Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Addicted to Downton Abbey

I admit it: I'm a complete and utter devotee to period dramas. Give me Colin Firth in A&E's Pride and Prejudice or Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant in Sense and Sensibility. Speaking of Winslet, I'll even take Titanic if I'm desperate enough. There's simply nothing as decadent yet relaxing as the lovely costumes and journey back in time to a kinder, gentler time. (Although "kinder and gentler" may not truly apply to the reality of the past, but I'll take the linens and lace any day over technology and rush-rush busy-ness.)

So when I first heard of Britain's Downton Abbey, I was a fan before I even began to watch the first episode. Elizabeth, our almost 20-year-old daughter, and I frantically watched Season 1 during our Christmas Break so as to be prepared for PBS's showing of Season 2. And not only was our daughter, predictably, glued to the screen with baited breath, but our three boys, aged 12, 14, and 16, were mesmerized, too...and not only by the cool explosions that heralded The Great War, known to later generations as World War I. The characters are intriguing, the plot twists unexpected, and the kinder, gentler time is transformed by world events, namely The Great War.

Created and often written by Julian Fellowes (whom we remember well from another British import, Monarch of the Glen), writer and producer of Gosford Park, Downton Abbey follows Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his family who resides in the stately and lovely English country manor, Downton Abbey, as well as the staff who keep the manor house running smoothly behind the scenes.

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead! If you do not wish to know the plot of Downton Abbey, then do NOT read further.

Downton Abbey opens in Season 1 with the sinking of the Titanic which apparently kills the heir to Downtown as the Earl and Countess of Grantham (the latter an American) have only had female progeny. So a new heir is produced, Matthew Crawley, an attorney, who is then moved to the grounds of Downton as Lord Grantham grooms him to take over Downton after the present Lord Grantham's death. Along with Matthew comes his widowed mother who is a very take-charge kind of woman, a former nurse, in fact. Mrs. Crawley immediately finds herself with horns locked with "Cousin Violet," otherwise known as the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played brilliantly by Maggie Smith, below).

The idea is to marry the Earl and Countess of Grantham's eldest daughter, Mary, to the new heir as she had been engaged to Cousin Patrick, the heir seemingly killed in the sinking of the Titanic. But Mary and Matthew make very poor first impressions upon one another, and that plan for the safety of Lady Grantham's money, which has been invested into Downton and is "rightfully" due to Mary Crawley, is now at odds.

Yet Mary and Matthew are unaccountably attracted to one another, and the tension is incredible between the two. Mary ends up embroiled in a situation that could ruin her socially if known, and Lady Grantham, Anna Mary's maid, and Mary herself find themselves hiding the death of a guest who passed away in Mary's bed. If this situation were known, Mary's reputation would be utterly ruined.

Meanwhile drama also ensues belowstairs among the servants whose drama is just as stirring and poignant as the drama abovestairs. Carson the Butler reigns supreme, with his queen, Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper. Miss O'Brien, lady's maid to the Countess of Grantham, and Thomas the footman, are constantly plotting and scheming, especially when Lord Grantham's friend from the military, Mr. Bates, arrives to be Lord Grantham's valet, the place Thomas wanted for himself.

Mr. Bates and Anna, the head housemaid and maid to the three young ladies, especially Mary, fall in love, but their courtship is complicated by the horridly greedy Mrs. Bates who vows to reveal Lady Mary's indiscretion which she heard as a rumor yet is more than willing to spread in order to entrap her husband. While Bates seeks a divorce (quite the scandal, even among servants), other maids and servants come and go. A lot of attention is also devoted to Mrs. Pattmore, the cook, and Daisy, the scullery maid.

Season 2 opens with the beginning of The Great War as Matthew and several of the younger manservants leave Downton to fight in the bloody Fields of Flanders. Mary has realized she loves Matthew, yet Matthew has become engaged to Lavinia, a sweet but ineffectual young lady more of Matthew's class than that of grand Downton Abbey. Yet Mary, essentially a selfish being, treats Lavinia kindly for Matthew's sake. The two younger sisters take their turns at the freedoms the war brings, Edith learning to drive and then helping with farming, and Sybil becoming a trained nurse. Sybil, the youngest, ends up slowly falling in love with, of all people, the chauffeur who loves her for far longer and waits for Sybil to realize her love.

Matthew takes William, the underfootman, with him to battle as his "man," and on the battlefield during the "final push," and William manages to save Matthew's life while going home to Downton to die of his injuries. Matthew's life is spared, thanks to William, but he returns paralyzed and refuses to subject his beloved Lavinia to a life with only the farce of a marriage as consummation would be out of the question.

Engaged to an upstart newspaper mogul in order to quiet her secret, Mary nurses Matthew throughout his recovery, and he accepts her help because she is an engaged woman and thus is "safe"--i.e., can't fall in love with him. Miraculously, Matthew regains the use of his legs, and he and Lavinia renew their engagement. But mere days before the wedding, Downton Abbey is struck with the Spanish Influenza and while the Countess of Grantham nearly dies, Lavinia does so, giving up hope of marrying Matthew after seeing Matthew kiss Mary in secret.

Matthew decides that he and Mary are "cursed" and are responsible for Lavinia's death, so he refuses to push forward with their relationship. Mary's fiance is vastly jealous of Matthew, seeing Mary's uncommon regard for him and threatens Mary with the exposure of her shame. Mary tells Matthew of it when he questions her marriage to such a man. Matthew, however, does not hold Mary's indiscretion against her, and Season 2 ends with Matthew proposing to Mary in the Christmas snow.

Much more happens, of course, especially belowstairs, but I want to leave some surprises for you!!! Downton Abbey has truly become an addiction for me and Elizabeth, and for many, many more British and American fans. With such a stellar cast, headed by Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, and Maggie Smith, it is extremely difficult to wait for next January for the showing of Season 3 here in the States on PBS. It's quite amazing how a mere seventeen episodes can be sooooo mesmerizing and so addictive.

Waiting impatiently for Season 3,

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