The Masterpiece Classics seven part miniseries DOWTON ABBEY thrives by showing the interconnectedness of servants and masters at an English estate before the upheaval of World War I, women’s rights, and technological advances. The scenes of dinners, letter reading, and whispers in corridors never felt frivolous or repetitive because of the fleet of strong actors and tight narrative arcs. The story mostly revolves around the question of who will inherit the estate after Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham dies. With three daughters, the land and wealth of American Heiress Cora, Countess of Grantham all pass to distant middle class cousin Matthew Crawley. Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham becomes determined to see Downton passed to Lady Mary, the elegant eldest daughter of Robert and Cora. However, Robert resists finding a loophole for his daughter to inherit and insists on grooming young Matthew to take his place.
Downstairs, the employees of Downton Abbey take time between their duties to gossip on the events upstairs and play out their own power struggles. Robert brings in John Bates, a quiet man with a limp, as an unlikely valet replacement. At first, Bates is met with pity from the staff and hatred from Thomas and Sarah O’Brien. Thomas and O’Brien use relentless chicanery to get Bates fired, all foiled by his stout moral character and their own clumsy avarice. Romance, betrayal, secrets, human frailty, and ambition get their due downstairs as much as above.
Like my all time favorite series THE WIRE and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, DOWNTON ABBEY surprises us by showing the goodness in its villains and the pettiness of our heroes. Early in the show, we see Dame Maggie Smith’s character Violet as an interloping snob. She wonderfully upends our expectations in later episodes and forges relationships with unlikely characters. She delivers sharp zingers with bitchy relish and cuts people down with merely a look. Smith is a joy to watch.
Another standout is Jim Carter as Mr. Carson. A stickler for decorum, he chastises the staff for the slightest infractions. Yet Carson performs an invaluable narrative service in humanizing Lady Mary, the most divisive character. Mary rarely elicits our admiration and pity and we mostly want her to feel humiliated as she makes others. Carson has an avuncular affection for Mary, despite her faults and pretensions and wishes for her happiness. The final shot of Carson comforting Mary defines the story. The bond between those upstairs and downstairs is born of proximity, fostered by attentiveness, and forged by care. The best employers earn and sometimes return that devotion.
Season 2 cannot arrive fast enough.
I’ll be enjoying this year’s Globes with a room full of Jesuits. Fun will be had by all. Here’s what’s nominated and what I want to win.
Best Motion Picture — Drama
This is a decent slate of films, except for “The Help.” I want “Hugo” to win because it has great momentum and could use a push into Oscar voting season.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama
I have not seen Queen Meryl in “the Iron Lady” so I might change my mind tomorrow, but I’m betting on Ms. Davis for her dignified and powerful performance in “The Help.” Tilda Swinton could be a dark horse for either Streep or Davis.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama
This is also a stellar category, but Fassbender is the clear winner in my eyes.
Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical
I’m sticking with Woody Allen this award season. “Midnight In Paris” is THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR! If “The Artist” wins, i will be enraged. If “Bridesmaids” wins, that will be a strong sign that the comedy will be nominated for an Oscar.
To my surprise the indomitable Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) has become my favorite character on “Downton Abbey.” Last season her scheming and self preservation ruined her honor, crushed poor Matthew (Dan Stevens), and kept her (maybe deserving) sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) from a good marriage. Now we see Mary dutifully helping Matthew recover from his wounds, keeping quiet about Sybil and Branson, and singing with Edith, in public. On every score Lady Mary Crawley has changed and in this transformation lies the greatness of the entire show.
In the first season everyone upstairs and downstairs had a set opinion of Lady Mary: arrogant, uptight, conniving, and cold. Even her parents came to accept their intractable eldest daughter and resigned themselves to her ignoring their advice. Her only advocate was Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Carson could always be counted upon to defend Mary’s honor downstairs and pay her a reasoned compliment upstairs. Like Mrs. Hughes, I wondered what normally astute Carson saw in pompous Lady Mary.
It wasn’t until the Garden Party - a social occasion of much emotional turmoil- that I realized whatever Carson saw in Lady Mary must be the entire reason for this show. Those two, the heiress and the butler, standing in the final shot of the series encapsulates ’Downton.” The people who know the rich best are the people that watch and serve them everyday. Only in their company do the masks fall away and the true self can breathe, cry, and laugh. Carson and Anna know Mary better than anyone because they are the only people with which she can be honest. This season has grown on that theme, deepening the relationships between Cora and O’Brien, Matthew and William, and Sybil and Branson. The development of Lady Mary is the best part because her change reverberates through the entire series.
In each episode Lady Mary surprises her relatives with her patience, caring, and selflessness. The best example of this was episode 4 when Lord Grantham simply stared at Mary as she insisted Lavinia stay at Downton while waiting for Matthew to recover. In that moment Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who thought he knew everything about his eldest daughter, saw as if for the first time. In his eyes I could see surprise, but also a fulfillment of some long held wish that Mary would grow to be a generous and loving person. Even beyond Matthew, Mary’s goodness is consistent. She defends her romantic rival to the Dowager Countess, holds back confessing her feelings to Matthew to keep from hurting Lavinia, and volunteers to help Anna find Bates. Lord and Lady Grantham, Anna, Edith, Isobel, and even Lady Violet now see glimpses of the Mary that Mr. Carson always knew and trusted.
Now if only Matthew Crawley would wise up, we’d have something to celebrate.