Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Downton Abbey

(This is the third of my reviews for the Period Drama Challenge.)

Oh, Downton Abbey! What conflicting emotions and opinions you raise in me! The emotional roller coaster plot you have driven me through over these 3 seasons has caused nearly as tumultuous agony as the decision over whether or not I should continue watching. That beautiful theme song begins, and I am torn with both anticipation and dread.

The story opens in 1912. The Earl of Grantham is unfortunately lacking in sons, his rich American wife only bore him three lovely daughters, who, as females, are not legally allowed to inherit the estate. When the next heir to the estate perishes in the tragic sinking of the Titanic, his replacement doesn't seem nearly as suitable... as an heir, or as the eldest daughter's fiancee. Heartlessly careless of her fiancee's death, Lady Mary immediately begins the hunt for another rich suitor. That means she will next set her cap at Cousin Matthew, the new heir presumptive. Or will she?

Matthew Crawley doesn't really want to be next heir. He was perfectly happy in his previous situation as a lawyer, and is not interested in learning how to run the estate and be the next Earl of Grantham. Thrust into a world where a grown man never dresses himself, he doesn't know what to do with his new valet, and feels perfectly ridiculous being waited on hand and foot by numerous servants. He and his mother, Isobel struggle to settle and fit into their new world.

Speaking of numerous servants, they are the other half of the show. The drama flows downstairs as well as upstairs. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, are in charge of their own domain of footmen and maids, some kind, some a little lacking in sense, and some downright mean. Lord Grantham's new valet, Mr. Bates, uses a cane and has a mysterious past. Lady Grantham's maid, O'Brien and Thomas, one of the footmen, cruelly target him, while one of the maids finds him intriguing.

As the plot twisted and tangled on, I eventually realized that under the guise of a period drama, I had really gotten hooked on a soap opera, but by then, it was too late. I had to keep watching. It was too intriguing. This show will suck you in. You've been warned.

*Spoiler warning from here on.*

Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) has been with the family for years, and probably imagines he's part of the family. He runs the household staff well, with old-fashioned rigor and poise. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is calm and level-headed, helping to balance his sometimes over-bearing determination for perfection.

Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggat) fall in love, but something from his mysterious past causes him to push her away. Finally, we learn that he's already married to an awful woman. He eventually proposes to Anna anyway, though, hoping he can pay his wife Vera to divorce him. She refuses, and threatens to bring scandal on the Downton family if he doesn't leave with her. Finally, she commits suicide and frames Bates. Bates and Anna marry before he is imprisoned for murder, and Anna does everything she can to prove his innocence.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is the gay footman who just won't leave! He and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), lady Grantham's maid spread malicious evil wherever they go, making trouble for everyone else, sometimes in cahoots, but always looking out for their selfish means. I was hoping they wouldn't be around very long, but sadly, anytime it seems like they might be gone, they just turn up again. Like bad shillings.

The other footman from the first season didn't last as long, unfortunately. I really like William (Thomas Howes) and Thomas torments him mercilessly. William falls for Daisy, the kitchen maid, and even though Thomas is gay, he intentionally competes with William for her attention. William wins out in the end though, Daisy reluctantly becomes engaged to him before he leaves for the war, and when he is mortally injured in the war, he urges her to marry him on his deathbed so that she'll receive a widow's pension.

Daisy (Sophie McShera) unfortunately felt pressured by Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) to give William the encouragement of an engagement to carry him through the war, and then she feels guilty for marrying him and letting him die believing that she loved him, when she doesn't think she did. She is pretty silly, and easily manipulated. Mrs. Patmore tries to look out for her, and impart a little sense, but she can be harsh, and Daisy is a little scared of her.

 As the show goes on, visitors come and go, romance blossoms around ever corner; heartbreak and scandal may also abound, but one thing that can always be counted on is this: the Dowager Countess Violet will always have a dry, witty comment on her tongue, perfectly delivered in a proper British accent. Maggie Smith is wonderful in her role as Lord Grantham's mother. She is old-fashioned, haughty and sometimes callous, but she usually means well.

Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) finds frequent reasons to clash with Lady Violet. The daughter of a doctor, she has a knowledge of medicine, and uses her knowledge to quickly become involved in her new realm. She likes to take charge anywhere and anytime she can, and this causes some problems with Lady Grantham, also.

Lord and Lady Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, are well-cast. Robert married Cora for her money; he needed funds to keep the estate afloat. What was a marriage of convenience became love, though, and they manage to maintain a fairly good marriage most of the time. I like Hugh Bonneville, but his character increasingly becomes more annoying in my opinion. Lady Grantham can be unwise in her plans for her daughters, but she does truly love them.

Their three daughters have been raised as British ladies. The youngest, Lady Sybil is sweet and enthusiastic about life, but not always the most obedient. She becomes interested in politics, and gets the chauffeur, Branson, in trouble with her father when she accompanies him to a political rally. She almost causes Branson to lose his job when, under the guise of attending a charity meeting, Sybil goes to attend the election results and gets injured when the rally becomes a mob. She learns to cook, becomes a nurse in the war and falls in love with Branson. Her sisters catch her eloping, and convince her to wait, but she and Branson eventually marry with Lord Grantham's reluctant consent.

Lady Edith, the middle daughter played by Laura Carmichael, sometimes seems to be invisible. She can be quite spiteful, but eventually comes into her own when Downton Abbey is turned into a convalescent home for wounded war officers. She finally finds an older man that she wants to marry, and she thinks she has him convinced, but he finds that he can't go through with it, and leaves her at the altar, not wanting to ruin her life. Her grandmother encourages her: "Stop whining, and find something to do!" So she gets a job writing for a newspaper.

Lady Mary is very cold and calculating at the beginning, making it difficult to like her, but she eventually starts to thaw. She gets into a scandal with a visiting Turkish dignitary when he visits her room in the middle of the night, and dies in her bed. Her mother and maid help her to drag him back to his room to cover the impropriety, and we see her scared and insecure. That unfortunate circumstance causes her lots of problems, but seems to be the turning point for her character.

Matthew is played by Dan Stevens, and I confess he is the reason I originally began watching Downton Abbey. I loved his performance in Sense and Sensibility (2008) so much; I couldn't wait to see him in another role. He didn't disappoint me. He gave Matthew convincing depth and complexity.

 Even though Lady Mary was a horrible woman at first, I couldn't help hoping for them to fall in love from the beginning, as of course, they must. Though many obstacles appeared, and other plot threads tried to divide my attention, I remained fixated on what I consider the main plot line. Isn't it supposed to be? There are many twists and turns, other lovers, misunderstandings, arguments and drama, but I knew I must eventually be satisfied. They had to have a "happily ever after" eventually, I just knew it.

Whenever the Matthew/Mary plot wasn't going the way I wanted, I consoled myself with the scenery and costumes. I've already included some photos with glimpses of the elegant finery, so here's my favorite shot of the estate. Highclere Castle is a lovely shooting location.

You can never drool over too many gorgeous dresses, so here's some costume shots.

Lady Sybil's daring new outfit.
Some lovely summer dresses.

Dinner dresses
Dressed for dinner

Lovely red gowns
Lady Mary in a dreamy green gown

Wedding gowns
I think Downton Abbey would have made a great miniseries. If they had started with an end in sight, and hadn't tried to drag it out as long as possible, they could have cut some of the unnecessary conflict and had a nice 7 or 8 hour miniseries. It's too bad when the quest for more money is obviously a higher priority than making quality entertainment. The original storyline was pretty good, but I could tell that they intended to drag it out by the end of the first season. It took them to the end of the second season to get around to what I was waiting for: the proposal. I was beginning to despair, but it finally came!

By the time we finally got to that wonderful moment, I was becoming quite weary of the emotional turmoil this show causes, but when the third season finally came around, I was willing to watch for moments like these:

I stumbled across a spoiler for the final episode of season 3, and if you know what happens, then you understand why it was all I needed to convince me that it is time to get off Downton Abbey. I couldn't watch all of the last episode. There have been so many thrills, but the fleeting sweet moments, beautiful costumes and delightful scenery haven't completely outweighed the bitterness and emotionally scarring sadness in my opinion. And so I step away from this seemingly endless melodrama trying to forget the parts that went all wrong, and clinging desperately to my favorite memories.

Like this one.


  1. Despite the flaws, I CANNOT wait for S4 because it has me curious to see what will happen with Mary and the rumors leave me anticipating a new chapter. Sorry it so let you down, Lizzie. I understand that feeling!

    All I can say is: Fellowes owes us BIG time. And he's promised no deaths this next series.

    Spoilers: Sad as it (S3 finale) was, either way fans would have been upset. Dan Steven's chose to leave. Had producers opted to re-cast him, fans would have been mad. Given that Fellowes (the creator) couldn't persuade Stevens to stay on, the writing and tragic twist was "good" from a dramatic POV. Like Fellowes said in an interview, there was no way that Mary and Matthew could have been parted (by distance or a marital separation) after all fans went through to see them married. I may miss Sybil more. END

  2. I'm just too much of a romantic! I always want the fairy-tale ending. ;)

    I really can't believe he'll manage not to kill anyone next season, but if that's true, I might reconsider watching it.

    Fellowes definitely chose the best option plot-wise, and I can see how others might enjoy it. Personally, I'm just ready for it to end, I think. Actually, I was ready for it to end at the season 2 finale. =P

  3. It is so nice for someone else to be through with Downtown Abbey. I found it morally repugnant and so very silly and cannot understand why even those with very strict principles adore it. I watched parts of the first episode and one or two more. I was not expecting it; I was originally resistance simply out of contrariness but thought I would actually like it-I very much did not. My sister called it a Soap Opera, and I have seen bits of those-it really is one. I think its sad that some people are blinded by the costumes and the fact that it is historical and British and think that it is somehow akin to Pride and Prejudice and such.

  4. I just blurred over your review again and saw that you had realized it was a soap opera in disguise- Bravo!

    1. There certainly were some quite uncomfortable "morally repugnant" parts (great way to describe it!). I thought the plot and idea sounded very interesting when it was being advertised, but it didn't live up to my expectations. The costumes and scenery really are lovely, though, it's too bad they didn't create a nicer storyline... or at least a few more characters that were commendable! I found Matthew to be the only completely honest, decent character (although they all change a lot). It's definitely a soapy little drama! ;)

  5. Love the castle! I really need to start watching Downton Abbey!

    1. It is a lovely castle! Since you haven't watched it yet, I'm going to guess you may not have read my long spoiler section, so I do want to warn you that there's some questionable sexual content. If you still want to go for it, I recommend stopping at the end of season 2! It does have beautiful costumes and scenery, though!

  6. The dresses are gorgeous-I want to see if I can gather photos of them-I think I have some on my vintage Pinterest board, so that I can use them for inspiration. I don't mind borrowing those things from it!

  7. I actually just found this blog by searching for pictures for my own blog post! I agree on a lot of points. My post is simply my contemplation on my own love/hate relationship with the show. ;D

    1. Hehe, what a coincidence! Thanks for commenting! =D