Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Moral Heart of "Downton Abbey"

In life, a minor character can assume a crucial role. For one who has experienced this phenomenon often, so too in popular art, as the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, who has figured in all 34 episodes of “Downtown Abbey,” increasingly comes to the heart of conflicts that beset other characters.

That someone who has willingly suppressed her own passions in the service of others should be in this position is not an unexpected irony for those sensitive to the chasm between human beings who mindlessly eat the world for their own pleasure and those imbued by nature and/or experience to compassion and caring for others.

In the latest plot turn, Mrs. Hughes is again burdened by an impossible dilemma, her sole knowledge of the shocking assault on the housemaid Anna and what to do about it. Telling might punish the rapist but drive Anna’s husband to murder; concealing it forces her to share in the pain and guilt.

In life, as others keep pushing ahead mindlessly from day to day, the most responsible people are often put to such choices by their own natures, swallowing their own suffering in silence.

At every point, Mrs. Hughes takes the consequences of turning down her second chance to become a farmer’s wife in Season 1 and providing moral support and practical help to other Downton denizens at the price of her own emotional pain.

Even with her own strict moral code, she is compassionate over Bates’ physical handicap, the housemaid who is impregnated by a wounded soldier, the plight of Carson’s former vaudeville partner, Mrs. Patmore’s shifty suitor--anyone wounded by circumstances in an unfair world.

As viewers worry over the fates of all the other cast members, they may want to spare a good thought for the only one (beside her upstairs counterpart Matthew's mother) who keeps carrying the burden of being a feeling human being rather than a cardboard cutout. And for those she may resemble in real life.

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