disabled TV, my spontaneous sense of alarm was that I would miss the next three episodes of Downton Abbey. How would I ever cope?

And so until I can tune in again, Mr. Bates remains in prison unjustly while his supporters at Downton work for his release amid the noise and haste of complicated lives living complicated history. The world is changing – and not for the better if Carson the Butler has anything to say. Mrs. Hughes showed up with the newest modern contraption, an electric toaster. Gesturing to it in the midst of all this heartbreak, sweeping change, and Downton drama, Carson declared, “Could you not at least have spared me that?!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please nominate These Stone Walls for the About Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards.  Please log in and vote in each of these categories!  Just copy/paste this info:

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About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Dorothy Stein says:

    Like some of your other readers, Fr. Gordon, I blame you for this. I do not like television. I do not like being hooked on a TV show, but look what you’ve done to me. I cannot miss an episode of Downton Abbey. It is a wonderful series, brilliantly written by Julian Fellowes, very well cast, and wonderfully acted and produced. I love it, and, despite my best efforts, I’m hooked on it. I thank you for recommending it.

  2. Elisa says:

    @Liz, Julian Fellowes is indeed Catholic and a British Lord. He’s mentioned in an interview about the anti-Catholicism his family had to deal with so the bits against Catholics on the show are from those experiences.

  3. Marie says:

    To the Editor:

    Voted on the Best Catholic Blog and Website this evening, but for some reason the Facebook one was not opening for normination ….. I tried!

    To Fr. MacRae ….. I don’t watch too much television except to keep up with the news … but Downton Abbey is my “Must-See” every week! It is such a wholesome program, with a little bit of everything in it! I love historical novels ….. this fits the bill for historical series! Hope you get your new television soon! PAX

  4. Domingo says:

    I realized that I have no more fondness for TV, I thank the LORD that He removed my addiction to it. Other than occasional news, and little glances here and there while my wife is watching something, or one of the children, I’d say my TV days were done.

    Until I read in your post about Downton Abbey.

    I was thinking, if Fr G finds this show wholesome, it should be good for my family. We found the complete first season online in netflix. Devoured it in one weekend. We found season 2 in the public library. Wow, we were 43rd in the queue. But wait we did. It’s a good thing the library has multiple copies (taxes at work) and so after 3 weeks, we were all glued once again to the frame (somehow, using ‘tube’ sounds Downton Abbeyish already).

    And now the agonizing weekly wait for the 3rd season.

    I didn’t realize how much it entranced my two teenaged girls until last Christmas break. The older of the two could not wait for New Year just because the 3rd season was to begin on January 6. The younger one hopes that the series won’t end! She so admires Matthew Crawley and cried her eyes out at the death of Sybil. That tragic scene was the topic of conversation for two days.

    Now that you mentioned it, I see how Bates approximates reality for you. The many interesting subplots competing with each other somehow obscured that line of thought for me. I won’t look at Bates the same way again.

    I’ll let you know of the family’s reaction when I read your post over dinner one of these days.

    May you continue to shine the light of CHRiST in your part of the world, Fr G.

    Asking for your priestly blessings for me and my family,

  5. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Well Fr. MacRae you have gotten me hooked on this drama myself. I don’t know if I should thank you or not. I have tried so hard not to get sucked in to anything on TV, but I must say I am enjoying Downton Abbey.

    Mind you, I missed the first two seasons, so I am a neophyte where all the characters and their various situations are concerned. However, I did certainly see all of Season 3 so far. The loss of Sybil during childbirth was really dramatic. So interesting to watch how all the characters have reacted.

    I did think of you during the scenes with Mr. Bates. He seems out of place in prison, as I imagine you seem to other people there. I can see how prison officials are in league with the devil, and of course I think of you. Where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more. You are a blessing and a grace to all who can see. Your suffering is not without its redemption for those who need it.

    God bless you Fr. and hang in there. I wish I could just give you one of our tv’s. We seem to have accumulated one or two we don’t need anymore. There is so very little to watch, aside from Downton Abbey. I guess that is a thank you. So be it.

    Blessings and prayers are sent to you, as always. Keep the faith!

  6. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    So awful about the TV. That’s how I feel about my kindle. It is my library and I try to carry it with me where ever I go. It even has some prayers and the Bible on it so I can use it in Church too. Hopefully you will have one again soon. I will add that to my prayers for you…Jesus did say whatever you ask in my Name!
    God bless all of you there! Your friend, Jeannie

  7. Liz says:

    Oh no! I don’t want you to miss a single episode. Do you have a friend who can let you watch it? I know it replays on Saturday nights here too, if that’s any help, but I don’t suppose it is.

    I read recently that Julian Fellowes is a Catholic.

    God bless you and Pornchai (and all!)

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