Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer TV Rewind: Downton Abbey 1.01

“Every mountain is unclimbable until someone climbs it, so every ship is unsinkable until it sinks.”
-Lord Grantham

This summer, I’ll be looking back at several shows, the first of which is “Downton Abbey.” “Downton” aired on cable channel ITV in the UK and on PBS here in the States. It’s essentially a soap opera in Jane Austen (well, a couple decades after Jane Austen, but still English manor culture) trappings. We follow the ups and downs of the Crawley family, led by Robert, Earl of Grantham, as they try to navigate a period of drastic change in the world and for the British aristocracy. Lord Grantham has an American wife, Cora, who he married for her money (which was needed to save Downton) but has since come to love. They have three daughters, the prickly Mary, Edith with an inferiority complex, and Sybil the idealist. In the tradition of classic shows such as “Upstairs, Downstairs,” we follow the lives of Downton’s servants as well, and in some cases, they are even more interesting than the folks upstairs. All of the characters deal with the trials of everyday life (and some occasional heightened drama, because this is television after all) as their way of life, due to world events, is rapidly drawing to a close.

The series opens in 1912 as the Crawley family gets some devastating news. The Titanic has sunk, and the men who were the next two family members to be in line for Robert’s title, his cousin and his cousin’s son Patrick, were unexpectedly aboard. The opening scene where new Downton valet Mr. Bates and the telegram with the news are traveling along the same route was rather beautifully artistic. As is typical in these types of stories, Downton and the overall Grantham estate is subject to an entail (the property interest is called the “fee tail” when you study it in American law school). This means that only the closest male relative can inherit it. Since Lord Grantham only has daughters, this is a problem. The problem was originally going to be solved by Mary, the oldest daughter, marrying her cousin Patrick, but now that Patrick is dead, everything is in disarray. If nothing is done, the estate will go to third cousin Matthew Crawley, a solicitor (how terrible- he works for a living!) from Manchester who we don’t meet until the very end of the episode when he gets the news of his new status. Complicating things is the fact that Cora’s money that she brought to the marriage is now fully tied into the estate, and there is no way to give that money to her daughters.

Because she is at the center of this inheritance debacle, Mary Crawley is a central character in this first episode, and really in the series overall, and the arc she takes in just this hour alone is rather fascinating. She starts out the episode incredibly unlikeable. She didn’t really love Patrick, she had only agreed to marry him to save the estate, and her reaction to his death is downright cruel and unfeeling. She asks her parents how long she needs to be in full mourning (considering the engagement wasn’t known outside the family), and she makes a point not to cry at the funeral. This really sticks in the craw of middle daughter Edith, who actually had romantic feelings for Patrick. By the end of the episode, when Mary is rejected by a suitor when he finds out that she won’t be inheriting all of Cora’s money (she’ll only be getting a generous but comparatively small settlement), we actually feel kind of bad for her, though. She’s been taken down a peg, and she’ll continue to operate as more human for the rest of the series.

On the downstairs side of things, Downton has a new staff member, and the transition isn’t going well. That staff member would be Mr. Bates, an old war comrade of Lord Grantham, whom Lord Grantham has hired as his valet, mostly as a favor. Before arriving at Downton, Bates neglected to mention that thanks to a war injury, he now walks with a cane. Lord Grantham seems okay with this, but some of the staff is not. Some staff members, like butler Carson, are legitimately concerned that Bates won’t be able to fulfill all of his duties, such as serving a meal as a third footman when a large group is staying at Downton. Other staff members, however, like Lady Grantham’s maid, O’Brien, and the first footman, Thomas, have more sinister motives. Thomas had really wanted to be promoted to valet, and he essentially wants to continue to pursue his dream by destroying Bates. O’Brien is just nasty and for some reason is really attached to Thomas and puts her nastiness to work for whatever he wants. It’s certainly not romantic interest that causes O’Brien to be so loyal to Thomas. As we learn through an encounter between Thomas and the suitor who visits Mary, O’Brien isn’t exactly Thomas’ type.

It was fun, in rewatching “Downton Abbey,” to see the beginnings of so many things that would later come to define the show. Bates and Anna, the head housemaid, certainly seem to have a thing for each other from the get-go. Mary is perhaps overly proud, but when she is rejected by the suitor, we can see that she’s also quite vulnerable. Thomas and O’Brien will continue to wreak havoc on Downton with their mischief for years to come. We see Edith’s feelings for Patrick, which will again come into play in the second season. And there’s the beginning of what would be a sort of short-lived triangle with Daisy the scullery maid and the two footmen, Thomas and William. It’s all good stuff, really. The one thing we haven’t really seen yet is the beginnings of the spark between Matthew and Mary. Which makes sense, considering Matthew hasn’t even arrived at Downton yet! I’ll be looking forward to rewatching the show so I can see again how their relationship progressed.

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