Although Downton Abbey just lowered the curtain on its second season, it seems like this is the year that everyone really started noticing what fun it is. It's basically a glorified soap opera, but the Brits know how to do soaps right. I first started watching last year because I love Maggie Smith and many of the other actors involved — Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Phyllis Logan. I was too young for Upstairs, Downstairs when it originally aired so I wasn't especially interested in the whole milieu, and I wasn't prepared for how quickly Downton would pull me in.
The first season started in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and was primarily concerned with the future of the estate. The Earl of Grantham (Bonneville) and his wife (McGovern) have been graced with three daughters — Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) — and the law of inheritance at the time does not allow the estate to pass through the female line. The potential heir to the estate is distant cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Should eldest daughter Mary marry the "usurper" in order to stay on as Lady of Downton? Would they confound everyone and fall in love? The most touching romance may be the one between housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle). There was scheming, love affairs, and drama galore, with Maggie Smith getting in some fabulous one-liners. The series ended with war being declared and the fate of everyone and the Abbey up in the air.
The second season, which has been airing on Sunday nights on PBS, picked up the action with Matthew off at the front and Downton Abbey being used as a rehabilitation hospital. The plot has definitely thickened, with a scandal involving Mary from season one still hovering and threatening her future. Mr. Bates's and Anna's romance is still experiencing some roadblocks. The Great War is drawing to a close, but not without major casualties, some very close to home. I'll keep things spoiler free for those who haven't caught this weekend's season two finale yet, but it was essentially everything we could have wished for.
The Servants of Downton Abbey: Courtesy of PBS
Why is Downton Abbey so intriguing? The costumes and period are beautifully done, which is a draw. But most likely it is the way the characters are so well-rounded. As much as Mary and Matthew are the central (doomed) romance, their characters aren't essentially heroic. They make decisions that don't appear to be exactly smart, or at least what the audience thinks would be the right one to make. Mary is frequently horrible to her sister Edith. Matthew can be holier-than thou. They are frustrating and human and extremely likable. The challenges that they have been faced with this season — Matthew coming back injured and possibly crippled, Mary engaged to a horrible, manipulative, and dangerous man (Iain Glen) — just make us like them more.
There is third season already in the works (thank goodness!), to be set in the 1920s. Shirley MacLaine has already been signed to appear as McGovern's mother. I'm still mulling over the contents of the second season, but I'm almost ready to debate where the Roaring '20s will take the inhabitants of Downton, it is intriguing, as the way of life of such an estate will have started to disappear. I do know that I will be tuning in. Will you?
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