Downton Abbey vs. Boardwalk Empire: Paradoxes of Morality and Freedom in the 1920s World


My favorite moments in Boardwalk Empire are when Jimmy Darmody has a drink. He raises his glass dutifully and mutters, “to the lost,” before swigging down a large gulp of whiskey. This salute to fellow members of the Lost Generation never fails to give me chills, as it resonates so strongly with the characters in the show. They are all wandering without a moral compass, constantly endangered and hindered by circumstances beyond their control.

The Generation wasn’t limited to jaded American soldiers, but to all of the soldiers who fought in World War I and the friends and family affected by the massive death it spurred. There’s another show that beautifully depicts all of the complex residuals of its tragedy—Downton Abbey. In one sense the effects of the War are even more pronounced in Downton since the series starts a few years before its breakout, allowing us to more definitively see how the arcs of each character are altered.

In stark contrast to Boardwalk, where the war essentially kills even those who got out alive, Downton’s characters react for the most part with awakenings that foster positive change and an enhanced appreciation of life. Lady Sybil sheds the shallow trappings of her aristocratic upbringing to become a nurse and run off with the chauffeur to create political change. The unpleasant, sometimes cruel Lady Edith becomes a nurse as well, in her mansion-turned recovery center and rec room. Of course, we lose precious William, and we must watch as the always-grounded Earl of Grantham undergoes a tragic crisis of self during which he cheats on the lovable Lady Grantham. But the hurdles are a means to an end, and a generally happy ending at that, in which Downton’s residents realize that they must not only adapt to a changing world, but also figure out how to make their lives within it more meaningful. Matthew and Mary finally, thankfully realize life is too short to avoid marriage for the sake of punishing their poor souls. Downton becomes more than a pretty piece of architecture to live in; and the servants’ mostly-undying loyalty to a family that isn’t their own—save the evil pair of Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien—is seen in a new, redeeming light, because now it’s all for something more significant than the difference between a soup and bouillon spoon.

The inconsistency in portrayal of tragedy between the two shows is rooted in the differing nature of the struggle on each side—Jimmy and his peers were fighting for a freedom that each episode proves, with greater and greater intensity, doesn’t really exist. A freedom that is wholly an illusion, overshadowed by a pervasive corruption, greed, and immorality. Downton’s soldiers, on the other hand, live in a world where even the servants are held to immutable standards of right and wrong by Mr. Carson. Boardwalk shows the gruesome results of the every man for himself-psyche, while Downton gives us William and Matthew doing what they must for king and country. Jimmy, on the other hand, enlists to fight in order to escape from his life’s Oedipal trauma, in clear pursuit of death.

Morality is a much more sensitive matter in Downton—not something that can easily be toyed with if you expect to emerge unscathed. Lady Mary’s one sexual transgression—taking a lover—and other minor similar occurrences, like Ethel’s foray with an officer and subsequent prostitution, dominate the psyche of the series. Shame and guilt, and a fear of falling from grace resound heavily, so rich in their potential for destroying life. Lady Mary is ultimately absolved, but only after being a hair away from marrying a man she despised in order to hide her mistake. Ethel must, however, leave her town in shame.

Compare that to Boardwalk’s grossly casual nudity and prostitution, where the only nay-saying voices come from the very religious and the prudish women of the temperance league. Jimmy even has a loving relationship with a prostitute, and not a hint of condescension is found. Even the bastion of morality, agent Van Alden, kills his partner during a baptism—an ethereal, sun-soaked scene made me feel that Americans have lost religion. That the body of our morals has grown fangs and turned back around on us.

Ultimately, I feel full of a void of humanity in Boardwalk, made larger as the characters futilely try to fill it with money, women, and power. They claw upwards in order to run from the horrors of the past, felt all too deeply at times. There’s the moment where Nucky, alone with his dead father at last, breaks open his hardened, smiling mask to reveal the true pain he’s running from. When Jimmy remembers the destruction of his academic career and his own soul in one perilous night, at the hands of his mother. Richard Harrow admitting that when he lost his face in the trenches, he lost his love for his sister too.

These thoughts are wrapped up so nicely in the final exchange between Nucky and Jimmy, right before Nucky effectively kills his own son:

“I died in the trench, years back…All you gotta worry about is when you run out of booze, and you run out of company, and the only person left to judge you is your—“

And then, after the first shot is fired:

“You don’t know me, James. You never did. I am not seeking forgiveness.”

The brunt of morality is too heavy a burden for these men who have become lost. It is left to the well-adorned shoulders of Margaret Thompson, a foreigner who quickly shies from the American dream that is too effortlessly reached. We watch her futile attempt to fight against her comfort and ignorance, so tortured by her own guilt she believes it caused her daughter’s polio. She thinks she can just keep on giving away her money, until there is no more to give.

For the other characters, it is their past suffering that serves to absolve their guilt and justify their current soullessness. The good was beaten out of Nucky by his alcoholic father, sucked away from Jimmy by a mother whose own suffering, rooted in being raped at 13, propelled Jimmy’s sexual abuse at her drunk hands that fateful night in Princeton. So Nucky and Jimmy in turn create more victims, trapped in a cycle of misery where the only way out is to claw as deep as they can into the throes of moral filth so that they can somehow emerge above it in the end. Have a happy family, wear expensive suits, and kill too. Nucky maintains the illusion in the final episodes of the second season as he lies to Margaret about Neary’s “suicide” and smilingly mentions Jimmy’s return to the “trenches.” It’s all so effortless, resonating with a Dexter-level sociopathy.

Children are just another way to justify these evils—it is their livelihood and innocence that are being protected throughout all of this, if only through a shield composed of the blood and money of Daddy’s victims. What the characters don’t realize, aside from Margaret, if only for a brief moment, is that their kids are just becoming part of the cycle—how could they not be, raised in such close proximity to the evils of their parents that falling into the same misery will be effortless one day.

Downton’s characters generally go for the clean, conservative route—they know what their roles are and seem all too happy to fulfill them, especially those downstairs. Those who attempt to break apart from their caste are punished, either through falling from grace or being ushered back into the status quo. Lady Sybil returns from her life in Ireland as a rebel’s wife to Downton in order to birth and raise her child. Thomas, on his way to becoming a rich businessman, is scammed and must go back to service. Ethel, at first resented by her peers downstairs for her naïve belief that she controlled her own fate, very quickly reaches the limits of her own ego and is looked down upon by everyone around her because of it. The characters are treated with a certain sympathy by their counterparts, but the note resonates that they would have been better off if they followed the grain.

That was unacceptable for the likes of Jimmy, Nucky, and the rest of the aspiring Bosses. They took a gamble that all too often and many times did lead to death. Wouldn’t they have been better off graduating from Princeton and abiding by the law? But rejection of the status quo and an embrace of corruption was the only way they could keep on going. Safely-earned comfort was not an option; it wouldn’t provide enough to patch up the holes carved into their souls, and was harder and harder to come by in a nation descending into the clutches of criminals.

The great paradox between the two shows is that Downton’s characters, with some stretching room, generally believe in this classic idea of the American Dream so distorted in the minds of Boardwalk’s leading men—that you can have all you want if you just do what you’re told. But even the nobles aren’t totally free to do what they please, instead subjected to the same kind of societal whims as their servants. In Boardwalk, they know that the sort of freedom William died for is a joke, and fight instead for a greater potential of being. For the idea of getting exactly what they want, when they want it. Nucky put it best when he proclaimed, “I do expect to have everything.”

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Since first episode of Boardwalk Empire, it was pretty much what I expected; great re-enactments of 1920’s America- including the excessive use of stereotypes unfortunately, with a superficial originality.

  2. Outer Marcus

    The 1920’s have always fascinated me and Noir in general. Although Boardwalk or Downton isn’t seen as a noir tale to many I look at it from that angle your dealing with the roarin 20’s.

  3. Mr Brown

    Very insightful article. Shared it with my friends on Facebook.

  4. Highly intriguing article. Many critics have labeled Downton Abbey as appearing too shallow, lacking a deep exploration of socialism and class warfare, I certainly believe that it is to the show runner’s benefit that it does not belabor or preach to us on the issues of the day, rather, we explore how people lived their lives despite the events in the world. In my own experience that is what most people do, live their lives in the shadow of historical events because they do not control them, but instead are caught up with events in how they impact their lives.

  5. Cammie Arn

    You all write some great articles on this site. Kudos. Abbey reminds me in so many ways of the epics created by the Merchant-Irvory partnership. The attention to detail is absolutely over the top. I think movies and series like Remains of the Day and Upstairs Downstairs are great primers for this series. If I had one criticism of the series, it would that the people start out being a bit too clean. Sanitation standards were not in place during the period when Abbey begins. Notwithstanding, I so enjoy the little one liners that introduce plot lines that grow ever complex with each passing episode.

    I think to fully enjoy this series you need to have a bit of an understanding of the workings of these great houses in England. Also an understanding of the peerage and non-peerage titles.

  6. Great article! These period piece shows are popular because they provide escapism and captivating characters. People want to be taken to a different world where people acted and reacted in vastly different ways.

  7. Amelia Roberts

    I’ve not watched either show extensively but I’ve studied WWI literature and your description of the divide in reactions to the war is fascinating. Great article!

  8. I’m so glad you posted an article on Downton Abbey, it is a great show. While I haven’t seen Boardwalk Empire, of which I’ve never heard of up until now, I’m interested in the show.

  9. I like authors who don’t reply comments.

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