Every once in a while I like to write a post about the Godfather saga, even though I know that many of my readers have never seen the films, because I hope that, eventually, you’ll recognize that your life is sadly lacking and you’ll actually watch them. (And you have a great opportunity coming up to watch the first movie! Fathom Events is showing it in select theaters on June 4 and 7!) In the past, I’ve told you what The Godfather has to do with Thor and with An American Tail, and today I’m going to tell you what it has to do with The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey.
I started thinking about writing another Godfather post this past weekend, even before I found out about the June screenings. It was on my mind because I found a $5 used, good condition record album of Nino Rota’s iconic score to the first film, but also because I was thinking about a screenplay I want to write for a buddy road-trip tragicomedy set during the early days of the zombie apocalypse. One of the themes of this screenplay (which currently exists only in my head) is that human beings are inherently valuable, regardless of what they can contribute. This concept is sorely lacking in zombie lore, in which characters are so often rated based on the apparent usefulness of their skills. Because of this value system, we end up with characters like Eugene in The Walking Dead, who is so afraid of being rejected by the braver and more skillful people whose group he wants to join that he concocts an elaborate lie to establish his usefulness to the world. If you can’t prove your worth, the logic says, you’re the first to be thrown off the proverbial ship.
I started thinking about The Godfather because the world portrayed in those films has a similar value system. Despite all the lip service paid to family and loyalty, you’re not valuable simply because you’re human; you’re rated based on the kind of man you are. (And I use the word man very deliberately.) If you want to survive, you have to be in charge, and if you want to be in charge, there are a couple of characteristics you need to have. You have to be cold, which is why the hot-headed Santino would not have made a good Godfather. (We see this clearly and tragically in the first movie.) You have to be hard, which is why nobody ever even considered asking the soft-headed and -hearted Fredo to be the Godfather. (Even in that patriarchal culture, I suspect they would have given that title to Connie before they gave it to Fredo!) If you don’t have these qualities, you’re expendable.
I was also thinking about Robert Duvall’s character, the one who was sort of unofficially adopted by Don Vito and who grew up to be the family’s lawyer. (I always forget his name.) There’s a lot of talk about him being just like one of Vito’s sons, but the truth remains that he’s on the family’s payroll and therefore in that awkward (and ultimately dangerous) employee zone. His position is roughly analogous to that of Tom Branson in the later seasons of Downton Abbey, who’s both the embarrassing Irish Catholic son-in-law (whose wife isn’t even alive to give him a blood connection to the family) and the family’s estate agent, and therefore still uncomfortably close to being a servant, even if he eats upstairs now. Although I want to think well of the Crawleys, I suspect that if Downtown Abbey were set in a vendetta culture like that of The Godfather and things started going south, Tom would be the first to get…well, tommy-gunned. That was a bit of a rabbit trail, but my point is that valuing people based on who they’re related to is just as flawed as valuing people based on a narrow set of culturally valued skills.
My point in this entire post (besides to suggest the most epic multi-world fanfic ever) is that when we stop believing that people are valuable just because they’re people–not for what they can contribute–that’s when we start beating people to death with barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bats and having our hitmen shoot our brother in the back while he’s defenselessly fishing (and those are just the things that happened on Downton Abbey! j/k). Every one of us will encounter situations in which we feel like there’s absolutely nothing we can contribute. And in those moments, we need to be able to know we’re safe just because we’re people.