Famed twerker Miley Cyrus caught Matt Lauer off guard a couple of years ago when she said on the TODAY Show: “So probably around 40, around that time, I heard that’s when people don’t have sex anymore.”
One can only hope that Miley, now 22, watched season five of Downton Abbey. If she — or you — missed it, it’s streaming free through this week.
One of the season’s greatest strengths: Its portrayal of the mature characters’ desire for recognition and romance — and the many barriers to it. From Lord and Lady Grantham, to Cousin Isobel, to the Dowager Countess herself, Downton’s characters struggled with everything from lust to ennui to anger in the romantic realm.
(MORE: Love Lessons From Downton Abbey)
Here’s how the show dealt with some common relationship issues for those well (sometimes very well) over 40:
Jealousy and Ennui
Let’s start with Lady Cora and Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. Fine art expert Simon Bricker keeps finding reasons to visit Downton, but he’s mainly interested in Cora. He finds his way to Cora’s bedroom one night when the Earl is not expected home and, within moments, is surprised by Robert. Before taking his leave (and before Robert takes a swing at him), Simon scolds Robert for ignoring Cora.
Show me a couple, married for 25 years or more, where each spouse has never taken the other for granted, and I’ll show you a couple that might not be telling the whole truth. Note: This story arc has a satisfactory end a couple of episodes later when Cora, tired of Robert — well — lording the incident over her, asks him to examine his own conscience for times when he may have let a flirtation go too far. Long-married couples will relate to the expressions flitting across Robert’s face as he comes to terms with his own behavior.
Anger and Divorce
Now take a look at Lady Rose’s hopelessly estranged parents, Hugh “Shrimpie” MacClare and his wife, Susan. The soon-to-be divorcée oozes bitterness, which she makes little effort to conceal during the formal social gatherings leading up to Rose’s marriage.
Haven’t we all known someone like this — someone who is more interested in broadcasting anger toward an estranged spouse than in sharing anyone else’s happiness?
Speaking of Rose’s marriage, how about that scene (spoiler alert) where the father of the groom, Lord Sinderby, comes face-to-face with his mistress and their illegitimate child? Of course the surprise is sprung in the midst of yet another social gathering, with his unknowing wife, Lady Sinderby, looking on. Oh, look how the Lord tries to disappear into a chair when evidence of his unfaithfulness walks into the parlor! Which reminds me: I wonder how Miley thinks that youngster came to be?
Then there is the love story of Isobel Crawley and Richard Grey, aka Baron Merton. They are perfectly suited, and it seems their genuine affection and many shared interests should guarantee smooth sailing through their sunset years.
However, it becomes painfully clear to Isobel that, even though she truly loves Richard, his sons will never accept her. In fact, the sons are determined to make her miserable, and so she declines Richard’s proposal of marriage. Haven’t you known (and admired) a woman like Isobel, whose maturity gave her the wisdom to make tough choices and the confidence to know that she could survive on her own?
Youthful Longing, Mature Waiting
Isobel’s friend and confidante in matters of the heart, fan favorite Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, had her own romantic story line this season. Who would have guessed that this sharp-tongued great-grandmother could radiate such sexual tension with the equally aged Igor Kuragin, Russian Prince of days gone by?
Clearly Violet is tempted by the Prince’s proposition to resume the affair of their youth, but like Isobel, she declines. Violet’s reasons are very different, and this particular plot line is too complex to summarize briefly. The take-away is that men and women, even in their latest years (are you listening, Miley?), can and often do continue to have a strong desire for physical and emotional intimacy.
Love and Marriage
And concluding the series was the culmination of a love story many years in the making. Who didn’t tear up a bit when, “below stairs” in the servants’ domain, Mr. Carson, the butler, proposed to Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper? Well done, Carson, well done!
That makes six story lines in season five featuring mature couples experiencing passions of the heart. The younger characters of Downton Abbey had already shed light on prevailing attitudes at that time about homosexuality, interracial dating and interfaith marriages.
What this season’s love stories illustrate is that the most basic human needs for affection, companionship and sex do not diminish with age. Neither do the deep and often complex emotions that accompany love — the pain, the ecstasy and every emotion in between. In fact, these emotions can be deeper, more nuanced and even more satisfying as time marches on.