Downton Abbey’s Intuitive Spacetime

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The treatment of time in Downton Abbey is very unique, unlike any other show I’ve watched. Time, we are told, stands still in Downton, such that months pass from one episode to the next without making a mark on the calendars of the cast, and yet it is the careful acknowledgement of time outside Downton that even makes us aware of the fact that months have passed. We are made aware of world events like the Great War, the Spanish Flu, the Railroad fiasco, the Teapot Dome etc. We are constantly told that the world is changing and that Downton, its residents and staff, must change with it or get left behind. Yet, it is as fitting an admonition to us, the audience, to not get left behind as time passes Downton by. When months go by in the DA universe but we are binging one episode after the next, there are bound to be skipped discontinuities that we don’t understand at first. S3E1 has Matthew and Mary married, we join them many weeks later right at the start of S3E2 and their dynamic is completely changed, as is their relation to everyone else. Matthew now calls Lord G ‘Robert’, we are never given an unnecessary scene of Lord G saying ‘oh no, you’re my son in law now, please, call me Robert, we are peers’ the way any other show would explicitly write every single change in the dynamic of characters due to the passage of time. Small omissions like this create the sensation of time passing for the audience, which has to keep up or be left behind. At every point of discontinuity, there are reminders that while we may be watching one episode to the next in the space of a week, or more realistically, a bathroom break, the characters are experiencing a much longer flow of time.

Even within an episode, the treatment of time is gentle and considered. In a normal show, especially with an ensemble cast, we cut from character to character with an implicit assumption that scenes are occurring linearly in time. If this is done badly, the audience needs to suspend its disbelief about backwards time travel, about how 2 characters might be in two places at once, or about what a character was doing for the past 2 hrs because after cycling through other scenes we’ve come back to him picking up exactly where he left off many many scenes ago. If it’s done well, the scenes flow into each other well enough that our scrutiny of time physics is easily overlooked. But when it’s done with very specific care to the flow of time, like in DA, we’re able to actively fill in the blanks of a character’s movement through all the time that has passed off-screen. In S4E10 for instance, Mary hints to Bates that she knows about his crime. Many scenes pass, and some time later we see Anna checking with Hughes about finding anything in Bates’ coat pockets, leaving us to fill in the blanks that, off-screen, Bates has gone looking for his coat, found nothing, then checked with Anna about where it is and expressed worry about missing objects in its pockets. Time stands still for no man, no audience, and no plot point.

Unlike Dunkirk where the characters are in a state of extreme flow, experiencing massive time dilation on account of their intense focus, DA represents the stationary twin of Einstein’s time dilation thought experiment, or Romilly in Interstellar. Since time is the protagonist in DA, there is no flow state that allows for time dilation, just the opposite, our inertial frame of reference is on the outside, looking at time fly by, as we stagnate in indolence, leisure, and ennui. In S4E8, it is August 1922 when Edith must go away to Switzerland to have her baby. In E9 it is Summer 1923, and she is back. When she’s in a scene with Violet, and the topic of the baby comes up, there is a small throwaway line that is so important, Violet says ‘I know we’ve never spoken of this but..’. In a show that isn’t written with a keen attention to the flow of time, they would just launch into a conversation about her thoughts on the baby. But almost a year has passed, the only reason they would be talking about this now is if they’ve refused to address it for many months, Violet hoping Edith would move on, until she is forced to bring it up. Neither is it a coincidence that it is being brought up now. It is the eve of Rose’s presentation, her coming of age, an event described beautifully by Isobel as ‘traditions by which members of this family measure their progress through life’. Most episodes have such events, dinners, fairs, bazaars, weddings, and funerals. In a world without clocks, office hours, meeting schedules, planting seasons and deadlines, time can hardly be said to be moving at all. Yet for the outside world, all these have come altogether, time has started moving, and moving fast. Mr.Brooks says in Shawshank ‘the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry’, while he was stuck inside prison. Inside home. A home from which he is cast out into a world he is unable to adjust to.

None of this is a surprise, the primary philosophy of the show is very explicitly the anachronism of a little bubble in spacetime, Downton Abbey, that is out of step with the rest of the world. The primary tension is in the adjustment of a character to an alien space or time. Isobel, Tom and Matthew are aliens in space, the DA estate with which they have no past connection. Carson, Lord G and Violet are aliens in time, stuck in a rapidly changing world that is moving too quickly with a view to the future to bother with recognition of their glorious past. Cora is an alien both in space and time, from a distant futuristic world but seeking the romance of the old world, just like us. Like Violet, she makes no apologies for her anachronism, feeling neither the impatience of Matthew nor the insecurity of Robert when faced with the irreconcilability of their anachronism. But unlike Violet, this is due to, and not despite, her alienation. She is our window into this world, with the fewest lines or plot points, only a knowing beatific smile as she watches the quaint but interesting foreign world she’s made her own. She alone has chosen to be out of step with time, just for the fun of it.

In many ways, this makes Edith the most tragic character of DA. The younger generation represents a period of transition from the old world to the new. They are the primary drivers of an attempt to adjust the way Mr.Brooks could not. Adapt or die. Mary is at home in DA, but out of step with a time she is trying to adjust to. Sibyl is at home with time, trying to adjust to a space, DA, that she is out of step with. Edith is out of step with both, the classic middle child who belongs nowhere, alienated from the very concept of belonging. How do you adjust when there is no variable you can keep constant? Economic models are built ceteris paribus, keeping all other factors the same you evaluate the impact of a single variable that is allowed to change. Edith has no such luxury. Her first husband is hopelessly alienated in time, being too old. Her next is literally lost in space, vanished in a German nation that is experiencing its own battle against alienation, seeking not to adjust to time but to conquer it, by reclaiming the lost glories of the first Reich of the Holy Roman Empire and the second Reich of the German Empire.

History has the benefit of hindsight, which also brings with it the fallacious impression of teleology. In the hands of those on the winning side, this becomes the manifest destiny of America, the same manifest destiny with which we’d have treated the Third Reich today had the worst come to it. But history is as much about things that didn’t happen as it is about things that did. Life, conversely, is what happens when we adjust to the things that did. Our task while watching DA is to adjust to the show’s choppy treatment of story-dimensional time, mirroring the characters’ own battles. What’s interesting about the show isn’t the present moment, so it doesn’t need to dip into overly dramatic ‘moments’. When it does, like unwanted pregnancies, rape, and death, the events themselves fly right by without being squeezed for every drop of drama. Instead the show deals with a character coming to terms with the passage of time in the aftermath of such events, waging a fallout of suffering that never ends, or one preparing for an inevitable future that never comes. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

A novel insightful exercise to determine the pragmatic difference in intellectual payoff between a novel insight and an obvious fact mistaken for novel insight.