The celebrated Edwardian-era British drama Downton Abbey had a wonderful mixture of both extremely realistic and likely storylines and a few rather absurd or unrealistic ones. From real historical events of the time leading to major socio-political and economic changes to rocky relationships between siblings, shocking deaths, and the lives of gay men at the time, the show covered a lot of ground in terms of realistic story arcs.
On the other hand, there were fairytale romances and miraculous recoveries from almost certainly incurable injuries. Life at Downton Abbey was far from run-of-the-mill, much to the regret of its master, the Earl of Grantham.
10Most Realistic: The Estate Falling On Bad Times
The post-WWI era saw a major shift in the dynamics between the wealthier classes and the working class. The barriers between the two started coming down and the aristocracy witnessed a sharp decline in their social standing. Thus, it became increasingly difficult for the noblemen and women of the time to maintain their lavish manors and estates in a fast-changing world, a point that is constantly alluded to by Robert Grantham and his butler, Carson.
Lord Grantham had made some very unsound investments, not being wise in such worldly matters, and had it not been for the younger generation like Matthew, Mary, and later Tom, taking over, the big house would have had to be sold.
9Least Realistic: Matthew’s Miraculous Recovery
Matthew Crawley came back from the war, battered and paralyzed from the waist down. He had hurt his spine beyond repair and lost the use of his legs. Dr. Clarkson, who was the Crawleys’ family doctor, believed that Matthew would never walk again, or have children, as did Matthew himself.
Rather miraculously though, Matthew not only recovered fully but also went on to have a son with Mary Crawley. His recovery was necessary, as he was of course always meant to be with Mary, but the way he went from an incurable condition to waltzing around happily seemed rather unrealistic.
8Most Realistic: The Crawley Sisters’ Rivalry
One of the major underlying themes of the series was the perpetual rivalry between the two older Crawley sisters, Mary and Edith. The two could not stand each other and were always trying to one-up one another with the least trace of sisterly love or concern.
Mary was cold and insensitive, and Edith started out as a bit of a black sheep. The older sister was also the more glamorous of the two and usually had a truckload of suitors falling over themselves for her attention, while Edith was relatively less interesting. Their animosity, especially Edith’s towards Mary, would have been natural and thus realistic.
7Least Realistic: The Upstairs & Downstairs Camaraderie
The very premise of the show was of course the lives of the upstairs and downstairs folks at Downton Abbey. The Granthams were generous employers and they treated their staff with kindness and respect, causing the class divide to be relatively less rigid inside the house. In fact, the series ended with the divide coming down altogether as Anna, Lady Mary’s maid, gave birth in her lady’s bedroom, and the Earl of Grantham himself brought up drinks for the new parents to celebrate the new year.
Unfortunately, this kind of camaraderie between the staff and the aristocracy would have been quite rare during the time the series depicted. Class consciousness was quite profound and the lords and ladies would likely not be as inclined to open up to their staff as they did on the show.
6Most Realistic: Sybil’s Tragic Death
Lady Sybil Crawley’s death was one of the most tragic moments in the history of the costume drama. Sybil died from eclampsia after giving birth to a beautiful baby girl, a condition in which the mother’s blood pressure increases.
Medical advancements during the early 20th century were still in their nascent stages and it was indeed difficult to identify and treat conditions such as eclampsia, which even today remains a leading cause of maternal mortality. Sybil’s horrible death also reminded the audience of the randomness of life and death, which is, of course, much too real.
5Least Realistic: Mr. Green’s Death & Anna’s Arrest
As part of Anna Bates’ sexual violence storyline, it transpired that Mr. Green, the valet to Tony Gillingham who had attacked Anna, had been killed randomly on the street. Not just that, but Anna was arrested on suspicion of having pushed him into oncoming traffic.
Mr. Green’s death made little sense and Anna’s consequent arrest was based on the flimsy grounds that she had been seen in the vicinity, along with the statement of an unreliable witness. Anna’s arrest coming right after John had finally been cleared of the suspicions of having murdered his wife seemed a bit excessive.
4Most Realistic: Ethel’s Situation
The maid Ethel arrived at Downton during the war when the house had been converted into a convalescent home. She got romantically involved with a young major and became pregnant soon after.
Her illegitimate child was initially not recognized by the major’s parents and she turned to sex work to get by. Ethel’s story would resonate with many young women of the time, and even in the 21st century, who are abandoned by their partners with very little means to support themselves.
3Least Realistic: The Dowager’s Secret Love
The sassy Dowager was revealed to have led a more colorful life than she would have people believe at first. It turned out that she had had a whirlwind romance with the Russian Prince Kuragin, decades prior.
Violet Crawley had even been on the verge of eloping with the Prince when the two were discovered by the Princess and Violet had been sent back home to Robert’s father. Years later, when the Russians were becoming refugees in England after the Tsar was murdered in cold blood, Violet met the Prince again, but the whole story seemed like something out of a fairytale.
2Most Realistic: Thomas Trying To Take His Own Life
The entire storyline involving Thomas Barrow was thoroughly realistic and helped make Thomas a fan-favorite, even with all his flaws. He was not the best of men, and his snarky nature and competitiveness in the workplace made him terribly lonely. He sought companionship as a gay man, but he usually read the signs wrong and got hurt each time.
Thomas went so far as to try and find a “cure” for what he thought was a disease or illness (which was an unfortunately common perception at the time). This was, after all, the early 20th century, when acceptance of and compassion towards the LGBTQ+ community was practically non-existent. Thomas’s struggle in this drove him to try and take his own life, although thankfully he survived.
1Least Realistic: The Unfortunate Mr. Pamuk
Probably the most unrealistic of storylines was the one in season 1 that involved the Turkish attaché, Kemal Pamuk. Pamuk’s shenanigans with Mary led to him walking into her bedroom unannounced at night and then dying in her bed.
It was never properly explained how exactly the young man died so suddenly, but it’s possible that it was a heart attack. While theoretically, this is very much possible, the show did play on the absurdity of the situation. The humor revolving around the handsome stranger being “dead as a doornail” as Carson so wryly put it, was not lost on anyone, although the unfortunate Mr. Pamuk might disagree.