Saturday, April 27, 2013

Downton Abbey

Earlier this week, I took a couple days off work.  I had a few tasks on my To Do list but for reasons I don't want to mention, I was not able to accomplish all of them.  Having some free time, I watched about 8.5 hours of Downton Abbey (not continuously).  I have now watched the series through Season 3 so I'm fully caught up.  Season 4 doesn't begin until...I don't know when it begins.  In the UK, it begins this fall but I don't know when it resumes on PBS.

I feel a little embarrassed to admit how much I like this television series.  I could claim it is the period costumes and references I like.  Or that it is fun to see the show treating historical events like an Independent Ireland or women's suffrage as nascent movements.  That would be a lie.  I like it for the reason most people like it - it is a well made soap opera.

With a huge cast, it is able to explore many facets of society.  In particular, it explores the class divide which was so much more relevant in the UK 100 years ago.  It also explores social attitudes towards gays, unwed mothers and other topics which were more shocking to mainstream society.  It primarily focuses on timeless issues such as love, jealousy and fear.

Set at Downton Abbey, the fictional estate of Lord Grantham, the show has many plot lines.  The time setting is between 1912 and 1921 (so far).  The two main story arcs in Downton Abbey are love stories.

The one which most people have latched onto is the May-December romance between Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), a valet, and Anna (Joanne Froggatt), a Lady's Maid.  Mr. Bates, notable for his use of a cane due to war injuries (that would be the Boer Wars), has to overcome the pity and/or resentment of the other servants who feel his disability will add to their workload.  Mr. Bates wins most of them over through his compassion, sense of honor and perseverance.  One of his earliest supporters was Anna Smith, maid to the Mary Crawley, eldest daughter of Lord Grantham.  Anna quickly sees Bates' best qualities and commendably (if unlikely) overlooks his marital status and their age difference.  There is a 17 year age difference between Coynes and Froggatt.  Anna is cheerful and strong woman and attractive...even under her maid's frock.

Mr. Bates was convicted for the murder of his wife whom he was trying to divorce to be with Anna.  Mr. Bates displays a temper and, while in prison, threatened to kill his cellmate.  He certainly has a dark side to him.  Anna, on the other hand, seems to have no character flaws which makes her somewhat bland except as Mr. Bates' true love.  I have to believe their relationship will be strained or tested during the upcoming season.

The other romance which is popular with the fans of the show is that of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) & Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery).  In the first episode of the series, the first and second heirs to the title of Earl of Grantham and the estate of Downton Abbey are killed in the Titanic sinking.  The current Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, has three daughters and hence no suitable heirs.  The next in line of succession is a distant cousin named Matthew Crawley, who is a solicitor and stranger to the Downton Abbey Crawleys.

At the beginning of the series, Mary enjoyed toying with men's affections.  Her family thought Mary would marry her cousin (the younger Crawley who died on the Titanic).  You don't hear or read much of distant cousins marrying anymore.  Another of her paramours, a Turkish diplomat, died in her bed.  After initial attraction between Mary & Matthew, Mary's coquettish ways drove a wedge between them.  At one point, Mary & Matthew are simultaneously engaged to other people.  It was a very awkward situation as Matthew was the heir to Downton Abbey, cousin and spurned suitor.  However, a timely death (or untimely depending on one's viewpoint) and a broken engagement clear the way for the second chance at romance between the Crawley cousins.

Matthew & Mary's wedding was the finale of Episode 1 of Season 3.  Their marriage seemed to be one for the ages but let's just say they are not married to each other by the end of Season 3.  Matthew is honorable to a fault while Mary retains a fair amount of bitchiness which she puts aside for long stretches.  Also, Mary grew up at Downton Abbey with an army servants whereas Matthew grew up upper middle class (the son of a doctor) and looks upon the valets and footmen as superfluous.

Matthew and his independent-minded mother espouse ideas which are taken as self-evident today but met with skepticism and hostility by Lord Grantham and his family.  His "modern" views of society and social classes threaten the long-established traditions at Downton Abbey which is another source of conflict within the show.

Most of the fun happens downstairs at Downton Abbey which is where the servants congregate.  As Lord Grantham rules Downton Abbey, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) rules the household staff as butler.  A stern taskmaster, Mr. Carson can show compassion at times but is largely aloof towards his staff with the exception of Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the housekeeper who he frequently takes into his confidence.  If Mr. Carson is the disciplinarian father figure, Mrs. Hughes is the kindly & maternal mother figure towards the staff.  Although Mr. Carson's conservative nature and sense of propriety are occasionally the source of humor, Mr. Carson & Mrs. Hughes are largely stay above the fray.  There is a hint of romantic feelings from Mr. Carson towards Mrs. Hughes but his sense of decorum would never allow it.

Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) started the show as first footman.  Conniving and ambitious, Thomas (or Mr. Barrow) initially wanted the job as Lord Grantham's valet which Mr. Bates got.  That resulted in Thomas' enmity towards Mr. Bates.  Thomas is also a homosexual during an era when that was a criminal act.  He served in WWI as a medic but purposefully put his hand in the line of fire in order to be medically discharged from the army.  It was implied Thomas was a coward.  He's also been shown to be a thief, liar and would-be black marketeer.  He also sows discontent among the servants through lies & manipulation.  After the war, Thomas returned as a footman and during Mr. Bates' imprisonment, Lord Grantham's valet.  His continued employment at Downton Abbey beggars belief except that within the structure of the show, he is one of the characters you love to hate.  Towards the end of Season 3, he shows some humility and graciousness.  Dismissed from his job, Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes & even Mr. Bates conspire to at least get him a positive letter of reference.  To their displeasure, Lord Grantham goes one step further and hires him back as under-butler.

Miss O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) is Lady Grantham's (Elizabeth McGovern) personal maid.  Initially tight with Thomas, the two have a falling out when her nephew comes to work at Downton Abbey and Thomas refuses to help him as it may impede his own promotion plans.  As conniving and manipulative as Thomas, Miss O'Brien has a long list of transgressions which is highlighted by her intentionally leaving a bar of soap on the floor which a pregnant Lady Grantham slipped on which in turned caused a miscarriage.

The undisputed breakout character in the show is Lady Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), the dowager Countess of Grantham and Lord Grantham's mother.  The matriarch of the family and as manipulative as  Thomas or O'Brien, she is blessed with wealth and social status so her machinations seem more trivial.  The master of biting quips and deadpan displeasure, Lady Violet gets the best lines in the show and Maggie Smith seems to be having a ball with the role.


After watching nearly 25 hours of Downton Abbey, it is impossible to recount the plot.  Furthermore, the serial nature of the show does not allow one to just start watching in Season 4 and understand the backstory which adds much to the enjoyment of the show.  It's quite a time commitment to get up to speed on a show like Downton Abbey (or Game of Thrones).  I also don't feel like I'm watching anything profound.  It's like having a excellent piece of chocolate cake

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