Oh, Downton Abbey. We Need to Talk About Disability.

Downton Abbey, as you know, I am a huge, huge fan. I watch you with delight and I was very excited when your second season was coming to the US, because I love costume dramas, and I love your characters, and I love the meticulous research that went into depicting downstairs life in this era. You’re a television show that I consistently rate highly and recommend to people, even though you, like all of us, stumble occasionally, and sometimes quite dramatically, and it makes me very sad, and a little like I want to pull a paper bag over my head because I’m kind of embarrassed for you.

Which is definitely an emotion I experienced watching the second season, and I’ll note that I kindly held this post off to give readers time to watch, but, readers, if you have not finished the second season and you do not enjoy being spoiled, please, kindly, stop reading! I promise this post will not go anywhere and it will be quite happy to be read when you return.

So yes. This season we have Matthew Crawley with a serious spinal injury incurred in a battle. Which was initially something I was hesitant about, but also kind of excited about, because I thought you might take it in an interesting direction, because you did some good stuff with disability in the first season. The First World War marked some really dramatic shifts in battlefield medicine, with more people surviving catastrophic injuries at the same time that more catastrophic injuries were happening because of the weapons used. It really did change the way the streets looked, and the way people dealt with disability, to have so many young men returning with disabilities.

To strike at Matthew was an interesting twist to really bring the war home and to confront the way the characters thought about bodies, ability, and fitness to inherit. And, alas, it was horribly, horribly fumbled.

There was the whole thing about how Matthew was deemed incapable of having sex of any kind or bringing pleasure to his partner; apparently, people with paraplegia do not have sex, which is going to come as a terrible shock to some people I know. I’ll have to break it to them gently, because I’m a little afraid their roars of laughter might cause internal injuries. The sheer ignorance displayed there was really appalling and could have been resolved with a little research. And don’t give me some line of bull dooky about how we live in a more sexually liberated era now and talk about these things but they didn’t then. Trust me, people with paraplegia have been having enthusiastic sex for quite a while, okay?

And then there was the bit about it being an unrelenting tragedy, you know? Really? Did you have to go there? First we’re supposed to see Matthew as noble because he sacrifices his one chance at love to ‘free’ Lavinia, because she would otherwise be ‘chained to his chair,’ and obviously Matthew could never hope for a bride. And then Lavinia is ‘so selfless’ to stick with him anyway; gosh, it’s almost like she loves the guy and doesn’t really care about his disability status because that doesn’t have an impact on how she feels about him, which is just silly. Sillier still is Lady Mary’s continued fixation on him even though he’s all broken and stuff, I mean, how tragic for her, right?

Her parents were quick to hammer this home just in case any viewers missed it, with their comments about how marrying Matthew would ruin Mary’s happiness and chances at having children. Because the only thing worse than having paraplegia is, of course, marrying someone with paraplegia, because you will be trapped forever in a horrible loveless marriage! Or at least, this seemed to be the general gist of the discussions; this was a tragedy because Matthew was the heir and it was so very sad that he was using a wheelchair. This was presented pretty uncritically, I felt, not in a way that was meant to challenge viewers.

Yes, I felt that the show was trying to poke at the idea that disability isn’t the end of your life; Lady Mary said it, for example. And I think we were absolutely supposed to see her parents as rather cruel and bigoted for thinking she shouldn’t be with him. But the overall framing felt extremely ableist to me as a viewer, because the underlying implication was that being disabled was, indeed, a tragedy. These explorations of disability as something other than the end of your life might have had more weight and left a lasting impact on viewers if they hadn’t been swept aside by Matthew’s magical recovery.

You seriously had to do a miracle cure? Because, really, that was pretty appalling, if I may say so myself, that your way of resolving this problem, because clearly LEAVING Matthew in a wheelchair wasn’t going to work out, you just wanted to create some dramatic tension, was to have his spinal cord injury miraculously not be as serious as it seemed. Which, okay, misdiagnosis totally happens and that’s fine, but in this case it was completely used as a cheap way out to avoid dealing with more long-term issues and then you knocked Lavinia off so Lady Mary could be unimpeded! Clever, Downton Abbey, really, it was.

Only it wasn’t. It was really just deeply saddening and annoying because I was all excited about a second season and your handling of disability irritated me too much to enjoy it properly. I kept tensing up, waiting for the next scene where something terrible would happen and I’d be really, really sad that I was still watching you. And I didn’t want to feel that way, because I love you so much of the time, and I think you explore class and gender and power in really interesting ways, but when it comes to race and disability, well, honestly, sometimes I wish you just wouldn’t, you know?