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TBTS Reviews: Downton Abbey Season 1

March 30, 2012

Downton AbbeyI must confess, my arrival to the Downton Abbey fan party is a late one. I’ve been hearing about the show for over a year, and this kind of program is right up my Jane Austen-loving alley, but I never bothered to seek it out. Finally, after hearing so much about Season 2, which aired last fall, I decided to give it a try. I picked an evening when hubby was out of the house and I settled in with the first episode. It was love-at-first-sight.

I watched the first four episodes that evening, and when hubby came home, I raved about it until he agreed to watch it, too. He watched the first episode that weekend and a Season 1 marathon ensued. Now we’re well into Season 2 and it’s still just as amazing.

For anyone whose head has been under a rock for the last two years, Downton Abbey tells the story of the Earl of Grantham and his family, who live at Downton Abbey. In the first episode, the heir to the title and the estate dies on the Titanic. The estate is therefore destined to pass to the hands of a third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley, a lawyer from Manchester, due to the strict entail left by the Earl’s late father. The arc of Season 1 is spent in a will-they-or-won’t-they struggle over whether to attempt to break the entail so that Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter may inherit the estate, which would bankrupt it in the process. Meanwhile, the family welcomes the new heir and he clumsily tries to make his place among them.

Fans of Upstairs Downstairs or Gosford Park will appreciate that Downton Abbey also brings to light the stories and struggles of the servants who care for the family and the estate. Their lives are necessarily intertwined with those of the family they serve; Lord Grantham’s decision to hire a war comrade as his valet sends repercussions throughout the staff, who struggle with the fact that he has a limp and is therefore less capable of doing the job than others in the house (though this proves not to be true in the end), to cite just one example.

I find the relationship between the servants and the family to be the most interesting aspect of the show. Everyone has a very specific role to play; there are rules to follow, whether one is a butler or a gentleman, a maid or a lady. Whenever someone steps outside his or her role, there are consequences. There is very little mingling of the classes; the house staff are there to serve the family, and no one ever forgets that. And yet, the house staff controls the running of the estate much more so than anyone in the family. Though Lord Grantham is the Earl, and therefore in charge, he continually defers to Carson, the butler, when it comes to matters of household efficiency. When Lady Grantham asks the cook to make a specific dish for a special guest, the cook refuses and Her Ladyship backs down.

It’s also very interesting to see how the family and the staff interact. Each member of the family has his or her own favorite when it comes to the staff, and vice versa. The eldest daughter, Lady Mary, will not confide in her sisters or her mother, but will open up to her maid, Anna. Lord Grantham speaks to his valet, Mr. Bates, almost as a friend and equal, which he doesn’t seem to do with anyone else in the house, not even his own wife. The only person who never allows the lines between aristocrat and servant to be blurred is Lord Grantham’s mother the Dowager Countess, played impeccably by Maggie Smith, who knows the rules of proper upper-class behavior and does not ever deviate from them.

The close of Season 1 brings the impending sense of change; war is coming, reform is taking hold in the country, and the rules about proper behavior and roles start to matter less and less. You can see the older generation struggling with these changes while the younger generation welcomes them. Servants imagine better lives for themselves, like housemaid Gwen, who longs to become a secretary, while the Earl’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, wants to be involved in women’s suffrage and work outside of the home.

Downton Abbey is ostensibly a show about an upper-class family and the people who serve them. But really, it is about so much more than that. It’s about a changing England, about the dissolution of class distinction and the rise of more democratic values. In Jane Austen’s time, only 100 years before, everyone knew their place and there was never any opportunity to alter that. In Downton Abbey, change is inevitable and unavoidable. Some will cling tightly to the values and roles they know so well, while others will cast off the societal chains that bind them and forge their own paths. The drama lies in seeing this unfold.

Downton Abbey Season 1 is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

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  1. TBTS Reviews: Downton Abbey Season 2 « The Brown Tweed Society

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