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.