C: Last year when the first series of the BBC show Downton Abbey aired on PBS, I knew people who were excited about it and greeted each episode of the Edwardian-era soap opera with greedy glee. They were, like me, the kind of people who get giddy about the kind of stuff that airs on Masterpiece Classic. And they weren’t exactly legion.
This year, something strange has happened. Sunday evening, when the first episode of the second series was about to air for the first time in America, my Facebook page was liberally sprinkled with excited posts. “Downton Abbey tonight!” “Recording Downton Abbey; wish I was home to watch…” But these weren’t friends from the English Lit department or the costume drama blogosphere. These were people I met in high school, at church, at social events. A twenty-something male economist posted this morning that Downton Abbey is the best show he’s ever seen.
E: I feel like every time I turned on the TV or the radio for the last two weeks I heard people raving about Downton Abbey, anticipating its return.
C: I don’t want to speak too soon, but it looks like Downton Abbey has officially crossed over. Is there even a name for this kind of phenomenon? Pop/Costume Drama? Alt-classic?
E: I think it’s pretty fair to say that PBS hasn’t generated this level of excitement since the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries.
C: So what can we attribute this success to? Series I was a frothy treat, a close look at the intertwined lives of snooping servants and insufferable rich people (okay, and virtuous servants and well-intentioned rich people) in 1912-1914, from the sinking of the Titanic to the declaration of World War I. Most of the drama concerned the finding and grooming of a new heir for the estate after the previous heir’s death, and the romantic scandals of the daughters of the house.
E: Not to mention the villainy of footmen and manipulations of housekeepers…
C: The new series, however, begins in the trenches. While the gossip, scheming, and sexual intrigues go on, the war provides an undercurrent of seriousness the first series lacked. This is no longer just a salacious soap with gorgeous costuming; this is powerful storytelling.
E: Yes! The stakes are so much more serious this time. And Julian Fellowes’ writing feels sharper, wittier. I feel like I like it twice as much already.
C: In this episode, we see Matthew Crawley’s experience as an officer in France as well as his apparently quite frequent leave times in England; we see Mrs. Crawley and the Dowager Countess Maggie Smith working together for once to help Lady Sybil attend a nursing course; we meet Mrs. Bates and see first-hand what a heinous bitch she really is; we see adorable William get called up and get a kiss from Daisy; and we see Lady Mary bring a shady older newspaper owner home as a potentially husband. A busy premiere for sure, ending with the proposal to convert Downton into a convalescent home for soldiers.
E: We also get to meet Matthew’s adorable, sweet young fiancee, Lavinia Swire – who, it turns out, is somehow in debt to Mary’s would-be finance, Sir Richard Carlisle (played by Iain Glen, so memorable as the implacable villain Mr. Preston from Wives and Daughters).
C: Blackmailing young ladies in park glades as usual!
E: And there’s a new maid, shenanigans about medical exams, and a new suitor for Anna once Bates has been stolen away by his evil wife.
C: A major pleasure of this episode – though one I don’t really expect them to uphold as the series goes on – was how shaded with gray the least likeable characters from the previous series have become. Lady Mary, who was last seen viciously taking revenge on her sister by destroying Edith’s happy engagement, is positively decent in this episode. We get the sense that her disappointed love for her cousin Matthew has actually given her some modicum of sympathy for other human beings.
E: That’s it exactly. Mary in the first season was a bit too cold. She was never quite as charming and marvelous as we wanted her to be, to balance out all that selfish witchery and heartbreaking. But now that she’s pining for Matthew, and – gasp – thinking of his happiness more than her own, she’s become a far more appealing character. Goodness, she put Lavinia before herself (deciding against confessing her love to Matthew because Lavinia seems so weak and so devoted), and she really doesn’t owe Lavinia anything. Of course, pining is always appealing. At least to me.
C: Quite so. And even Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien, the chaotic evil servants who spend the first series stirring up trouble for trouble’s sake, are slightly shaded here. Though their machinations continue – Thomas deliberately gets himself shot at the front so he will be invalided out, and O’Brien schemes to get him work at the local military hospital – each gets little moments of humanity. Thomas makes an empathetic connection with a blinded young soldier and tries to bolster his will to live. I was genuinely moved by his emotional reaction when the soldier commits suicide.
E: Me too! Even before that – I know he had a crush on the wounded officer, Courtnay, but I was touched by Thomas’s devotion and diligence in teaching him how he might live with his blindness. That entire plot thread was deeply moving.
C: And while O’Brien doesn’t go so far as to do anything kind, she proves to be the only one in the house who recognizes that the new valet is suffering from “shellshock,” or PTSD. Instead of finding a way to use this against Lang – yet, anyway! – she speaks to him almost gently about her brother having the same affliction.
E: She does. Even before that, she’s noticed that he’s good at his job, and respects him for it, taking pains to praise him publicly. It didn’t feel forced, but the nuance was welcome. Especially after she’d made my skin crawl for the way she twisted the Countess to her every whim. She knows just how to manipulate the mark to think it’s all her own idea, doesn’t she?
C: Yes, and Cora’s shockingly naive. But the only person who came off as 100% odious here was Edith. At first I thought it was fun that she was finding ways to contribute to the war effort — learning to drive so she can fill in for the chauffeur if needed, and even driving a tractor for a short-handed local farm.
E: That was a welcome sign of growth indeed.
C: But, whether worrying about her stained dress while Carson the kindly butler had an attack of hypertension or making out with the local farmer behind his wife’s back, she managed at every turn to alienate all possible sympathy!
E: Well, yes. She has an astounding capacity to imagine she’s the only person alive. I know that she’s always been in Mary’s shadow, but really.
C: Yeah, the best way to distinguish yourself from Mary is not to heartlessly tread on people’s lives!
E: That brings us to my favorite of the Crawley sisters, Sybil. Love Sybil for doing a nursing course and serving the wounded so devotedly. But I’m so bummed she rejected adorable chauffeur Branson’s advances! Boo, hiss!
C: I know! And it wasn’t even a promising “social barriers keep us apart” kind of rejection, it was more “I’m just not that into you.” Pshh. As if any young lady of the house could help falling for the adorable socialist chauffeur. But we’re being classist now, just focusing on the love lives of the Quality. What about Bates and Anna?
E: Oh, Bates and Anna. Sigh. We knew they wouldn’t get to run their little hotel with their big-eyed babies, at least not without more heartache in between, but oh, they broke my heart, making those plans.
C: Really, I wanted to smack them both upside the head. The time to make plans about your post-divorce future is after Mrs. Bates has signed the divorce papers! That was obviously going to end badly, but I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was – with Bates “falling on his sword” for the family’s reputation and leaving to go live with his evil wife.
E: Good thing that Mrs. Hughes was eavesdropping on Vera’s machinations, and told Mr. Carson, who told Lord Grantham (who had so unjustly berated poor Bates for leaving). Will there be no end to the damage Mary’s one-night stand has caused?
C: Once he knew what really happened, why didn’t Lord Grantham do anything?
E: So there’d be something left for next week? So we’d get to hear Anna tell Mary that there’s just no substitute for true love?
C: Both, I think, but especially the former. And I can’t wait for Sunday!