The Brits are full-on in the midst of the second season of Downton Abbey (and most were in tears last night when a member of the household met his unfortunate end) but while we Americans wait none-too-patiently for it to reach this side of the pond on PBS in January, I thought it might be fun to do a series re-watch with a friend. If any of you are interested, please speak up and join in on the discussion as over the next seven weeks or so, we devote our weekends to visiting our favorite country house. Admittedly, I know what is happening in season two firsthand but I will keep as many spoilers to myself as possible. Having said that, entering through the doors into Downton’s first episode last night left me in mild shock, because so much has changed and I had quite forgotten how horrid the characters are at the start…
In the first episode, we enter into the full-blown hysteria that the sinking of the RMS Titanic leaves on the house, a rally cry taken up by the women surrounding Mary as they realize that their plans to marry her off to her cousin and the inheritor of Downton have come to an end in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. In the frantic rush to figure out some way to sever the finances from the estate so as not to leave the girls destitute, Cora and Lady Violet reach an unusual temporary peace and share a mutual interest in the outcome, while Lord Robert is somewhat more reluctant to break with tradition and admits that his father was cleverer than he gave him credit for. Mary sets her sights on a wealthy aristocrat, who insults her father at dinner with his admission that he has no interest in marrying her at all, and we learn he has been dallying with the under-valet, Thomas. Bumped not only out of one job but two with the arrival of Bates, Lord Robert’s valet from his war days, Thomas spreads his bitterness amongst the house staff, igniting concern in the head butler, Carson, that Bates cannot do the job, while Thomas’ friend O’Brien shares her poison upstairs in turning Cora against him.
Having not seen this miniseries in nine months (due mostly to an overdose at the time of its American release — I watched it four times in the span of six weeks), it was somewhat unusual to it and realize how different the beginning is from the end — by the end, the servants have swayed to Bates’ side, Lord Robert and Cora have been through more important matters than arguing over the duties of his valet, and Thomas has finagled his way out of the house into the safest place he thinks he can be with the war looming. Given the frantic pacing of the second series, it’s comforting to meander back into a time when life at Downton was quiet and things took awhile to unfold. Thus, I will stick to the particulars of this first episode and not venture too much into the future. I think this is where Julian Fellowes earned his Emmy, in the quiet nuances of the house, the details that most viewers wouldn’t even think about, the charms of Daisy dashing about with a bowl of chicken in one hand and a bowl of poison in the other. Our not-so-subtle realization that Robert married Cora for her money and his mother still doesn’t approve, twenty years later; that it took him a year to fall passionately in love with his wife.
My mother remarked midway through the series that she couldn’t understand why two such lovely people had such horrid, vindictive girls, but I think in the pilot we can pretty much see where Mary and Edith inherited their nastiness — from their mother. Cora’s verbal meanness toward Bates, based entirely on the remarks of the maid rather than consulting her husband’s opinion, reveal not only her snobbishness but her selfishness — if she bothered to think about it, she would realize Bates is unlikely to find a position anywhere else, and looking after him is of importance to a man such as her husband, who feels a certain obligation toward the members of his staff. Cora is not British and doesn’t understand the mentality of English landowners, in which servants are not merely disposable servants, but considered in many ways as extended members of the House Family. I must admit, I really don’t like Cora much at this point in time — nor Mary, although I feel slightly for her desperation, or Edith, who would not get such nasty responses if she did not put out such nasty questions.
The best television (or books, or plays, or movies, for that matter) are subtle in their approach and do not spell out everything — and I think the best subtlety in this episode is establishing the roles of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes and their relationship. It is apparent to anyone with eyes that she likes him, and by that I mean like-likes him. And what’s more, I don’t think Carson has given it a moment’s thought or is even aware of it. In old country estates such as this, the downstairs staff was rather segregated — the men fell beneath the jurisdiction of the Head Butler and the women were beneath the leadership and “rule” of the Housekeeper. Thus, we have an unusual, almost family-like dynamic going on in which Carson and Mrs. Hughes are acting in the parental roles, a marriage of work responsibilities but not of persons. One of my favorite moments is when Mrs. Hughes inquires of Carson if he ever laments this choice, if he would have been happier with a wife and children. It is something she has obviously thought about over the years. Whether her affection for him was in the script or a decision of the actress, it adds so much to the story, an almost peaceful sense of affection that softens their scenes together.
Bates is such a pathetic creature that one can easily see why Anna became fond of and even protective of him — I felt the same way midway through the episode when O’Brien kicked his legs out from under him and left him sprawled in the dirt. If they wanted us to hate the nasty old cow, it worked. I really hate to see a grown man cry and his muffled sobbing in the servants’ quarters when he was temporarily let go broke my heart — as did watching him prepare to leave. My first viewing I was screaming at Lord Robert to run after him, my insistences becoming louder and louder as the car pulled down the drive… and not much has changed. I still experience despair and the fear that Robert will not run after him, that somehow the storyline will change and we’ll have seen the last of poor, pathetic Bates trundling down the road, away from the people that come to love and respect him in the months to come.
It was a difficult thing, stopping at the conclusion of the first episode, and it will be equally difficult waiting a week to continue, because even though I know what happens, I still cannot wait to see what happens next!