Monday, January 9, 2012


Well, it certainly was worth the wait.

Season two of Downton Abbey opened with very PBS-like fanfare -- a one minute interview by PBS president Neal Shapiro with Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) and a brief introduction to the episode by Laura Linney all dressed up in a suitably elegant black lace dress. We appreciate the gesture, but it wasn't really necessary to have the actress with a penchant for period pieces introduce the season as a way to class up the joint. As Lady Cora likes to say: "No need to gild the lily, dear."

With those distractions out of the way, it took all of a minute to be transported back in time -- to 1916 to be exact. The season's first scene which depicted Matthew (Dan Stevens)leading his men in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme told us this is going to be a very different season at Downton, indeed. Life back at the sprawling Edwardian estate seems "like another world" recalled Matthew to a fellow solider. And now, a greatly changed one for sure.

Cue music and with that, the show's familiar haunting soundtrack swept us back to that fantastical place where politeness and propriety still reigns in the face of war, but not without its challenges.(Last night, the use of music was particularly effective. The show should be sponsored by Kleenex!) Stoic and steadfast Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, never better) works himself sick because he believes "keeping up standards is the only way to let the Germans know they will not beat us in the end." Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) grapples with the realization his days on the battlefield are over and is a bit shamed and chagrined to learn his role as a colonel in this new war is largely ceremonial -- he is charged with 'keeping the spirits up at home.' Lady Grantham is left wistfully to watch her daughters grapple with finding out who they are in the face of the changes the winds of war have brought upon the family and the servants.

"War makes early risers of us all," announces the Dowager Countess as she arrives one morning as Lord and Lady Grantham are directing the staff to prepare for a fundraising concert to be held that evening at Downton to help the war effort. Maggie Smith is off and running when her countess helpfully volunteers to oversee the flower arrangements. She fires the first of many deliciously acerbic one liners with impeccable timing. Upon assessing Cora's efforts she surmises the bouquets "look like something from a first communion .... in southern Italy."

We're quickly brought up to speed on Crawley's three daughters. The perpetually overlooked Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael)has taken up driving having had lessons from Branson, the chauffeur (who, I predict, is going to attract quite a following this season)and announces one night at dinner that she's told some neighbors that she's be happy to drive a tractor to help them care for their farm. After all, she reasons, there will soon be no men left at home for such work so she might as well make the best of it. And she does, falling for the farmer which doesn't sit well with his wife. Something tells me she isn't going to just take the latest in a long line of rejections in stride.

Encouraged by Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Lady Sybill (Jessica Brown-Findlay), intent on making a contribution to the war effort ("I want to do real work") goes off to work at a nearby hospital in York. Before she leaves, she enlists the aid of the kitchen staff who teach her how to boil water (literally). She winds up in a hospital working with the former duplicitous butler Thomas, who managed to get himself sent home from battle by putting himself in harm's way. (More on him later)

While both her younger sisters are grappling with the changes at home, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has gone off to London. When she returns, she learns that Matthew is engaged (spitefully Edith couldn't wait to tell her) to Lavina Swire (Zoe Boyle)and that the man she still loves and his new fiancee are expected for to attend the concert and dinner at Downton that very night.

Julian Fellowes manages to pack more in the first half hour of this episode than most network producers unspool in an entire season. Yet nothing felt rushed or forced. It was simply brilliant storytelling and never more so when he gives viewers the kiss they've been waiting for between long suffering Bates and Anna. Having returned from London on the same train as Mary after his mother's death with news that he's inherited more money than he'd known about, he tells Anna that he can finally divorce his wife since she'll take the money and run. He tells her they can go off and buy a small hotel and start a family. "In my whole life, I never thought I could be this happy," a glowing Anna tells Bates. The actors (the equally wonderful Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)played the scene with such a palpable longing making what followed almost unbearable to watch.

A woman seen from the back wearing a large black hat (A coincidence? We think not) is heard telling Ethel, the new housemaid (who, not so subtly represents the many cultural changes afoot in the mansion with her outspokenness over her resolution to'better herself')about some salacious gossip about the family. She is none other than the long lost Mrs. Bates. I hated her on sight. Her voice dripping with venom, she introduces herself to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Anna. In short order, she's blackmailed Bates into leaving Downton with threats of going public with the ruinous story of Mary's ill fated night with Mr. Pamuk. Having no choice (in his mind) but to sacrifice happiness for the sake of the Crawleys, Bates, offering no explanation to Lord Grantham, resigns his post. Lord Grantham, who is becoming increasingly agitated about the torrent of changes he can't control happening all around him explodes "I've never been so disappointed" while Bates silently endures his tirade.

I was literally sobbing by the time Bates said good-bye to Anna telling her his wife reminded him he was a married man and he needed to go off an honor his vows. While Anna knew this couldn't possibly be the truth, Bates offered her no other explanation despite her pleas not to do anything if it was to save Anna from whatever his horrid wife had in store. But it was no use. It was over. But is it? Mrs. Hughes, who'd lent the estranged couple her office for their reunion chat, was listening at the grate outside heard the long sordid thing and knows the real story behind Bates' hasty departure. She later shared what she knew with Mr. Carson. We found the picture below on the PBS website today, so we're hoping there's a glimmer of happiness for our favorite Downton couple down the road.

Downton's other star crossed would-be lovers, Lady Mary and Matthew exchanged glances across the crowded parlour when he arrives with Lavina. "Well, looks aren't everything," sniped the Dowager Countess as everyone was on their best behavior pretending to be happy for everybody else. Matthew, upon receiving congratulations from Mary, asks her if she's happy. "I'm about to be, does that count?" We doubt it. For the rest of the episode, the former couple treat each other gingerly while juggling their new romances. I thought Fellowes did a particularly good job with making us care about the couple. Honestly, I didn't see that strong of a connection between Lady Mary and Matthew last season so one has to surmise that with them it's a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (Their good-bye scene at the train station was positively cinematic. We're sure the stuffed dog Mary offers her former love for good luck will figure prominently in future episodes. Will Matthew go missing in battle leaving the tiny trinket behind? Stay tuned) Now that they are involved with others, there seem more in love than ever which can only mean some terrific things for future episodes.

Of course, Mary wouldn't be Mary if she wasn't sabotaging her prospects for a happy life. On that score, she has asked her father to welcome her latest suitor, Richard Carlisle, to Downton which displeases just about everyone. He's a self-made man whose money comes from sensational tabloid newspapers with little regard for keeping up appearances among the aristocratic set but possesses a keen understanding of what a wife to the manor born could mean for his fortunes. "The hawker of newspaper scandal" as Lord Grantham calls him is clearly a harbinger of nasty things to come. Later, when Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) hears him arguing with none other than Lavinia in the gardens we know he's up to no good and that's bound to mean trouble for the entire lot.

With so much to do with these major storylines, Fellowes somehow managed to bring viewers up to date on what was happening with all of the servants and there were plenty of surprises on that front, too. I'm not crazy about the new servants or those formerly in the background that have been given more to do this season but that's because their screen time takes precious minutes away from the favorites of season one.

There is one actor whose work in last night's episode warrants a special mention because he was given so much more to do this go round and more than delivered the goods. Thomas' storyline is quite compelling and a well drawn bridge between the house's upstairs-downstairs worlds. Kudos to Rob James-Collier for giving viewers a glimpse into the former footman's tortured psyche. All of Thomas' scheming to secure a place in the medical core in hopes of saving himself from the worst of the war has clearly backfired. When we see him again he's positively terrified on the battlefield. His plans to get himself back to Downton are aided by his old ally O'Brien. He's successful (but not exactly welcomed with open arms). The move proves costly as it land him in unfamiliar emotional territory when he has to grapple with a tragic unexpected loss.

Who knew that a series about love and loss among the emotional ruins of one family and their servants alive during the waning years of British empire would prove to be the most addictive drama to come along in ages. "There is never a dull moment in this house," says the Dowager Countess as she assures a dinner guest when things go awry. We're counting on it.

See you next Sunday!

Photos: Courtesy of PBS

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Blogger RosieP said...

Poor Lavinia. She is being used as rebound by Matthew and most of the fans are inclined to view her as something that is “ugh”.

Carson got on my nerves with his snobbish view of Lavinia. Robert got on my nerves with his petulant reaction to Bates’ departure and his constant carping about having nothing to do. The Dowager Countess got on my nerves with her constant one-liners – especially when they were directed at Lavinia Sybil and Branson are boring as a couple. And I must admit that I am finally getting tired of the Mary/Matthew love fest. And I’m getting tired of Bates’ martyrdom. I mean . . . why did he think it was necessary to return to Vera for Mary’s sake? She was the idiot who had decided to have sex with a Turkish diplomat.

Thankfully, the episode did feature moments that maintained my interest in the series – especially the scenes featuring the battlefront in France - especially the scene in which Thomas exposes his hand in order to find an excuse to be sent back to England.

I find it interesting on how many tend to comment on Lady Edith’s nastiness and yet, completely ignore the fact that Lady Mary could be equally nasty. After all, it was Mary who made a swipe at her mother’s expense by making that nasty comment about Cora’s "American blood". Separately, both Edith and Mary can be very nice women. But that pleasantry is usually tossed into the wind whenever they are around each other. It’s strange that very few people tend to notice this.

January 10, 2012 at 6:13 PM  

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