Downton Abbey, S1 Ep1

Let’s just go ahead and put it out there: on the whole, Downtown Abbey is wonderful. The cast is magnificently talented, the characters believable and relatable, and the writing more than sound. Despite the fact that the show is set in a world almost a century younger than ours, the overarching theme of a worldwide tragedy causing significant upheaval at home is one that we are likely all familiar with. My life couldn’t be further from either the Crawleys or their house staff, but each character resonates with me in a different way. That’s honestly all that I ever ask for in a show, and Downton Abbey delivers.

It is a true ensemble cast, and there’s a lot of players in the mix. Although the writers do a great job of making introductions without hitting you over the head with too much awkward exposition in the form of stilted dialogue, it did take me a long time to get a good grasp on who everyone was and their functions within the family/house. I strongly suggest clicking over to the “Who’s Who”, to familiarize yourself with this massive cast of characters before reading on.

Now then, let’s talk about Episode 1, shall we? Future recaps may not go into quite as much detail as I am going to go into here, but this pilot is simply massive in the amount of information it conveys and it sets up the rest of the series very well, so bear with me!

It is April, 1912. Downton Abbey buzzes with activity, as the house staff prepares for the day ahead — the kitchen is churning out breakfast, Daisy is sent to light the fireplaces, and the windows are being opened to let in the morning light. News of the Titanic sinking comes in two forms that morning: a telegram dispatched to Lord Crawley, and the morning papers, ironed by William to dry the ink. The telegram holds even grimmer news than the papers do for the Crawleys: Robert’s first cousin, James, and his son, Patrick, have been lost with the ship.

Reading the telegram

Robert receives the telegram delivering bad news.

It soon becomes clear that this presents a rather alarming issue: the Crawley family’s ability to hold their claim on Downton is in jeopardy. With no male offspring and the heir presumptive now dead, the estate is in danger of being passed on to the next in line for the title . . . in this case, a third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley.

To make matters worse, the late Lord Crawley (Robert’s father) forced Cora to sign a legal agreement known as an entail. What this did was marry Cora’s fortune to the estate and the title of Earl of Grantham in the interest of protecting it all, with no thought to the possibility that Robert and Cora would not produce a male heir. The deal that was set in place was for their eldest daughter, Mary, to marry Patrick. In all likelihood they would have sired a male grandchild to pass the title, estate, and fortune down to.

Faced with disaster, there are only two solutions that seem to make any sense at all: to either trust that Matthew Crawley would have similar aims for Downton as Robert has and go ahead and accept him as the new heir presumptive (a huge risk, as Matthew hails from Manchester and holds a “common” career as a solicitor, and the difference in lifestyle could make him quite the wild card), or to try and smash the entail and attempt to legally name Mary as rightful heir, though she would not be able to claim the title and could only hope to protect the fortune while Downton would likely still be lost.

While the Dowager Countess conspires with Cora to convince her that the best course of action is working to get Mary named heir, Robert consults Mr. Murray (Jonathan Coy), who seems to be an financial adviser to the family. He makes it clear that there is little to no hope of smashing the entail, and that — like it or not — Matthew will need to be accepted as heir.

Meanwhile, the house staff is experiencing their own upheaval. John Bates, Robert’s new valet, has arrived to Downton . . . and he’s crippled. This new development serves not only to introduce to us one of my very favorite characters (Bates is played with considerable understatement by Brendan Coyle, absolutely beautifully), but to introduce us to the staff’s ranging temperaments. Anna immediately shows compassion for his plight, while others are not so kind. Thomas (the Evil Footman!) grumbles about the fact that he had aims at making his temporary position as Robert’s valet permanent, while O’Brien seems eager to help him figure out a way to oust Bates (although her motives seem to stem from her personality as a bit of a grumpy busybody more than any overt gain to her own circumstances). The two of them spend a lot of time plotting, and the rest putting the nuggets of doubt regarding Bates’ ability to do his job into the ears of both Carson — in the position of most power among the staff — and Cora.

By the time that we get to one of the most brilliant scenes in this episode, word has traveled to Robert that his new valet may not be “equal to the task.” Robert enters the kitchens during the staff’s lunch to greet Bates, claiming to not have known that he would be interrupting. But when he extends a hand in welcome to Bates and calls him “my dear fellow” and “my old comrade in arms,” the strong impression is made that his timing is very purposeful. As soon as he is gone, the rest of the staff turn to Bates, flabbergasted. He answers their silent questions with a slight tilt of his head and a bit of a smile. “You never asked.”

Violet and Robert

Violet and Robert discuss smashing the entail.

When the Dowager Countess returns for dinner, the ensuing conversation (again focused around the possibility of smashing the entail) gives us a peek at the type of man that Robert is: a man who has given his life to Downton (“It is my third parent, and my fourth child”), a man who married Cora initially for her money and then fell in love with her, a man who wishes to do the right thing and who struggles with what that might be in this situation.

Under the supposition that Mary will now be inheriting, the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox) requests a visit, and with Robert unmoving on the idea that trying to smash the entail would be too risky, the Duke is invited to come as soon as Mary is out of proper mourning. When the Duke arrives, he specifically requests the same footman who served him while he was dining with Lady Grantham in London. Three guesses which footman that would be, and the first two don’t count! (Hint: Safe money would be the evil one.)

At the Duke’s request, he and Mary wind up exploring the house. He has no interest in the drawing room or libraries, and so they wind up poking their way through the servant’s quarters in the attic. They spend equal time shamelessly flirting and digging into dresser drawers (or, rather, the Duke does as Mary stands nervously on). Eventually they are interrupted by Bates. Even though thus far our glimpses at Mary might make us think she’s a bit cold, she is properly shamed by the fact that she’s been snooping and apologizes to Bates as they leave, regardless of the fact that she has every right to be up there as a Lady of the house. “I always apologize when I’m in the wrong, it’s a habit of mine,” she tells the Duke after he scoffs at the apology.

Apparently, all the complaints about Bates have worn Robert down because he pulls Bates into his quarters and tells him that he’s going to have to let him go. Arrangements are made for Bates to leave on the next morning train. He takes it well, though he does come perilously close to begging for reconsideration. Later, while the staff gossips about the possibility of Mary’s engagement to the Duke, Anna takes some supper up to Bates’ room, only to find him in tears. She requests him to write as soon as he’s settled elsewhere, and it’s painfully clear that these two are quite fond of each other already.

After the rest of the family has gone through to the drawing room after the meal, the Duke requests that Robert stay back. They have a thinly veiled conversation about Mary’s prospects, and when Robert lets the cat out of the bag that he does not intend to fight the entail, but that Mary’s settlement from the estate will be more than adequate to satisfy the Duke, they exchange terse words as the Duke insists that he never had any aims at marrying Mary. He goes up to his quarters instead of joining the family in the drawing room, then requests that Thomas be sent up to him.

And now it all becomes clear! It would seem that Thomas and the Duke were lovers over that summer in London, and that while Thomas requested the Duke’s visit (ostensibly to set up the marriage and allow him to move up into the position of the Duke’s valet, since he didn’t seem to be having any luck with getting Bates fired at the time), the only reason the Duke came was to find the letters that proved their relationship — hence the rifling through those dresser drawers in the attic — to destroy them. Essentially . . . he’s a bastard. Surprise, surprise.

Bates looks up at Downton

Bates takes in Downton for what he thinks is the last time.

Come morning, the Duke is beating a quick retreat, hopping the same train that Bates will be away on. The inner turmoil is obvious on Robert’s face, and as the car that will take the two men to the train station starts to pull away, Robert cries out, stopping it from leaving. He tells Bates to go inside, and that they’d speak no more of it. Under Carson’s quiet disapproval, Robert explains: “It just wasn’t right, Carson. I just didn’t think it was right.”

In the last scene, we briefly meet the now-infamous Matthew Crawley. As he and his mother eat breakfast, a message from Lord Grantham is delivered. “What on earth does he want?” Isobel questions. “He wants to change our life,” he responds, stunned. Indeed, Matthew, indeed.

Phew! Are you still with me? Great, because the most dense episode is now out of the way, and now that we know a bit about the Crawley family and their staff, we can explore deeper into their characters and their motivations in further episodes.

What Downtown Abbey isn’t is a show that lends itself well to speculation — at least not of the sort where clues are hidden throughout the episode and half the fun of watching is then debating what secrets every scene may have hidden with your friends afterward (Doctor Who, I’m looking at you!). What is unique about Downton Abbey (at least to American audiences, I suspect, who are more used to our period dramas coming in the form of big budget movies starring Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe) is that it’s like a very refined soap opera. There may be no alien babies or long lost half-brother-step-sister-triplet-cousins, but there is plenty of social drama to sink your teeth into.

As for the things I didn’t like about this episode? Well, some of the scenes are actually quite repetitive. Now, at the time of writing this I have seen the first series in its entirety, and so I know that it doesn’t continue on like this, otherwise my patience with the show would have grown thin. In particular, we are treated to a few scenes with Robert and Cora speaking alone that are nearly identical, with Cora gently beginning to question Robert regarding his thoughts on trying to smash the entail, which shifts into Cora passing along complaints about Bates once she seems to realize that Robert will not budge. I do realize that this may have been a very purposeful choice on the part of Julian Fellowes (creator and chief writer of the series) and gives us a great deal of insight into the characters, but I feel as if it could have been handled better. Considering that we are supposed to like and root for Bates, hearing him slagged off every other scene — even if the points made are regrettably closer to the mark than we’d like — started to grate on my nerves.

In the end it’s a very small quibble, and is definitely focused more on this particular episode than on the show as a whole. With that said, next time around we’ll dive into Episode 2 . . . where Matthew and Isobel Crawley make their proper appearances on scene, and things really get interesting!

Other Things of Interest Not Mentioned Above:

  • Mrs. Hughes ponders the idea of what life would be like if they had “gone another way.”
  • Daisy’s got a crush on Thomas, of all people. Ugh!
  • O’Brien seems to have a strong relationship with Cora and harbors no shyness with speaking her mind to her regarding issues that aren’t really her business (Bates, for one, as well as the entail debacle). On the other hand, Robert isn’t very fond of her, and tells Cora as much.
  • The three daughters have very distinct personalities, and Edith and Mary in particular do not seem to get along.

Fun Stuff:

A few of the cast have Twitter accounts! You can follow them here:

Hugh Bonneville
Jessica Brown-Findlay
Brendan Coyle
Sophie McShera
Dan Stevens