DOWNTON ABBEY “Series 2, Episode 1” Review

Downton Abbey

DOWNTON ABBEY “Episode 1” Series 2 Episode 1 – Downton Abbey returns the same night it picked up a truckload of Emmys and the world, for an hour at least, seems right again. Or perhaps over an hour. It was quite a long episode and picked up in 1916, opening at the most dramatic point it possibly could have: Matthew in the midst of the Somme. And for anyone who knows their First World War trivia, the Somme was not somewhere you wanted to be in 1916.

Of course there are several challenges facing Downton Abbey, and one of them is a rather major obstacle in terms of writing: how can you make the intrigue and grandiose of Downton Abbey as interesting in its second season when it’s juxtaposed against the tragedy of the First World War. I was certainly worried after opening scene, as Matthew stumbles through the battlefield back to the trenches with a wounded man slung over his shoulders, that the ensuing episode would just seem awfully trivial in contrast with the battle, and it must have posed a great challenge to Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator.

However, Mr Fellowes handles this problem with aplomb and the ensuing breakfast scene, as Lord and Lady Grantham bemoan the lack of good news at the breakfast table while the conscientious Sybil receives yet another notice to let her know that yet another friend has died was a truly spectacular way to get back into the series, pulling us in to the callous ignorance of the upper classes without making them villains, just ignorant and awfully posh, whilst submerging in best Downton Abbey has offered in its first season: the juxtaposition of pretentious ironies and emotional heart; the class warfare.

The cast has remained much the same: there’s the addition of Matthew’s fiancé (not much to be said about her as she didn’t get much screentime-however she did bring out the best in the Countess Dowager’s cattiness). And there’s a new serving girl bringing some extra spice downstairs as she goes toe to toe with the gloriously devious Mrs O’Brien (the standout Siobhan Finneran).

There was the usual balance of romance and drama: Mary’s love for Matthew must remain unspoken, and instead she much contend with longing looks and praying. Thomas’ indecision about heading off to war was probably the most underwritten subplot but it worked wonderfully off the awkward charm of Rob James-Collier and the fantastic Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy. The real drama at Downton came with the introduction of Bates’ evil wife: she comes in and interrupts the dreams of Anna and Bates. At this point she’s more of a panto-villain than a three dimensional character, but I couldn’t care less. She’s brilliant.

So much happened in this episode it’s impossible to dissect it all. The character have all returned and everyone, from Mrs Patmore to Branson to Sybil to Edith is so fully realized and so wonderfully written and acted that they just have to look at something and you feel like you know exactly what they’re thinking. And for a show to be able to do that with all of their characters is a true marvel. The direction is as slick as ever (particularly the hilarious zoom in on Maggie Smith’s entrance and the harrowing scenes of the Somme, which look marvellous with their appropriate shabbiness).

Favorite bits:

Mrs Patmore trying to teach Sybil how to cook: “What in wonderland are you trying to do with that? I mean…what is it you are trying to do with that, milady?”

Maggie Smith as the Countess Dowager: “I hate Greek drama…when everything happens offstage.”
“Why don’t I drive you?” “She’s taking enough chance with her life as it is.”

“I no longer feel like a fraud.” Lord Crawley in his red outfit, mistakenly thinking his contribution to the war effort is actually going to be on the battlefield.

Mrs O’Brien, who reminds be a bit of Gollem in the way she talks about the Crawley girls, like she’s their mother as much as Cora is: “I’m afraid we have to admit, she knows what she wants.”

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