Keeping up appearances, scandals, scheming help, sumptuous backdrops and costumes, and compelling drama. “Downton Abbey” seems to have it all.
I’d been hearing about it for a while from family members, people at work, and a few friends. I don’t know why I was so skeptical, except, maybe that I was under the mistaken impression that the show would be so mired in social politics that I’d end up finding it tedious. Usually, shows like that are so focused on showing one side or the other of the class warfare as the good guys and the rest as the bad guys that compelling characterization gets thrown to the wayside. If there aren’t actual characters, making them likeable becomes a long and futile battle.
Still, I figured with the group that was signed on to start watching the series from the beginning that it was well worth watching at least the first few episodes. The most that I knew, going in, was that it had a respectable cast of actors and that it took place in a huge estate. Oh, and that it aired on PBS, which didn’t really factor much into my opinion of it. There are a lot of things on PBS that I love watching. There are a lot of things on PBS that I won’t watch for any reason. I love my mom, but Lawrence Welk will forever be background noise while I’m reading something that I find interesting.
So, I settled onto my friend’s couch with an iced tea as big as my head in hand, because there’s nothing wrong with iced tea, despite what some people will tell you, and started watching with our Regular Viewing Crew of Revolving Weirdos (a term I use with the highest affection for all of them, because you don’t watch the range of stuff that we do and try to pretend that you’re normal).
I can tell you that I honestly wasn’t expecting much of a show that opened with a shot of a dog walking away from the camera. The dog is a yellow Labrador Retriever, and it’s a very nice looking dog, but still, the show starts with the dog’s butt. There’s supposed to be a stateliness to the whole affair, and yet, there’s a dog’s backside first thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a purebred sporting dog. Its rump takes up the first few seconds of opening footage.
Fortunately, the show did get better. In fact, the show got better almost immediately. “Downton Abbey” opens with the news that The Titanic has just sunk. Unfortunately, that means that the heir of Downton Abbey has died. Since Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham doesn’t have a male heir, the estate must go to his distant cousin, Matthew. This unsettling turn of events doesn’t just upset the entire family dynamic, it upends the family’s plans and puts them in a state of panic.
Of course, it isn’t just Robert Crawley’s immediate family that has a whole host of new issues to contend with, everyone who works for them also has to deal with a new heir. Downton Abbey must be run effeciently and that takes a dedicated, live-in staff to manage. It also requires an enormous amount of money. In the first episode, we learn from Robert’s acid tongued mother Violet, the Dowager Countess, that Robert married his wife Cora primarily for the vast fortune her family had amassed.
To further complicate the issue, Cora’s money has been tied, through legal documents, to the estate. Therefore, Cora and Robert have absolutely no say in what actually happens to that money when they die. Their oldest daughter can only inherit enough for a dowry. The rest of it will go to the legal heir of Downton. This delimma makes Violet and Cora uneasy allies, in the attempt to try and secure Lady Mary’s position and money both. Nothing is mentioned directly about the two younger daughters, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil, though it is heavily indicated that neither of them will be provided for unless they manage to marry someone with both wealth and status.
Meanwhile, the staff of the house have their own lives. There’s manipulation and behind the scenes machination carried out by some, stoic endurance by others, and stark professionalism by still others. Many of the staff have bigger dreams than working in Downton for the rest of their lives. Some of them make that clearer than others. A few of them take steps to turn those dreams into reality.
The real strength of “Downton Abbey” is that the characters are all written as complex individuals. Even the bit players have more to them than just the simple, cardboard roles expected of them. What’s more fun still is the fact that “Downton Abbey” has no shortage of strong female characters. While several are stuck in very traditional roles, that doesn’t keep them from having opinions, nor does it mean that they never give voice to any of those opinions. One of the phrases that seems to be uttered with more frequency than it really should is “it isn’t for me to say.” Whenever someone says that, though, you can be darn sure that they’re going to say it anyway and it’s going to lead to some juicy plot twists.
As Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, Hugh Bonneville is both dignified and kind. He cares deeply about Downton Abbey, it’s not only his home, it’s his legacy. Part of being the caretaker of the estate is taking care of its people. He is genuinely concerned about his staff. When he’s able, he makes every attempt to ensure that they can maintain their dignity and, when he can help them, he usually does. He’s not afraid to use his title and his position to pull strings to ease the lives of the people who work for them.
Elizabeth McGovern plays Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. She loves her family more than anything and they are her primary concern. When it comes to doing what’s best for her daughters, she fights for them, standing side by side with the woman who had, at best, been a bully to her in the past, especially since Cora is an American. Cora Crawley may seem like a delicate flower of society, but she has steel when she needs it and she’s not afraid to show it. Someone who gets on the wrong side of Cora will soon discover that they have tangled with the wrong person, and while that discovery might sting, it is never delivered with even a hint of impropriety. Cora knows the rules and the system and she operates flawlessly within it.
Lady Mary Crawley, as portrayed by MichelleDockery, seems like the heartless epitome of high society at first glance. She appears to do whatever she wants without a thought to whom it might affect, either for good or ill. As the series progresses, we find out that all is not what it seems. Mary does have a heart, even if she is a very pragmatic young woman. She is accustomed to getting what she wants, but she’s also shown to not always have a good idea what, exactly, it is that she does want.
Laura Carmichael’s Lady Edith Crawley appears to be sweet, mostly by virtue of the fact that she is the plainest of the Crawley daughters. Unfortunately, she and everyone else is painfully aware of that. While Mary has all of the looks and all of the prospects, Edith is left to just hope that she can do well enough for herself. She is the daughter that Robert and Cora believe will be the one who will take care of them when they’re too old to run Downton. While it’s not unwarranted, Edith does reveal herself to be surprisingly vicious towards Mary, given the opportunity.
Then there’s the younges daughter, Lady Sybil Crawley, played by Jessica Brown Findlay. She’s the crusader in the family and the one who most wants to be useful. She is a little bit of an idealist and she gets caught up in the Women’s Right to Vote movement early on. Sybil’s activities aren’t quite the makings of true scandal, but they are enough to give her parents some big headaches.
Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley is the reluctant heir of Downton. He is working as a soliciter when he gets word that he’s the new heir. Once he gets to Downton, he immediately starts trying to convince Lord Grantham that he’s made a terrible mistake. Matthew doesn’t want to inherit the estate. He’s largely at a loss when it comes to what purpose he should serve in relation to Downton.
It’s Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess Violet who really steals the show. She has reached the point in her life where it is no longer necessary to hold her tongue. The woman has opinions about everything, but most especially how people of their station are meant to behave. Violet has the best and the most quotable lines in the show. She’s prickly and expressive and, as much as I want to dislike her for essentially being a mean old bat, I just can’t, not with the way that she’s written.
Then, there’s the staff. Mr. Carson is the stiff and dignified butler to the Crawleys. He is a consummate professional and he expects perfection from the staff. Downton itself is represented by staff that must be efficient, know their jobs, and keep to their stations. Anything less than that means that the very reputation of Downton is at stake. Jim Carter makes Mr. Carson a riveting character. He’s highly intelligent and very proud of his job and all that it entails. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a few secrets of his own, though.
His female counterpart is Mrs. Hughes, played by Phyllis Logan. She is the upright and dependable head housekeeper of Downton Abbey. Where the maids are concerned, Mrs. Hughes is the one who not only commands them, but commands their respect. Downton is a tightly run ship, and Mrs. Hughes, while she can be compassionate, is also the one who most frequently brings the staff properly back in line.
Every good story needs villains, and “Downton Abbey” has some real doozies. Thomas Barrow is one of the footmen and he is unapologetically dedicated to furthering himself. Whatever he needs to do to get ahead, he has absolutely no problems with doing it, so long as he can make sure that he won’t get caught. He’s a nasty piece of work, and, while there’s very little that Mr. Carson or Mrs. Hughes could pin on him in terms of misdeeds, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have some true insight into his character.
Then there’s O’Brien, Cora’s ladies’ maid. O’Brien lords it over lesser servants because she feels entitled to, simply by virtue of her rank in the staff. She is one of Cora’s confidants, though that’s due mostly to Cora’s belief that the people around her who aren’t actually traveling in that same social strata as she is are mostly beneath notice. Cora isn’t stupid, she just has a great deal of faith in O’Brien’s loyalty. O’Brien seems to take sadistic pleasure in making the lives of other staff members miserable in whatever ways she can. She also enacts revenge, where possible, for slights she feels were perpetrated on her. If it’s in her power to get someone inconvenient out of the way, rest assured, she’ll take the necessary action.
Not everyone is quite as proper or as evil a character as the ones mentioned above. Brendan Coyle’s John Bates is an injured war veteran who comes to Downton Abbey to serve as Lord Grantham’s valet. Initially, he’s regarded with both suspicion and skepticism, especially because he walks with a pronounced limp. It’s automatically assumed that, while Lord Grantham is being very kind to hire him, Mr. Bates is not capable of performing his duties. Mr. Bates surprises them, happily. He’s one of the most loyal and gentlest characters on the show and also one of the most endearing.
There are plot threads scattered all through Downton Abbey, and not all of them are centered on main characters. Mrs. Patmore, the cook, seems like a ruddy-faced harridan at first, especially towards Daisy, the scullery maid, until it’s later revealed why Mrs. Patmore slings so much abuse in Daisy’s direction. One of the maids, Gwen, dreams of being a secretary and has shared that dream with Lady Sybil, who, much like her father, decides to help Gwen realize that dream.
“Downton Abbey” is touching and funny, a little bit scandalous, and it never lets viewers forget that the place is absolutely full of people. And, where there are people, that means that there are stories.