Delving into the first season of this show for me is like returning to an old friend after a long absence — there is some truth in the statement that it makes the heart grow fonder, but much of it is the remembrance of just why this series managed to edge out the formidable Bleak House in my list of absolute favorite costume dramas. Simply put, the first season is just cracking good stuff. It is full of little character moments that do not seem to much further the plot but give us insight into the lives these individuals lead and their roles in it. The first season was about more than drama and angst (though there is plenty of it) but also… characterization. I see the problem the second season faces in trying to match it, in trying to improve on it, but I don’t think it has captured the magic that rests with our initial visit to Downton.
Within the course of this episode, Cousin Matthew arrives in town and makes a bad impression on Mary. His desperate attempts to make it up to her go unrewarded and met with biting sarcasm, the most magnificent of which is comparing him to a “sea monster.” He quite innocently renders poor Molesley all but useless (and it looks very bad to make a grown man nearly cry since he cannot hand anyone a crumpet or help him with his coat) as he insists on doing everything for himself — a proper lower-class man, then, unaccustomed to being waited on hand and foot and not at all pleased about it. His mother finds an immediate enemy in Lady Violet, who doesn’t much care for her interferences at the hospital or the casual manner on which she presumes to to interact with them. Oh, and Carson is Found Out as a two-penny showman being blackmailed by a former associate, by Anna and Bates, who cannot hide their amusement. And of course we see Mrs. Hughes and Carson interacting again. Her liking for him is practically stamped on her forehead — I don’t know how the old bloke can miss it. Plainly put, it’s brilliant stuff and this is probably my single favorite of all the episodes.
It is sometimes said that the best romances start with an argument or immediate dislike. It was clear from the moment Mary set foot in the Crawley house that this was going to be a memorable romance — fraught with misunderstandings, dirty looks, resentment on both sides, and the finest insults the upper class has to offer. Matthew is like a breath of fresh air to Downton in more ways than one. In a world in which servants are taken for granted and snobbery is the first reaction, his hardworking mentality, his determination not to become too idle, and his willingness to change makes him instantly likable. In that regard he stands very near Sir Robert as far as Characters We Can Respect. I love the fact that at first, he sees Downton only as bricks and mortor, as a place but not yet as a home, but also that he is able to come to see that running it is not all about him. Being an earl ultimately carries the responsibility of numerous households and families, of offering as many people employment as it can — including poor Molesley. I liked Matthew from the offset, but I think the moment in which I fell in love with him was when he graciously and politely, without any fanfare, made room in his new life for his manservant to fulfill his duties and feel valued again.
Mary’s position is understandable, of course, her anger at having been fobbed off on one relative in the hopes of keeping all her mother’s lovely money in the household and now her assumption that they’re going to try and fob her off on another. Still, her pettiness and high-class temper tantrum is evident. In that respect, she greatly resembles her grandmother, who does not like to be challenged. Her tactics are to argue and fight, since she has not yet learned the art of managing Isobel to her satisfaction. The interesting thing to note is how alike yet different the women are in their emotions and approaches to those in need; both are empathetic and concerned with the welfare of others, but Violet approaches it from the position of protection and acceptance. Her instinct is to prepare them for the inevitable and make them as comfortable as she can — or to see how she might prevail upon her considerable influences to manage their care and surroundings. Isobel is more practical, a risk-taker, willing to bet the farm on the outcome and unwilling to go down without a fight. Essentially, they are the same basic desires from two very different upbringings, one in which you are the caretaker and the other in which matters must be taken into your own hands. I love how Sir Robert shifts them onto equal ground so that they can battle it out without involving any of the rest of them.
Ah, but the kicker for me takes place primarily downstairs, with Carson doing his best to remain dignified while feeling insecure about his position at the house and his past. He is ashamed of it, concerned that a wage earned in a song and dance troupe might not be seen as proper enough to allow him to run a great old country house. It is a tad bit humorous to see him put on so many airs, since so many of them are pretend, but his distress is also touching. I rather think his past makes him even more endearing than he was before — and that’s difficult, considering that from the offset he was one of my favorites. Carson has a difficult position in that he cannot confide in anyone — he shares the secrets of the house with Mrs. Hughes, but as the head butler he must maintain a sense of authority and distance from the staff. Familiarity brings on disrespect and conflict but so long as he is respected, all runs without a hitch, and that is a very lonely place to be. He is surrounded by people, yet the only true interaction he ever has is in those quiet moments with Mrs. Hughes, in which much is said between the lines.
So often our lives are caught up in our own little world and we forget that other people enter into it, that they have hopes and dreams and ambitions and a need to be needed. Sometimes, like Matthew, we simply must let them.