Last night I finally got around to watching the most recent episode of Downton Abbey. That means I spent three days of having to interrupt people with “No no no! I haven’t seen it yet! Stop!” to avoid spoilers. (BTW, thanks a lot, New York Times. You’d think they’d avoid giving spoilers in a headline in the Monday edition!)
You see, the real problem is that when it comes to good television, I am over-committed on Sunday nights. I don’t even watch that much T.V., but now my two obsessions, Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead are both airing new episodes on Sundays. And you have to know that when I say obsessed, I mean it– watching an episode means no phone, no laptop or tablet, lights dimmed, wrapped in a blankie with snacks and drinks within reach. When I watch an episode, it is one of the few moments of the week when I am not multi-tasking. So amen for DVR, because I would not want to have to make a choice between the two.
But when it comes to choosing between The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey, I’d bet that most people could pick a side rather quickly and easily– shooting zombies or debating the financial future of your estate? Scavenging for food, or having your servant dress you for dinner? I mean, you couldn’t get further from the zombie apocalypse than a British period drama set in Yorkshire, right?
I admit that I have eclectic taste, but maybe in some ways, the shows aren’t all that different from each other…
You Can’t Get Too Attached to the Characters
Both shows are in their third season, and in both, the writers are not afraid to kill off main characters. Remember the last two episodes of season 2 of The Walking Dead?
I still miss Dale. And just when you thought the gang had mastered their skull crushing skills and could clear the prison of zombies, No! As Chris Hardwick says, “Noo, nootttt T-Dog!!!”
The same thing goes in Merry ol’ England. Cybill pulled through the labor and the baby was beautiful and we all breathed a sigh of relief, until nope, Eclampsia. The village doctor was right, and like that, she dies in front of everyone.
You thought things were turning around in Downton, with Mary’s pregnancy and the new plans to modernize? Too bad, Matthew’s gone now.
The producers of both shows are not at all afraid to change the opening credits. You can become attached to characters all you want, but there’s a good chance that they will die in the next episodes. Even though this leaves me cursing my TV, I have to admit that it increases the drama and keeps me coming back for more.
It’s a Very Different World Out There, and Characters are Trying to Find Where They Fit Into It.
To say that Georgia is now a different place post Zombie Apocalypse is a stupid understatement, but as far as world changing events go (real or hypothetical) I think it’s fair to say that World War I was a close second.
During the war, the characters of Downton found themselves having to quickly adapt and even reinvent themselves; a footman becomes a medic on the front lines, a daughter of a lord becomes a nurse, and Downton Abbey even becomes a convalescent home. Men who had once never mingled with one another because of class find themselves fighting together on the front lines, and characters at home struggle with finding ways to contribute and prove their patriotism. And the war was just the beginning of things; once that’s over, the world markets fall into turmoil and noble estates find themselves in financial ruin. The characters all ask of themselves and others, should we accept change or should we resist and uphold tradition? Can Cybill really marry a chauffeur?! Overhaul the business model of Downton?! With telephones and electricity, it’s a confusing new world, and no one is quite certain where they fit in.
Now obviously the changes are more stark in Georgia, and characters are just hoping to survive one day to the next there. But the Zombie apocalypse means that characters get to virtually reinvent themselves, and their contributions to the group define who they are. They have serious roles to fill within the group, whether it is standing guard or preparing food for everyone. It doesn’t matter how squeamish or weak a character was pre-apocalypse; even little Beth (Hershel’s daughter) is now a pretty good shot. Maggie has no problem stabbing a zombie in the skull. The wimpy pizza guy is now a man who kills zombies with their own bones. And the little kid shot his mother for christ’s sake! Every character discovers a time and a place when they need to step up, whether they are prepared to or not.
A New World Means New Rules
As the characters try to negotiate their changing worlds, their ethics come into question in ways they never thought possible. Before the zombie apocalypse, it was pretty clear that one should never kill another human. Then the walkers came about, and their humanity was questioned, but it became pretty clear that the only acceptable course of action was to destroy by any means possible the brain of the walking dead. Gross, but understandable. Crushing a skull might feel wrong at first, but you get used to it. But then when the living become problematic, that’s when it gets tricky. Those strange guys in the bar looking for a place to stay, do you help them out or kill them? That injured kid, do you kill him or set him free and risk others finding you? Your best friend trying to usurp your power, does he deserve to live? Is it okay to shoot your mom after a messy emergency c-section? In the zombie apocalypse, the dead are easy to kill (again); it’s the living that really make you question what’s right and wrong.
Things aren’t as bloody in Downton Abbey, but morality can still be a little messy. A former prostitute working as a house maid for Mrs. Crawley?! We can’t allow that, can we? Or if we do, what then? And to christen the first granddaughter as catholic? And house a political refugee from Ireland? The Crawleys find themselves having to make all kinds of allowances that a few years prior would have been unthinkable, but things are changing…
Class is Everything and Nothing
This is a central theme in Downton Abbey; the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy is the most striking feature to a 21st century audience. And yet, those class lines aren’t always as solid as first glance would have you think. Think of Lord Grantham and Mister Bates; comrades in the South African war who trust each other with their lives; because of class Bates serves as Grantham’s valet rather than dinner guest. But they are more intimate with one another than dinner companions. They confide in and give each other advice, and the Crawleys are far more invested in Bates’ conviction and sentence than one would expect of an employer/ employee relationship. Mary listens to and confides in Ana more than any of her sisters. Then there is Tom Branson, the chauffeur who marries Cybill and becomes part of the family, rather than their staff. Serving him may be weird at first, but even Mrs. Hughes remarks on the way that he has transitioned so nicely into his new position. Class is there, but its arbitrary nature becomes more and more apparent to all involved.
Zombies, however, are the great equalizer. They are equal opportunity biters and attack indiscriminately on the poor and the rich. Characters who may have never interacted before the outbreak now rely on one another to stay alive. Think of Andrea, the attorney, and Derryl, the redneck. Unless she was defending him in court, she would have no interaction with him. For all we know, the Governor was a high school gym teacher before the outbreak, and now he runs Woodbury with an iron fist. The longer they have been in the new world, the less anyone cares about what position any others had before the outbreak; if you are good with weapons, that is all that matters.
Beware of Outsiders, and Above All, Protect the Family
In both shows, the core families are very suspicious and guarded of outsiders attempting to infiltrate. Matthew and Isabel Crawley were only welcomed at arm’s length into the family thanks to law, and it took the family quite some time to warm up to them. Branson has only barely earned acceptance into the family. The Dowager countess (and Mary too, for that matter) let all outsiders know that they are under scrutiny and not yet welcome. Even downstairs, the staff, though friendly, are not quick to warm up to new comers. Newcomers upstairs and downstairs have to await approval before being officially welcomed.
Now, earning the dowager countess’s approval is NOT a position I would ever want to be in, and to be honest, I don’t know who is scarier to an outsider, her or Rick Grimes. But Rick is not about to let anyone just walk up and join the group either. People have died trying to do so. Those who have been let in, like Michonne, are not trusted and only permitted to stay on a temporary basis. Even the governor doesn’t let people just wander into Woodbury. Outsiders are the biggest security risk.
In both families, once in, you have the full protection of the others. You might even find the Dowager Countess sticking up for you. The Crawleys will do anything to make sure that no scandal or gossip falls on any member of their household. In The Walking Dead, your family will put their lives on the line to come rescue you. They will shoot anyone who tries to hurt you. The families in both shows are not big, but they stick together and defend the honor and safety of all.
Also. Oddly enough, several actors on The Walking Dead are British, so, maybe that’s the real common thread here.
So for some the choice between one show or the other is clear, but if you’re a strange one like me who enjoys both equally, it’s for good reason. Shows that put morality into question, while reaffirming what is most important–family– are few and far between. It’s only unfortunate that they happen to air on Sunday nights. And could the characters of Downton survive a zombie apocalypse? I think the downstairs crew would get on just fine, and the dowager countess’s walking stick may become very useful…