I’ve done it! I’ve finally started watching Downton Abbey! (I say started watching it rather than just having watched the pilot because the first episode was so good, I really want to watch more!).
So, it’s 2012 and two years have passed since the show premiered, so I’m not going to bother doing a thorough recap. Rather, I’ll talk about my thoughts on the show.
The opening sequence is not unlike that of a period movie, setting the setting (lol) by showing a telegraph machine, a steam engine train, and a quaint English village with cobblestone roads and old, 20th century cars. The year is 1912, in the month of April. This is a period of great change in the British world, what with the advent of electricity in homes and other advances in technology (such as the infamous Titanic, the unsinkable ship, which at the time was heralded as the epitome of “modern” technology). It is also a time of great change for the inhabitants of Downton Abbey as we find out in the first ten minutes.
Downton’s master is Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, who lives there with his wife Cora, an American, and their three daughters (Mary, Edith, Sybil) and numerous servants. I was really surprised by the amount of servants shown in the episode (I almost said movie because that’s what this feels like… a motion picture or one of those BBC feature min-series – that’s how good the direction, setting, story, and acting is!), but then again, I imagine the house that size without the technology we have today would take considerable amount of manpower to upkeep. After all, they were still lighting up all the fires in each room in the opening sequence (I guess even though electrical lighting had made its way into Downton, electrical heating was not available at this time).
Immediately, I liked Daisy for her naive, country girl attitude, though she is shown to be terribly hyper sometimes. Mrs. Hughes (the housekeeper) is an okay character; I don’t have much to say about her either way, except that I think she might be in love with Carson, the butler. Carson, for his part, is utterly dedicated to the Crawley family, a little too much maybe, because he often comes off as over-invested, which is always terrible when at any job.
The Crawleys are shaken by the news of Robert’s cousin and nephew drowning aboard the Titanic. Having no male children of their own, the Crawleys had once made peace with the fact that Robert’s estate and with it, Cora’s dowry money, would go to Robert’s cousin and then his son, Patrick, whom their oldest daughter Mary was to marry (so as to bring the money back into immediate family). Now that they’re both dead, this throws them for a loop because this means that the estate and title will go to his third cousin, Mathew Crawley, a barrister in London none of them have ever met. Of course, Robert’s wife and his mother, Violet (played by wonderful Maggie Smith, aka the reason I decided to watch Downton in the first place!) are strongly opposed to this and want the Earl to oppose the entail that makes it so that the person who inherits Robert’s title also inherits his estate. They feel Mary has the right to her mother and father’s combined fortunes or at the very least, her mother’s fortune, for which, it is revealed, Robert married her in the first place (against Violet’s wishes). Though Robert eventually fell in love with Cora (a year after they were married, apparently), his original motives are a shameful memory for him. He is a man of honour and as such refuses to challenge the entail (with the guidance and support of his lawyer), willing instead to hand over the estate to Matthew upon his death. His wife and daughters all have their own inheritances upon his death, but losing majority of the estate is still a hard blow and one that Cora and Violet are not going to take sitting down.
The servants’ world, on the other hand, is ruffled by arrival of the lame (as in he has an injured knee and can’t walk properly) new valet, John Bates, who turns out to be an old army buddy of the Earl’s. Robert hires him in hopes of helping out an old friend, but the odds are immediately stacked against Bates, not just because of his bad leg, but because the previous “fill-in” valet, Thomas, had wanted the job and is therefore bitter that he’s been passed over for a stranger. He combines forces with the nasty little O’Brien (Cora’s maid) to get Bates fired. They impress upon Cora and Carson how Bates cannot do the extra duties expected of a valet due to his bad leg and is not fit for the job. O’Brien even goes as far as to trip Bates up in front of the family in order to make him look inadequate and crippled. Cora is immediately convinced that he must be fired, but Robert wants to give him a chance. I really though the servants’ treatment of Bates was unfair. Right from his arrival, he insisted on doing things on his own and was really eager to do his job well. The only real kindness he is shown comes from the maid Anna, whose compassionate treatment of Bates won me over, and eventually, him as well. In a touching scene, after the others have finally convinced Robert to let him go, Anna brings food up to Bates’ room, only to hear him weeping because of his firing and the fact that he cannot land a job anywhere else due to his bad foot. She pretends not to have heard him and brings him the food, affording him a dignity he surely must have not expected in that moment. She also tells him to write to her when he is settled, for she will worry. The scene ends with them both going their separate ways, Anna sniffling over his impending departure. It’s so subtle, but so touching. I think they are my favourite relationship at this point.
The Duke who comes to visit Downton – initially thought to be romancing Mary (who never really loved Patrick and is therefore more than amenable to another marriage proposal) – turns out to be gay. He had an affair with Thomas over the summer sometime in the past (“One swallow does not make a summer.” — eww/lol!) and is actually there to gather the letters he’s sent to Thomas and destroy them, therefore destroying any evidence of their relationship and Thomas’ hopes of getting a job with him.
Even though the episode focuses on the problem of inheritance, I think it was really interesting that no one blamed Cora for birthing only girls and putting them in this predicament in the first place. I would’ve thought that this argument would’ve come up – in the servants’ whispers, at least – given the time period and conservative state of society at the time. Did they know enough science back then to know that it was the man, not the woman, who decided the gender of the baby? Either way, while I approve of this lack of pointing fingers, I can’t help but wonder how realistic it is, especially for that time period. Can we really believe Robert’s claims to love his wife unconditionally, despite this obvious conflict in their marriage? Has Violet really never blamed Cora for this? What about the servants? They’re the ones who usually gossip the most!
The only time there is even a hint at this is during a conversation between Violet and Robert, where she reminds him that he married Cora against her wishes for the large dowry, and that he is losing all her fortune now despite all of that drama.
As for the daughters, I am hesitant to vilify or vindicate anyone after seeing just the pilot, I feel like Mary is full of herself. In a moment after Patrick’s death, we see a glimpse of her when she confess that she is sad not because her fiancé died, but because she does not feel sad about his death. Her indifferent attitude combined with her desire to “marry money” makes her appear cold, but also an easy target for charming, gay Dukes. But she is also shown to be well mannered (such as when she apologizes to Bates after being caught snooping through the servants’ quarters with the Duke). Mary is by no standards evil, but she certainly inherits her mother’s (some would say American) attitude of doing whatever is necessary to get what she wants. Edith, the middle sister, is the opposite. She is very much emotional and into the idea of “love”, having been in love with Patrick, while he was promised to her sister. There is discord between the sisters for sure, and the youngest, Sybil, often acts as a referee between the two.
Cora is a goal setter and (as aforementioned), willing to do what it takes to get what she wants. She also appears a little full of herself (another quality found in Mary), but her relationship with her family is shown to be loving and she is a well mannered Countess to the T. Her mother-in-law, Violet, on the other hand is a little haughty and very much into family honour – she is outraged at the idea of her family’s fortunes going to a distant relative and is determined to fight very hard to not let that happen. Robert is more of a down-to-earth man. He is still Earl-y, but he has honour and a seemingly strong conscience, which prompts him to not challenge the entail his own father had added and to (in the end) un-fire Bates.
I really like that particular scene, where he says bye to Bates, sees the car pulling away, evidently conflicted, and then runs to stop the car, telling Bates to get inside and never speak of this again.
He tells a surprised Carson “It just wasn’t right”.
And that’s where it ends!
I really enjoyed this intro episode because I thought it was strong on all fronts – the direction, the actors, the storyline. Of course, as I’ve pointed out a bit, there were some plot holes and there will be more, undoubtedly, but on the whole, this was a solid series premiere and I
will be have been definitely watching more! More reviews upcoming!