Downton Abbey Season Six is underway in the U.K., but I’m still coping with Season Five: Anna was jailed, Carson proposed to Mrs Hughes, and the world is changing!
I have written about Agustin Reyes – “Augie” – before on These Stone Walls, most notably in “Science and Faith and the Big Bang Theory of Creation.” In the ebb and flow and fractured pasts of prison life, I’ve known Augie for a very long time. Like our friend, Pornchai Moontri, Augie went to prison at age 18, and also like Pornchai that was 24 years ago. Last month, at age 42, Augie became eligible for parole. It will take awhile to iron out the wrinkled and torn fabric of time before Augie is free, but I will miss him – especially on Mondays.
Augie often stops by early on Monday mornings to compare notes on the weekend episodes of our favorite “never miss” TV shows: AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the History Channel’s “Vikings,” and the PBS Masterpiece Classic, “Downton Abbey,” not necessarily in that order. I sometimes wonder what it says of any man who could even put those three titles together in the same blog post, let alone watch them above all others.
In a recent letter, a reader in Australia wrote that she got hooked on Downton Abbey after reading about it on These Stone Walls, and added that she also never misses “Vikings.” So I feel as though I’m on solid ground for at least two out of our top three. Last month I explored the moral undertones of the third, AMC’s gruesome “The Walking Dead” in “Planned Parenthood: An American Horror Story.” In fact, as I was typing it, Augie made some helpful suggestions about the plots I mentioned.
On the Monday morning after Downton Abbey Season Five had its season finale last March, Augie had a strange look as he stood at my cell door. With my nose buried in the previous day’s Wall Street Journal, I looked up to see Augie staring at me with a look of surprised relief. “You’re here! And you’re alive!” he declared. Augie said that he had a dream early that morning in which someone came to his cell and told him that I had died during the night and my body was taken away. When Augie awoke, he wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or real, so he came to see for himself. “You CAN’T die!” Augie insisted. “No one else here watches Downton Abbey!”
In prison, we find the oddest reasons to stay alive and carry on. I suppose awaiting the next season of Downton Abbey is as good a reason as any, but Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has announced that next season, Season Six, will be its last. It will leave a void that will be hard to fill again. For that matter, so will Augie.
But it’s not entirely true that no one else here watches Downton Abbey besides Augie and me. I have convinced many prisoners – and many more TSW readers – of the civilizing but addictive nature of this PBS Masterpiece Classic. Many readers have written to tell me they became avid fans of Downton Abbey after my few articles about it. Some have written that they’ve been able to catch up thanks to Netflix. But I’m afraid I’m as far removed from the newest technology as Downton’s Carson the Butler. What’s Netflix?
A FRONT SEAT TO HISTORY
Augie started watching Downton Abbey as the result of a deal between us. He knows I love history, and laughed when Pornchai told him it’s because I was there for most of it. But despite Augie’s repeated prodding, I missed the entire first season of the critically acclaimed History Channel series, “Vikings” – which, I now admit, is outstanding! Augie urged me to watch it so he would have someone to compare notes with, but more so because he wanted to know whether the history is real.
In one “Vikings” plotline, for example, the City of Paris was besieged in a raid led by Rollo the Norseman, a major character in the series. Augie was enthralled when I showed him a time line of British history confirming that the account really happened, that Rollo the Norsem in fact carried out that raid and thus became by treaty the first Duke of Normandy in the year 912, changing all of European history.
So I made a deal with Augie. I promised to take up the next season of “Vikings” if he commits to doing the same with Downton Abbey. In the end, Augie loved it, and we were both better off for it. We were both hooked on history.
Downton Abbey Season Six commenced last month in England. After it ends there, it begins here in the United States in January. I have learned the hard way not to write spoilers because it opens in Australia after its season plays out here. So as I write this, the Brits already know what becomes of everyone, and of how the series signs off. Can Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, save Downton from the looming Great Depression? Will the tragically widowed Lady Mary marry again? Will Carson the Butler, my favorite character, marry the wonderfully kind Mrs. Hughes? Will Tom Branson leave the Old World for the New?
Pornchai rolled his eyes as Augie and I agonized over these questions and others. Then Augie realized that These Stone Walls has many readers in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales who could answer them and not make us wait for Season Six in January. As much as I want answers, please, dear readers of the British Isles, resist the temptation. No spoilers!
MY DALLIANCE WITH THE DOWAGER
My first mention of Downton Abbey was a 2012 TSW post called “Downton Abbey Blue Bloods,” in which I bared my captive soul caught in the doldrums of unrequited love:
“It’s time to come clean and confess. I owe TSW readers the truth, and just can’t go on living this secret any longer. I’ve been seeing someone. I can’t really say she’s my soul mate just yet, but I find her mesmerizing and alluring in her own peculiar way. She lives far beyond my state in life but now I feel incomplete without her. There is little so painful as unrequited love. There, I’ve said it!
“So who is this new spark of joy in my life? Why, who else could it be but Lady Grantham, the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey? Yes, yes, I know she’s old enough to be my mother, but – like justice – love is blind, and sometimes it’s deaf and dumb, too. Most people who spend five minutes with the elder Lady Grantham want to flee for cover, but I see beyond this matriarchal conniver to a heart laid bare by a looming threat: the winds of change.”
Another post was “Return to Downton Abbey: A Feast for Ordinary Time.” It includes some “don’t try this at home, folks” recipes from the captive culinary creations of prisoners inspired by Downton Abbey’s own Countess of the Culinary Arts, Mrs. Patmore.
But I’ve been wanting to write of Downton Abbey Season Five ever since the season finale left me with sore cheeks back in March. No, not the ones I was sitting on for the entire two-hour finale of this British family drama. I actually sat an hour longer than that. Downton was preceded on PBS by the Great British Baking Show which raised my blood glucose each week just in time for Downton Abbey to send it crashing down again.
No, the cheeks that hurt after that season finale were the ones in my face from two hours of nonstop smiling. The Crawley household’s riveting upstairs/downstairs drama captivated us all season, then all came to a resolution of sorts – or at least a cease fire – as they all gathered around a Christmas tree. It mattered not at all that it was months after Christmas in America as Season Five came to a close. It was probably the nicest two hours I’ve ever spent in front of a “telly” – as Downton’s next generation will come to call it – in about 20 years. Will the world be better off with TV?
ANOTHER BATES IN THE SLAMMER
However, my favorite post about the fate of these beloved characters immersed in real history involved the TV-watching world’s favorite couple, Lord Grantham’s Valet, Mr. Bates, and his dear wife, Anna. Could any more injustice possibly come their way? In “Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama,” in Season Three, I wrote about the terrible tragedy of wrongful conviction that befell Mr. Bates, and put all of Downton Abbey on high alert.
Bates was falsely accused, tried on contrived evidence, and sent to prison for the murder of his former wife, a dreadful character most American viewers staunchly hoped would never discover the New World. Losing Mr. Bates to unjust imprisonment was a crisis that overshadowed the entire household, with grave implications for beloved Anna.
A whole season of scenes shot in a dismal 1920s-era British prison demonstrated for me how little our model for prisons had changed since then. It all just got bigger, and meaner, and more crowded with all manner of devious subplots of its own, all conspiring for the ruin of Mr. Bates simply because he did not really belong there. But that’s a whole other TSW post.
Justice prevailed for Mr. Bates, but barely, and never fully. Though entirely cleared, his suspect status never really ended, and the echoes of that injustice reverberated through the walls of Downton with ghosts that came back to haunt him – and Anna. She was brutally raped by a stranger at Downton Abbey, and when the prepetrator of that crime was himself killed, the spotlight of (in)justice was back upon Mr. Bates.
Then – piling on as injustice is known to do – once the story of what happened to Anna was revealed, Mr. Bates was cleared and Anna became the chief suspect, sent to prison to await trial. Sitting in jail, poor Anna summed up in chilling terms her experience of modern criminal justice:
“I’ve been here before with Mr. Bates. They weave their web with little lies and innuendo until they’ve got you for it.”
Anna was entirely innocent, of course, and cleared when the courts heard new testimony from new witnesses who cast doubt on the original story. Justice has since then shored up its web, but Christmas came to Downton Abbey with Anna and Mr. Bates reunited in freedom once again as Season Five drew to a close. It left me devastated, and hoping against hope for the lifting of the shadow of injustice that has so plagued them.
And yes, art reflects life, so the plight of Anna and Mr. Bates touched me deeply. They need a more hopeful light in Season Six as the saga of Downton Abbey draws to a close. So do I. So does Augie, and Pornchai. And as with Anna and Mr. Bates, we are all better off for having known them.
A Post Script from Father Gordon MacRae:
“Something highly unusual is happening in America during this election cycle. There is a strong and growing bipartisan effort to revisit the state of justice in the American criminal justice system, including the prison system. Prisons are necessary, but this one-size-fits-all
prison system has grown out of control in America.
This little state of New Hampshire with 1.3 million people, for example, has more prisoners than the entire nation of Israel with six times that population. Justice isn’t always just, and it isn’t always working.
Please visit and share the bipartisan “Justice Reform Now” effort at http://www.JusticeReformNow.org to add your name with thousands of others to this petition in support of a sane look at an insane system.”
Update for the Week