Best Shows of 2011: ‘Downton Abbey’ (2010-)
Sometimes, it feels as if all the men I have ever danced with are dead. I just feel so useless, wasting my life while they sacrifice theirs. — Lady Sybil Crawley
Half of the world saw the second season of this wonderful Edwardian period drama in 2011. We Americans had to wait until Jan. 8, 2012 for it to premiere (unless of course you were too impatient, like me, and watched it online as it aired across the pond).
At first I thought my love for this miniseries-turned-hit-show stemmed from my wanting to have been born in another time and place, something I’ve often lived out via the works of Jane Austen and the rest of the Classics. Then I blamed it on my love of history. But I realized that while both of those certainly contributed to my initial interest in the show, the real reason I love ‘Downton Abbey’ so much is because Julian Fellowes created an authentic world rich with interesting characters, both in the Crawley family and in the people who work in their household. I often like to think of it as the British answer to ‘Mad Men.’
I am too young to have ever seen the original ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ and I’ve never seen the updated version either (though both are now definitely in my Netflix queue), but I understand it was a major influence on ‘Downton Abbey.’ I have to say though, I am glad that I hadn’t seen it prior to my viewing, because it meant that I could watch this show without having anything to compare it to (as I’ve seen several critics do).
The first season was obviously widely successful and led by the power and grace of Maggie Smith. The Dowager Countess anchored what turned out to be a wonderful cast of characters, but what stood out most often were her one-liners. I think at times she seemed to overshadow the rest of the characters in the first season, because she stole every single scene she was in. I found myself wishing for more fruitful and thoughtful stories for the rest of the actors, especially the trio of daughters. I definitely cared more about the men and women downstairs in that first season. The plight of a rich family’s line of succession was not the most interesting of stories for me, and believe it or not, I actually didn’t even have an opinion on Matthew Crawley during that entire season.
Season two took on a more ambitious round of stories as it spanned most of the The Great War (I have a history degree so I can get away with calling it this without being pretentious, I swear). By integrating the men and women of Downton into the events occurring in the rest of the world, Julian Fellowes opened up his characters, gave them depth where they were lacking and made them more accessible to the audience. During the first season it seemed that aside from the mentioning of the sinking of the Titanic in the first episode, the characters were sequestered away and existed mostly in their own little Downton bubble. Season two definitely changed that.
Matthew, Thomas and William all went to France to fight in the war. And while war seemed to give Matthew a new sense of purpose (he was more than just a solicitor and the heir to Grantham estate), it brought out Thomas’ insecurities and showed his cowardice. This was a character we’d spent several episodes loathing for his pompous attitude. He’d spent so much of his time on screen trying to cut others down (William and Bates, mostly) because he felt that he was better than they were. But as was the case with most men in the trenches, Thomas eventually realized that he was just a man, no better than any of his fellow soldiers. And he took the coward’s way out by holding up a lighter and getting shot through the hand.
While the young men were off fighting the Germans, the Earl of Grantham was having a midlife crisis, brought on by the fact he was too old to serve in the war. I don’t think it exactly helped that Cora found herself very busy running Downton once it became a convalescent home. I enjoyed seeing both of these characters adapt to their new situations in life. The story was no longer about the heir to the fortune, but about how war changed everyone, not just the men in the trenches.
My favorite change from the first season to the second though was the evolution of the three daughters, Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil. Mary, though still in love with Matthew, decided to move on and became engaged to a rich newspaper man as Matthew was now engaged to
Trinity Ashby a wonderful young woman he’d met when home on leave. While season one Mary was selfish, season two Mary had matured; she was more interested in being her own person and was less focused on who she’d marry.
Lady Edith had matured as well. She was out of the Ruin Mary business and first found purpose after learning to drive, and then again when attending to the wounded soldiers convalescing at Downton. She was the woman all of the soldiers depended on when they needed one thing or the other. She also spent some time putting her driving skills to use doing somewhat manual labor.
And Lady Sybil, the only daughter with a story I liked in the first season (helping Gwen secure a job outside of Downton as a secretary), grew even more selfless over the course of the second season. She was interested in politics and women’s suffrage and took the most active role of the three sisters when she became a nurse and aided the wounded men who came in to the local hospital.
And yet even with all of that, Fellowes still found plenty of time to dedicate to the stories of the staff, which included a promise of love for Mrs. Hughes, a health scare for Mr. Carson and even Mrs. Patmore, more tormented love for Anna and Mr. Bates, and an interesting story between Daisy and William, not to mention a pregnancy.
Yes, season two definitely enlarged the world and scale of ‘Downton Abbey.’ And I cannot wait to see what Fellowes has cooked up for season three, which premieres this fall.
Note: Photo courtesy of CARNIVAL FILMS.