Downton Abbey: Season One, Episode One

Lady Violet: “Don’t you care about Downton?”
Robert: “What do you think? I’ve given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes, I do care!”

What makes Downton Abbey different from all the costume/period dramas that have come before is evident from the opening scene. Instead of horses, we have a train; instead of letters, we have the clattering of a telegraph machine. This will be show set in the past, yet it has an eye firmly on the future.

Upstairs, we have the Earl (Robert) and Countess (Cora) of Grantham and their three daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil. These five have a very soft life. None of them has to work for a living and their every need is met by the army of servants at their disposal. Robert is expected to manage the estate, Cora is expected to run it smoothly and the girls are expected to find suitable husbands.

It is not dissimilar downstairs where there is a definite hierarchy. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are in charge. Daisy is subordinate to everyone, but especially to Mrs. Patmore, who makes her life hell. William is subordinate to Thomas who makes his life hell, but watch how William snaps at the paper boy for being late, the perception being that William ranks above him. Bates and O’Brien fall somewhere between the housemaids and Carson and Mrs. Hughes.

It is April, 1912 and, as the show opens, the news of the sinking of the Titanic has hit England. Even worse, the heir to the Grantham estate and his son have both been lost on the ship. Apart from the obvious sadness that Robert has lost his cousins, their death now leaves the estate in a bind.

Robert married Cora for her money ($3 million which in today’s money would be closer to $130 million) to save the estate. When they married, Robert’s father forced Cora to sign over her money to the estate. What this means is that whomever inherits the title and the estate will also inherit all the money. When the heir was a first cousin who could marry Mary, this was all fine and good. Now, it will all go to someone whom no one has ever met.

Cora, understandably, is a bit put off by this as is, surprisingly, Lady Violet. They join forces, one gets the impression for the first time, to ensure that Mary may inherit the money. Great excitement ensues when a duke comes calling, presumably to woo Mary. Neither Cora nor Lady Violet is naive; they are fully aware that he would be marrying Mary for the money. For them, however, having their daughter and granddaughter raised from a Countess to a Duchess is worth it. Interestingly, it is Robert who will not sell his daughter off (although that is exactly what he did) and it is while he is talking to the Duke that he makes his final decision that the money will stay with the estate.

At the same time as all of this is going on, Robert has hired his former batman to be his valet. Which would be fine, except that Bates is lame leading to the perception that he cannot do his job. O’Brien and Thomas go to extremes to try to get him the sack, each behaving in a manipulative and underhanded manner. Carson, who cannot seem to look beyond the obvious, manages to convince Robert that Bates must go. Luckily, Robert sees sense at the end and Bates becomes part of this household.

What makes this story so interesting to watch is the interaction between upstairs and downstairs. The servants are all following the inheritance story with rapt interest, discussing it amongst themselves and with the people they serve. Similar to the people downstairs getting involved in the money situation (which is none of their business), Cora and Mary are both getting involved in whether or not Bates can or should keep his job (none of their business). The two worlds are completely intertwined.

As if all of this weren’t enough, we see the beginning of a romance. The scene where Anna brings Bates the tray is beautifully acted and shot and my heart breaks for both of them no matter how many times I see it. We also see the end of a romance. Thomas has been such a cad throughout that it is hard to see him in any other light. Yet, I believe that he genuinely cared about the Duke and was heartbroken by not being able to be part of his life.

For a first chapter, this episode managed a lot. We got to know the main characters, the conflict for the season was very well set up and some story lines were dealt with in a speedy fashion. I have decided not to rate the episodes of this show because, honestly, the vast majority would be four out of four whatever it would happen to be. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.

Bits and Bobs:

— While we may think that the rights of women (or lack thereof) to keep control of their money and to inherit seem arcane, some of them still exist. A woman, for example, still cannot inherit a title in the UK unless there are no more male heirs.

— There were very strict rules around mourning including what one could wear and how long one had to wear it. Hence, Mary mourning for a cousin would have been much less restrictive than mourning for a fiancé.

— I love the scene downstairs where Carson is condescending to Bates about working for such a family. In comes Robert and greets Bates as the old friend that he is. The looks on everyone faces always make me laugh out loud.

— The first time we see the girls talking together is wonderfully staged. Mary is sniping at Edith; Edith is defensive and Sybil, who is walking between them, is trying to keep the peace. The family dynamic is obvious.

— Another historical accuracy. In this episode, Sybil has still not come out into society while Mary and Edith have. Notice that throughout, Sybil wears her hair down (the sign of a girl) while Mary and Edith wear their hair up (the sign of a woman).

Well Said:

Cora: “Are we to be friends then?”
Lady Violet: “We are allies, my dear, which can be a great deal more effective.”

Robert: “It does seem odd that my third cousin should be a doctor.”
Murray: “There are worse professions.”
Robert: “Indeed.”

Sybil: “I know you’re sad about Patrick, whatever you say, I know it.”
Mary: “You’re a darling. But you see, I’m not as sad as I should be. And, that’s what makes me sad.”

Lady Violet: “Well, give him a date for when Mary’s out of mourning. No one wants to kiss a girl in black.”

Duke: “Why did you apologize to that man? It’s not his business what we do.”
Mary: “I always apologize when I’m in the wrong. It’s a habit of mine.”

Carson: “As it is, m’lord, we may have to have a maid in the dining room.”
Robert: “Cheer up, Carson. There are worse things happening in the world.”
Carson: “Not worse than a maid serving a duke!”

Mrs. Hughes: “So, His Grace turned out to be graceless.”

Robert: “Do you think she would have been happy with a fortune hunter?”
Cora: “She might have been. I was.”

Matthew: “It’s from Lord Grantham.”
Isobel: “Really? What on earth does he want?”
Matthew: “He wants to change our lives.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

11 comments:

a.m. said...

I'm so glad you are reviewing this series. As an American without cable/satellite TV, I get my BBC fix on Sunday nights with Masterpiece.

I think starting with the TItanic and its impact on everyone was perfect. 100 years on, we are still fascinated by the story but until watching this episode, I must admit I had never really thought about how confusing the details must have been when they first came in. It must have taken forever to get real answers and the aristocracy must have been shocked at the downfall of people in their sphere--whether family members or not. I really appreciated the cynicism of O'Brien (a woman who knows/hates her station in life) and the open caring concern of Daisy downstairs. and the naive confusion of Lady Cora upstairs.

This first season hooked me early, so that even with some of the silliness in the middle of season two (I won't mention it here for fear of spoiling it for sunbunny), I still love every episode and can't wait for the new season in January! Your reviews are going to be a great way for me to rehash all the good parts before then, as well. [No pressure or anything...]

sunbunny said...

Haha! Thanks for not spoiling it, a.m.! Just finished the first episode and I must say I'm dreading telling my aunt how much I loved it for fear of the big, fat 'I told you so' I have coming.

I love the interactions with the servants--the hierarchy, the spread of gossip, the in-fighting. Also, Maggie Smith. How awesome is she? Plus all the comments about the safety of electric lights. Loved every minute. :) Looking forward to your forthcoming reviews, ChrisB!

JimGfromWI said...

I'm also so happy that this show is being reviewed on this site. I've started watching a good many new shows that I've never watched before, simply because they are reviewed on this site, but this is probably my current favorite show that is not on here. Now it is! I have a soft spot for historical dramas, and for all things English, so this show is right up my alley. I have to say, watching the first episode, which wasn't very long ago - I have not gotten to the 2nd yet - it hit me in almost a physical way. I was almost dumbfounded from the first scene on. I just sat there, going, Wow - what a great show! I remember reading a piece not long ago about the actual estate the show is filmed at, and was blown away by some of the pictures, and the show is shot beautifully as well. One of my all time favorite shows, already. Can't wait to read more of your reviews ChrisB!

JimGfromWI said...

I have not gotten to the 2nd Season yet - not the 2nd episode! Sorry, meant to be a little more clear there. I've just finished up the 1st season!

ChrisB said...

Thanks, all, for the comments.

Both the first and second series are playing on hulu right now and PBS just started re-showing the second series last night (at least in my neck of the woods).

No excuse not to be caught up by the time the third series starts in January.

:-)

Billie Doux said...

I'm going to join in the melee and admit I hadn't seen a single episode until just now. I loved it, too. The characters are terrific and there wasn't a single boring moment in the episode. I kept rooting for Bates and loved it when Robert realized in the end that he was doing the wrong thing.

Terrific review, Chris.

Scott Riggan said...

Great review of a terrific show! I discovered this site when I was trying to make sense of Alias, stuck around to try to sort through the mythology of Lost and now find that nearly everything I watch is covered here.

Downton does what good tv does best: it tells a sprawling story with the kind of attention to detail a theatrical film could never take time for; characters are given room to develop as real people and consequently we feel we know them - not just recognize their type (which is the most you can expect from a typical movie).

This, to me, is what connects most of the shows reviewed here on Billie Doux: a love for storytelling that allows "real" characters to live and breathe and work their way into our hearts and minds.

A website that gushes equally over Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead? Makes perfect sense to me.

Billie Doux said...

What a lovely comment, Scott. You made my day.

ChrisB said...

I second Billie's comment, Scott. Your final paragraph sums up beautifully why I love being a part of this site.

Thanks.

celticmarc said...

Dear Scott,

About your 2nd paragraph : this is why I spend less and less time at the movie theaters and more and more time watching great TV on DVD. Lost, Fringe, just to name a (very) few. (and also more and more time on this (Billie, do not roll your eyes) fabulously amazing (kudos everyone BTW) web site)

This is also why I love Glee for the music AND hate it as well for the aforementioned paragraph !

CrazyCris said...

SO happy you guys will be reviewing Downton! It's been a delightful discovery these past couple of years and I'm glad they announced we'll get at least one more! Right now I'm looking forward to the "Christmas bonus". Pity the seasons are so short!

Great review!!! I'd forgotten that detail about Thomas and the Duke! Explains a lot... ;o)

CelticMarc, arrête de lécher les bottes à Billie!!! :p