On the last episode of the wildly popular PBS drama Downton Abbey, one character tells another: "You've broken the rules, my girl, and it's no use pretending they're easily mended."

The popular British import, set in World War I, portrays the aristocratic Crawley family and the cadre of cooks, maids, and butlers who tend to them, in all their relational and class-based drama. The show is all about rules, whether bowing to class structure or honoring commitments from the past. The rules present the extraordinary obstacles in this show … except that they're not so extraordinary, really, and that's one of the many reasons this show works.

Downton's surprise success is often chalked up to an unrealistic sense of nostalgia over an intriguing and lavish lifestyle at the turn of the 20th century, borne out by the inevitable market surge of "inspired by" books, clothes, food, and jewelry. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's easy to understand why this show is considered a soap opera that appeals mainly to women.)

But my favorite aspect of Downton is its emphasis on humans' agency and accountability despite social and economic barriers. The characters are never excused for their choices by circumstance, class, gender, time period, or even the unfairness of the rules to which they so tightly cling.

Part of Downton's popularity is its resonance with Jane Austen's books and the movies inspired by them. As in most Austen adaptations, the lives of the heroines in Downton—women dress for dinner and idle away the day—demand improvement. The daughters cannot inherit their family's estate (a common theme of Austen's), and society demands that they aspire to marry money because they cannot make their own and must preserve their family's station.

But in many ways, a more apt comparison for the show might be the popular sitcom The Office (now in its eighth season), which nevertheless portrays the choices of characters who are resigned to work within a frustrating system rather than determined to rail against it. The world of Downton revolves around the stewardship of the Earl of Grantham, much like the corporate office, where the boss dictates the environment.

On Downton, both "upstairs" (titled) and "downstairs" (servant) characters' responses—to circumstances, to others—dictate their situations more than the obstacles or the attitude of the supervisors (particularly the earl but also the butler and housekeeper), who wield great power over the lives of other characters.

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For example, one of the earl's daughters, Edith, turns bitter and unsympathetic as she rehearses her tightly held record of suffered slights and limitations. And the maid O'Brien, so certain in her expectations of mistreatment and indifference, is ruthless in her determination to do unto others before they do unto her. The earl's eldest daughter, Mary, makes a mistake so shocking (proving that after all, she is no Austen heroine!) in raging against her social structure that it looms over her attempts to find happiness throughout the second season.

Downton might be a melodrama, but it is one where the characters are allowed to truly stumble.

In the second episode of season 2, which began airing in the United States last month, the earl's youngest and most proactive daughter Sybil tells Edith, "There's something you do better than the rest of us. Find out what it is and do it. It's doing nothing that is the enemy."

It is a rallying call for personal agency.

Until that point, Edith had accepted that her circumstances, or the comparison between herself and her sisters (Edith is "the other one," as Saturday Night Live put it in a recent skit), defined who she would be; she effectively chose apathy. But similarly, Mary, who knows what she wants, feared losing it and so dithered from fear and lost it anyway.

These mistakes provide simple lessons, though hardly trite since many women today are facing them. Many of us feel locked into situations where we are unhappy, either at work, in romance, in our family structures, or in our churches. We rage against "the system," perhaps, against the attitudes of people around us, the opinions of those whom we care about, or against our own wants and fears. But our circumstances matter less than our attitude: our response to the obstacles we encounter. Whether we work inside the home or out of it, whether we are married or single, surveys and stories deal with the fact that women (and men) call themselves "unhappy" or "unsatisfied" with life.

Surprisingly, for me, Downton is a timely, and perhaps refreshingly down to earth, reminder that apathy is also itself a choice, and it's just another name for indifference. The Bible has some choice things to say about indifference: the quality between hot and cold that God spits out. Jesus died to ensure our right to choose—mainly to choose life in him—and that is an inheritance (in Downton it would be called an entail) that we are given each and every day.

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Watching (okay, greedily consuming) the first season of Downton, I frequently compared myself to the characters and concluded which ones I did not want to be. The undesireable characters were not the servants or the lovelorn, but those who faced with difficulty became spiteful or caustic.

Sometimes the only choice left when faced with obstacles is to continue holding fast to our faith. That's defined as an act of patience in the Bible: a choice, not a code word for passivity.

Fortunately, God's promises are not just a riveting storyline. (One of my favorites: where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.) There is much more security to our faith in them than in believing Mary and Matthew will find their way back together.

Though I totally believe they will, and I can't wait to watch.