I was not thrilled when Deborah suggested that I take on Downton Abbey. It sounded like a rehash of Upstairs Downstairs and I wondered if the production was fresh enough for viewers accustomed to gritty and innovative television.
I shouldn’t have been so skeptical. The showrunner, Julian Fellowes, won a best screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park. Clearly, this guy knows how to do a period piece. Fellowes has a gift for transporting the viewer to the days before World War I, when the British still lived under a strict, complex, and, for all of its undeniable elegance, suffocating social code. I make it sound terrifically boring, but if you like soap dressed up as PBS fare, this show’s for you! I was hooked from the minute the credits rolled.
ALERT: SPOILERS (after the cut)
April 1912. In the Downton Abbey estate, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), wake up to the news that the Titanic has sunk. Robert’s cousin and heir apparent, James Crawley, perished on board alongside his son. This personal loss is a devastating reversal of fortune. Downton Abbey will belong to the male heir of the Grantham line and, unfortunately, Robert and Cora have three daughters. Worse still, Cora’s substantial fortune will also go to the next heir in line, which in this case is a distant third cousin, the son of a common – GASP!! – doctor. (No, Cora and Robert are not even remotely Jewish.) They had hoped to keep the title, the estate, the fortune, — the whole shebang- -, within the family by marrying their eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) to their cousin’s son. When informed of her fiance’s passing, Mary just wants to know how long she’ll have to wear black. (To add to Cora and Robert’s woes, their two eldest daughters are manipulative bitches. Have I enticed you now?) Alas, there is no legal recourse for the Crawleys’ predicament, other than finding Mary a rich husband with a title (Mary and I have so much in common). Mary, as we will see, is not going to make this easy because the chick is complicated. The Earl resigns himself to the loss, but Cora and his mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), are intent on finding a solution. “Are we to be friends, then?” Cora wants to know. “We are… allies,” answers Violet. (Silly Cora! What do you expect with a dowager for a mother-in-law, rugelach? Seriously, though, is that not the classiest way to cut someone down? I found it educational, which is why this show deserves to be on PBS.)
Meanwhile, downstairs where the servants hang out, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Robert’s new valet, arrives. Bates walks with an obvious limp and all the servants arch their collective eyebrow, obviously wondering why Robert hired him. (The entire cast has mad skilz for acting with one eyebrow.) Cora’s maid, O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the first footman, discuss the possibility of Thomas being promoted to valet. But they first have to get Bates out of the way. The two exploit his limp to the hilt through evil lies and rumors about his competence. (See? It’s just like a modern office. Bet Steve Carell will show up in season two.) Just when you think that the whole world is against poor Bates, the Earl appears downstairs. He even calls Bates his “dear fellow”! It turns out they’re war buddies. Nothing like the threat of trench foot and gangrene to forge a lasting, genuine friendship. (Alas, modern guys have to make do with athlete’s foot.) Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head maid, is also sympathetic to Bates’ plight as evidenced by her googly eyes.
In the meantime, another telegram arrives. I forgot to explain that a telegram was the old-timey equivalent of a text, except with no smiley faces or sneaky surcharges at the end of the billing cycle. Also, people were sober when sending one. The young (and available) Duke of Crowborough plans to visit Downton Abbey. When he arrives, the family and servants line up outside to greet him. As the Duke passes by Bates, O’Brien kicks the latter’s cane and he falls on his face. (I could have slipped through the TV screen and gone Jlo on O’Brien.) Her dirty trick seals Bates’ fate.
Lady Mary’s romantic prospects look bright when the Duke insists she give him a private tour of the “hidden chambers” of the manor. Mary is about to ask the Duke if he’d also care to see her “sugar walls” and her “umbrella”, when she realizes that by “hidden chambers”, the Duke actually means the servants’ quarters. (You filthy cows.) Specifically, the male servants’. Oh, Mary! Do you not see now why the Duke is “available”?
Upstairs, Robert fires Bates, on account of his humiliating the family with his disability. Alone in his room, Bates breaks down and cries. Brendan Coyle is the only man on earth who can make weeping look manly. He broke my heart. Who’s going to hire him now?
The Duke’s visit proves to be a red herring, as you already guessed. On top of everything else, he plays mind games with Robert purely because he’s bored and Hulu hasn’t been invented yet. By the way, if you ever needed a graceful way of calling someone’s bullshit, take a page from Robert.
And finally the Duke’s real purpose is revealed in a steamy tête-à-tête with Thomas. They had a summer fling, which Thomas saw as an opportunity for advancement via blackmail. The Duke merely came to collect the mash notes he wrote Thomas, which he now tosses into a fire. He then announces he will leave first thing in the morning. So the seemingly eligible Duke turned out to be both gay AND evil. Mary and I have more in common than four letters in our names.
In the morning, the Duke bids everyone adieu and Bates hitches a ride to the station with him. At the last minute, Robert chases the car down. He pulls Bates out and gives him back his job! There’s this beautiful moment when the two look at each other and nothing more need be said. You can see Robert’s loyalty to his friend and Bates’ very real gratitude.
And just when you thought you’d never meet the bastard, third-class arrivistes who will inherit Downton Abbey, we cut to Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) having breakfast. A letter arrives from the Earl. Matthew tells his mother, astonished, that Lord Grantham “wants to change their lives”. (You and I must make do with Publishers’ Clearinghouse.)
So there it is, folks. Intrigue! Drama! Beautiful clothes! Gorgeous cinematography! Men in uniforms, speaking with British accents! And lessons on cutting people down with an arched eyebrow and a well-timed pause. Welcome to Masterpiece Theater.