Downton Abbey finally, FINALLY returned to Masterpiece Classic last night and oh my WORD was it worth the wait. There's so, SO much I want to talk about -- but rather than make this a who's who post, I think I shall endeavor to dive right in and talk about the relationships and story developments that intrigued me most. Of course, if I leave something out (oh the HORROR *wink*), fee free to bring it up in the comments. :) Here's the Episode 1 summary from the PBS website:
Fall 1916 — Spring 1917
In the throes of the Great War, uncertainty and worry have taken up residence in the great house of Downton Abbey. Some newcomers arrive, met with varying degrees of welcome; some young men are absent, desperately clinging to survival in the trenches of France; and some men remain at Downton, their discontent festering.
Robert, ever the honorable patriarch, struggles with the uneasiness of a diminished house and the suspicion that the uniform he wears is empty. The Crawley women, too, attempt to find their place in the new climate, as Isobel helps chart a new course for one sister and Branson exerts his influence over yet another. Among the servants, love is in the air — O'Brien being, as always, the exception — until Bates makes a decision that crushes the hearts of the two people who love him most.
News about Matthew stuns the house, and Mary has a revelation of her own. Downton Abbey itself is to be made useful, transformed into a convalescent home for wounded officers. In wartime, not even the seemingly immutable Dowager Countess, Violet, remains entirely unchanged!
While Series 1 ended with the declaration of war, Series 2 opens two years later, with the war in full swing and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) in the thick of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. The stark contrast between the filth and danger of trenchwarfare and life at Downton Abbey is stark and jarring. At first blush, life at Downton seems almost unchanged -- there is still a miniature army of servants, under the "command" of Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the butler, tending to the upkeep of the great house and the needs of its privileged family. But upon closer examination, the staff is running thin, absent of one footman -- the conniving, EVIL Thomas (Rob James-Collier) -- with the remaining one, William (Thomas Hawes), eager to fight -- and the great hall transformed into a concert stage for a hospital fundraiser. It's fascinating to me to see individuals like Mr. Carson, driven to see the status quo maintained even at the expense of their health, when the war is hell-bent on changing everything, and way of life that Downton and its inhabitants have enjoyed is past its zenith.
The first big news of this installment is Matthew's engagement to Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle), daughter of a solicitor. His mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) brings the news that he plans to bring Lavinia to Downton, coinciding with Mary's (Michelle Dockery) return home, crushing Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora's (Elizabeth McGovern) hopes that their heir would reconcile with their headstrong eldest daughter. Lady Mary can be a bit of a mess, but despite that she is one of my favorite members of the Crawley family, and in the two years since we last saw her on-screen she appears to have mellowed somewhat. Though we're not given much of an idea of what she's been up to -- other than living in London -- it seems clear that the long reach of the war has managed to give her some perspective. And her veneer of strength in the face of the news of Matthew's engagement, followed by her collapse and later, heartfelt prayers for his safety, just killed me. So yeah -- I can't stand Lavinia and I'm sure she's too syrupy sweet for her own good.
The middle Crawley daughter, Edith (Laura Carmichael), has really shot any good will I tried to muster for her after Series 1. I had felt kind of bad for her -- she seems to have that classic overlooked middle child thing going on -- but the glee with which she sprung Matthew's engagement on Mary just screamed harpy to me. And while I think it is interesting that she's the one who insists on learning to drive, really a bit of forward-thinking there, her fascination with a hick MARRIED FARMER just cracked me up. And she thinks Mary has poor judgment?! Just sayin'...
It looks like I'm going to get my wish from last season for more Branson the chauffeur (Allen Leech) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) moments, THANK YOU Julian Fellowes! :) They give Bates and Anna a run for the honor of favorite couple. SERIOUSLY. Could Branson get any more freaking vulnerable and adorable and PERFECT?! I love how Leech plays Branson's unease at various points throughout these two hours and being one of the few men not in uniform. And his blatant adoration for Sybil just KILLS me. Sybil, with her compassionate heart, is of course going to be the first Downton daughter to step WAY outside her comfort zone and train to become an auxiliary nurse. (Side note: loved her cooking lessons, and Cora's pride in her daughter's most irregular accomplishments!) When Branson drops Sybil off for nursing training and declares HIS LOVE, how, HOW on earth did Sybil just stand there? If she breaks his heart I will be CRUSHED! What fascinates me about their dynamic is how she represents everything that frustrated him about the class system in Series 1, but in the years since his arrival at Downton he's apparently fallen hard for the Earl's youngest daughter. I loved the moment towards the end of this installment where Branson dares to let slip to Cora that Sybil will probably want to skip a family dinner in favor of nursing work -- he seems to believe in her and what she wants to do more than anyone else. Plus he's always looking at her with just a touch of awe, as if she hung the friggin' moon. Sybil m'dear you could do MUCH WORSE than marry a man who adores you. Just sayin'! :)
Now on to my other favorite couple -- Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Recalling how Bates went through absolute hell when he first arrived at Downton, I loved hearing the rest of the staff sing his praises and recognize what a flipping GEM he is. :) They get about five minutes of happiness before that gets all shot to hell but oh what a wonderful moment. With the inheritance from his mother, Bates is sure he'll finally be able to convince his wife to grant him a divorce. When he and Anna start making plans for the future (living in a cottage on the grounds! starting a family! running a small hotel together -- SQUEE!!!), I could've cried because Anna was so perfectly, wonderfully, incandescently happy. And then the other shoe drops with the arrival of Mrs. Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who is a vile, conniving SHREW (and yes, when Bates called her a bitch I cheered). When she blackmails Bates into leaving with her, threatening to expose Lady Mary's scandalous behavior with the ill-fated Turkish diplomat, oh my goodness I wanted to throttle her. Bates's nobility in refusing to divulge the real reason behind his sudden departure to the Earl, Anna's loyalty and faithfulness while having all of her dreams STOMPED on -- oh that second hour sans Bates was painful.
Robert is in an interesting and dangerous position at the start of this series. He was noted for his nobility and kindness throughout Series 1, but with a war on and the social dynamic he's existed within all his life changing and realigning, he's a bit adrift. It was quite painful to see the realization that his services are not required or wanted in the active duty army, and I suspect this sense of uselessness and discontent will be an open door for who knows what sort of turmoil in his personal life. His relationship with Cora doesn't seem to be nearly as solid as it was throughout Series 1, and that makes me extraordinarily nervous. As lady of the house Cora has been able to maintain her position and role in life and her family to a large degree, unlike her husband who chafes at being relegated to a figurehead role.
Vera skyrocketed to the "honor" of villain #1 after last night, but we also saw the return of Thomas and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), the latter Cora's lady's maid. Thomas has obviously not remained unaffected by his work as as a medic in the trenches -- but I still don't trust him as far as I can throw him. He manages to get himself shot and with carefully planted suggestions to Cora from O'Brien, get himself transferred to work at the hospital near Downton. I would love to see him become a better person, but for as nice as he tried to be to the despairing officer blinded by a gas attack, I rather suspect that the harsh realities of war and its aftermath will solidify his conniving and power plays. (Feel free to prove me wrong, Thomas!)
O'Brien is a bit of a puzzle. On one hand, I'm shocked by her audacity in conveniently "forgetting" that she caused Cora to miscarry her baby two years earlier, and after THAT debacle she still constantly manipulates her mistress into getting her own way. (Of course Cora rather asks for it sometimes, but as O'Brien is the instigator I lay most of the blame at her door.) What interests me about her character here is the flash of humanity and compassion she shows towards Bates's replacement, Mr. Lang (Cal Macanich), a victim of shell-shock. When watching the episode last night, my first thought was that she was intent on corrupting him, but a friend on Facebook suggested the possibility that O'Brien isn't immune to love -- and THAT my friends would be an extraordinary twist for a character renowned for her selfishness. Thoughts?
I really should say something about the newbies, shouldn't I? First of all, the new maid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is getting on my last nerve. That girl is going to be TROUBLE! (The main signal to that point being that I was actually glad O'Brien was giving her a hard time, go figure!) I get that you want to better your lot in life, etc., but do you have to belittle and alienate everyone else while you're at it?? YEESH. Also, I need theories about what dark secrets Lavinia is hiding from Matthew (I'm guessing it is an illegitmate child)! Because her meeting with Mary's latest suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), was a quick signal that that rebound relationship is surely doomed. Speaking of Mary's newspaper/gossip rag magnate (depending on your point-of-view), why oh why does Glen's return to a meaty period drama (he played the oily Mr. Preston in Wives and Daughters) have to be playing ANOTHER less-than-honorable character? I think he has a nice face. *sigh*
AND let's see, who else haven't I talked about? Oh, poor Daisy (Sophie McShera)! I fear she is headed for a world of hurt in dealing with William -- he's become more assertive and she just doesn't seem to have it in her to set proper relationship boundaries. *sigh* Also, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) -- oh I LOVE her. That woman is a trip! Especially enjoyed her take on Sybil's desire to learn to cook. *wink* And isn't Mrs. Hughes's (Phyllis Logan) loyalty and concern for Carson too sweet?? Oh and I mustn't forget Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) -- she is as full of herself as ever. Now that Downton is slated to become a convalescence hospital, I predict many a clash with Isobel and Cora over the propriety of such a move.