After seven episodes, the absurdly addictive first season of Downton Abbey came to a close tonight. Across America, period-piece enthusiasts like me are weeping into our hand-embroidered hankies over the end of this witty, sumptuous drama from Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes. Easily the most buzzed-about Masterpiece installment in years, Downton Abbey is irresistible because it takes a decidedly modern approach to a familiar—dare I say clichéd—story of love, class, and inheritance. Let us count the ways in which it is a superior period piece.
Downton Abbey portrays the Edwardian class system in a nuanced and complex way. As I discussed in my initial review, the series shows how intertwined the “upstairs” and “downstairs” worlds really are, despite the strict separation between them. The characters within both spheres are ambivalent about the rigid social order to which they must conform. Many of the servants have an especially complicated and even contradictory relationship to their roles in the world, both resenting and defending a system that relegates them to a lifetime of menial labor. For instance, when Matthew and Isobel first show up at Downton Abbey, O’Brien practically stages a mutiny, claiming “real gentlemen don’t work,” and threatening not to speak a civil word to her new master. It’s not that she really believes that the noble classes are inherently better than the masses. It’s just that if she’s now expected to serve someone who, himself, works—well, then, where does that leave her? O’Brien also scoffs at the trifling nature of her job—God forbid Cora should have to put her own comb through her own hair, she remarks at one point—but she also clings to it ferociously. O’Brien’s got a wicked mean streak, but she really only displays it when she feels that her small foothold is under threat.
Likewise, Thomas, for all his cruelty, is also the most clear-eyed about the dehumanizing effects of a life of service. After Cora loses her baby, Thomas isn’t quite sure what the big deal is. “Why must we live through them?” he asks. While his lack of sympathy—“they’re no bigger than a hamster at that point”—is extreme, Thomas does have a point. The staff is so invested in the intrigue upstairs precisely because they have been denied lives of their own. As melodramatic as it often is, Downton Abbey is grounded by psychological motivations that always ring true.
As has been widely noted, Downton Abbey is also full of delicious one-liners, most of which Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess Violet, gets to deliver. Fellowes gives her wonderful material—“What is a weekend?” “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house,” etc.—and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Smith delivering these lines with quite the same withering precision. Still, she's not the only actor who gets to lob the zingers. Fellowes has littered the script with dozens of cheeky double-entendres aimed squarely at the modern viewer. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” the Duke of Crowborough says to Thomas, meaning pretty much exactly what we think he means. Then there’s Pamuk, who warns Mary that “sometimes, we must endure a little pain in order to achieve satisfaction” hours before he deflowers her. Downton Abbey is that rare thing: a period piece that rewards those of us with prurient minds.
Ah, yes, there's also the matter of sex, which Downton Abbey has in (relative) abundance. The show breaks taboos with a singular kind of zeal. Thomas, a lowly footman, has a gay liaison with a visiting Duke, and Mary has premarital sex with a brown-skinned foreigner who later dies in her bed. Does Downton Abbey occasionally veer into romance-novel kitsch? Absolutely. But part of what makes the series so irresistible is that it indulges so many period-piece fantasies of transgression. It’s the stuff we daydreamed about while reading Jane Eyre back in high school—if not what was actually on the pages.
But with Downton Abbey, Fellowes has done much more than simply pen some memorable bon mots. He’s created a cast of rich characters, each of whom traces a believable arc over the course of the season. Most compelling of all is Mary, the vivacious and embittered eldest Crawley daughter. When we first meet her, Mary is abrasive and unsympathetic. Her cousin and sort-of-fiancé, Patrick, has just drowned, yet she complains about having to go into mourning. Her reaction seems impossibly cold and self-centered. But as the series progresses and Mary’s dilemma worsens, it’s hard not to sympathize with her—and even to like her. We come to understand that she’s not cold, really, but justifiably cynical about the various suitors thrust at her with increasing desperation. Sybil might be the sister who wears pants and attends political rallies, but Mary is the one who most acutely resents the gender inequities of Edwardian society. She says it’s “too ludicrous for words” that her family’s money will go to a distant cousin, and she’s right.
The romance between Mary and Matthew, though hardly unexpected, also develops in a convincing way. Of course, the trajectory of their relationship will be familiar to anyone who has ever read Pride and Prejudice—or, you know, seen Bridget Jones’s Diary. Like Elizabeth, Mary is initially certain she hates Matthew (she calls him the “Sea Monster”), and, like Darcy, Matthew practices his own brand of reverse-snobbery, believing that he is too good to have servants wait on him. Both Mary and Matthew are gradually humbled by their circumstances, and come to admire—and maybe even love—each other. But Mary is never quite willing to give in to her feelings for Matthew. On one level, it seems she desperately wants to marry Matthew and knows that she could be happy whether or not he is, ultimately, the heir to Downton. But there are two seemingly contradictory obstacles to her accepting his proposal: Mary is too sensitive to outside influence and opinions, and, at the same time, she’s also incredibly stubborn, resistant to accept the “tidy” solution to her problems, even though it’s also the one that would make her the happiest. Matthew’s decision to rescind the engagement and move back to Manchester is equally understandable.
Based on the laws of period-piece physics, it seems inevitable that these two will end up together; I just wonder how they’ll get there. I’m also curious as to whether Mr. Evelyn Napier, one of Mary’s thwarted suitors, will return in season two. It hardly seemed an accident that, when he came to visit her in London, he had just broken off an engagement. He also didn’t seem too bothered by the rumor about Mary and Pamuk, which, let’s face it, would be a deal-breaker for most other men of his ilk.
There are several other relationships in a state of uncertainty. The sweet friendship between Anna and Bates has slowly blossomed into a tentative relationship, though Bates’s past—specifically the small fact that he’s still married to someone else—is holding him back from making the leap. Anna’s resolve in tracking down Bates’ mother in order to find out the truth about his time in prison was impressive. For his part, Bates seems both awed and flattered by Anna’s resolve. For two decent and kind characters, Anna and Bates are never boring, which is quite a feat. Romance is brewing elsewhere, too. Daisy might have the world’s worst gay-dar, but she does finally realize that Thomas is a creep and switches her affections to the adoring William. Branson, the family driver, has developed a crush on Sybil, the youngest and most rebellious Crawley sister. Will Sybil return his affections and settle down with an Irish socialist?
The possibilities are indeed enticing. The second season of Downton Abbey is set to go into production next month, and I have only one modest spoiler to share with you all. In a live chat with PBS online, cast member Dan Stevens divulged one scintillating detail. Season two picks up in 1916, two years into the Great War. That’s quite a leap from the finale, which took place in July of 1914, so we can expect some dramatic changes in season two. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that every last soul at Downton Abbey will survive the war. At the risk of being crass, I’m wondering who’s going to kick the bucket.
My hunch is that Matthew will be safe. His death might make things more interesting on Downton Abbey, especially if Sir Robert has to track down another distant male relative, but I doubt Fellowes would dash our hopes of a Matthew-Mary union so wantonly, much less introduce a new presumptive heir so late in the game. So what about the servants? Maybe the conniving Thomas, who’s already signed up as a volunteer, will get his comeuppance in the trenches somewhere? I doubt it. Thomas knows too many secrets to get killed; if he dies, then he can’t come back to blackmail the Crawley family, as he surely will do at some point. Of all the servants, I’d say William is the most likely to become cannon fodder: He’s not that essential, and, honestly, we’re not that attached. The real shocker would be to kill off Sir Robert himself, which would leave the future of the estate even more uncertain than it is now. Regardless of who does or doesn’t survive, the war will bring cataclysmic changes to England, and to Downton Abbey.
Please, join me in speculating wildly about what might be ahead.