I had been hearing about Downton Abbey, a British period drama television series created by Julian Fellowes, for a while now, and last week I finally broke down and watched the first episode. Several hours later I was lamenting the fact that Netflix only has the first season available while the third season is currently running. Regardless! For those who have not seen it, I am your Downton Abbey sensei and shall show you the way.
Set in the post-Edwardian era, Downton Abbey is about Robert Crawley’s, the 5th Earl of Grantham, family. Crawley is played by Hugh Bonneville. The Crawleys are an old noble English family with three daughters and no son. After the two men who would have inherited the Earl’s title, money, and estate die on the Titanic, everything goes to hell. However, unlike other shows, this show does not just focus on the glamorous world of the drawing room. We see many servants, all necessary to keep the estate running smoothly and efficiently. Though they are employees, the rich (at least in this family) are often friends with these servants, and often feel they are like family.
Yet it’s not all butterflies and rainbows: the divide between servant and master is still there. One example is Countess Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran); she often feels that she can’t entirely speak her mind and her efforts are unappreciated. Another moment was when housemaid, Gwen Dawson (Rose Leslie) was trying her best to become a secretary. Gwen is viewed by her family and the other servants as silly. This is not only because she’s a woman; it’s just that the very idea of Gwen trying to better her status in life is viewed as ridiculous. It is only through Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) that she is able to continue to try. Despite this and many other problems it was surprising how kind and understanding Earl Robert and his American wife Cora are. However, although the show features a variety of characters, the main focus is on their three daughters.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the eldest who would have inherited otherwise, is moved like a beautiful chess piece back and forth from engagement to engagement. She has little choice in the matters of love and marriage. As a result, she has become somewhat hard-hearted and often hurts those around her. The middle sister Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is, for some unknown reason, considered unattractive, even by her own parents. Because she would not have inherited any money regardless, she has little hope for marriage.
Edith and Mary do not get along well and often try to sabotage each others prospects. The intense and sometimes vicious (though not physical) fighting between Mary and Edith reflects how the sexist structures in this society make women fight against each other. By doing this, women in this time are separated and therefore are easily oppressed. The youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, is my current favorite.She is seen little in the beginning of the series, but was worth the wait. Like Mary, she is pretty, and like Edith, she will inherit nothing, but she is also very kind and optimistic.
Sybil embodies the main theme of Downton Abbey which is “times are changing.” Sybil’s main concern is women’s suffrage and the right to better yourself if you can. She helps one of the maids in her quest to become a secretary, attends political rallies, and had a “dress” made that ended up looking more like bloomers. Her father does not approve of her new “hobby”, especially after she is accidentally hurt during one of the rallies. While Mary and Edith suffer under the yoke of their station, Sybil is the only one who seems to be trying to throw it off permanently, not only for herself, like Mary is, but for every woman.
I will point out one more member of the family and that is Lord Grantham’s mother Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. An embodiment of past refinement and respectability, Countess Violet has made a place for herself in the world; unfortunately, however, the world is changing, and she resists it all the way. Also, she is played by Maggie Smith who played Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies.
Downton Abbey has so many characters it’s difficult to talk about all of them without further spoiling the plot. There is a gay valet named Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) who, while entertaining, made me a bit disappointed with how gay people are portrayed. In the first season, he is shown to be a scheming sociopath whose only concern is bettering his situation. This is especially noticeable with his reactions to death and mourning which are unsympathetic at best and borderline evil at worst. There is Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), an American lawyer and the heir apparent of Downton Abbey, who falls in love with… I won’t spoil it for you.
There are many others who are scheming and gossipping in this place. You must go and watch it yourself. However, I must warn you: set aside a couple of hours. I guarantee you will not get any work done after you watch the first episode. Watch Downton Abbey Sundays at 9PM ET/CT on PBS.
Warning: Video may contain spoilers!