Downton Abbey continued last night on Masterpiece Classic with episode two. After a great opening on PBS last Sunday to a record 7.6 million US viewers, this four-part Edwardian drama continues to charm and amaze me. The blending of the upstairs and downstairs lives of the residents of this stately manor house is compelling drama, with moments of total surprise and shock from both quarters. This new co-production by Masterpiece PBS and Carnival ITV was a huge hit when it aired in the UK last year. The second season has just been announced and UK viewers will be dished up eight new episodes next Fall and a Christmas special in December. Great news for North American viewers also since the second season will most likely air shortly after in January 2012.
The second act of a play or opera is always my favorite. We have been introduced to the characters (the aristocratic Crawley family of Downton Abbey) the conflicts have been set up (death of the immediate male heirs) and the hook dropped (the entail must be broken) for us to take the bait. Now we can get to know the personalities at play and watch the drama unfold. In addition, several themes are developing, but two dominant ones in episode two were discovering or honoring our place in life, and harboring secrets and their consequences. Here is a synopsis from Masterpiece.
Recap of Episode 2 (spoilers)
As Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton), the newly-arrived Crawleys settle into life in the village, Isobel offers her experience with modern medical techniques at the hospital to Doctor Clarkson (David Robb), to the considerable consternation of Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith). Both Matthew and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) bristle at the prospect of being matched to one another; still, Matthew indulges Mary’s clever barbs even as a suitor in the form of The Hon. Evelyn Napier (Brandan Patricks), the wealthy son and heir to Viscount Branksome is invited for a foxhunt, accompanied by the handsome attaché at the Turkish Embassy, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James).
Downstairs, secrets reflect the ambitions, shames and desperate hopes of the servants, as housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) tries to hide the contents of a heavy box set atop the wardrobe in her room; the butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) abandons his customary dignity as he skittishly raids the pantry; and Lord Grantham’s valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) refuses to share the source of his debilitating pain to his co-workers. Their concern and camaraderie markedly contrast the festering discontent of the footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) personal maid.
A sinister stranger Charles Grigg (Nicky Henson) barges into the house, demanding to speak to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and an attractive stranger captivates Mary before setting into motion a chain of events that put the fate of Downton Abbey on even less stable ground.
Many plots churning; some resolved, others only leave us craving more of this multi-layered, well-acted, beautifully produced period drama. I always enjoy the surprise element and dutifully promise not to reveal any major spoilers, but the reaction by Lord Grantham when Mr. Carson’s secret from the past arrives and plants himself in his library is classic, the Dowager Countess continues to steal every scene with all her sarcastic lines, and Lady Mary’s push of propriety is an eye popper.
The Victorian costumes and English locations arrive regularly in jaw dropping splendor. The scenes of the foxhunt were especially picturesque, evoking a time when everything had its place in order of social dictum. Victorian-era fox hunting as a sport is as complicated socially as any Regency-era Ball at Almacks. People, horses, hounds, foxes, you name it. Everyone, and everything had its place. A perfect example for writer Julian Fellowes to use to display the pomp of the aristocratic lifestyle that the upstairs residents of Downton maintain, and the downstairs servants must cater to.
My favorite scene of episode two was during the family dinner at Downton with the Crawleys, Matthew and Isobel. As Violet, the Dowager Countess takes pot shots at Mrs. Crawley for volunteering in “her” hospital and disagreeing with the doctors treatment of a sick laborer, Lady Mary, the chip off her grandmother’s ole shoulder, taunts Matthew about his middle-class kind not riding or hunting, “unusual among our kind of people.” Ouch. If you watch closely the reaction by the people who are observing the discussion, Ladies Edith and Sybil, you can see the tension mounting in their keen interest and surprise, and, the temperature of the room rise by the withering looks like poison darts of disapproval issued by Lady Grantham to the Dowager and her daughter Mary. Ha! Not one to take a hint from her lowly American mother, Lady Mary continues to taunt Matthew’s usurper position as heir by telling him the story of Andromeda, with sacrificial maidens, sea serpents and heroic young Gods to the rescue. Matthew gets the point exactly and offers a retort worthy of any Jane Austen hero. Bravo!
Images courtesy © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com