Downton Abbey's biggest star—and I do mean its biggest—never says a word.
To say it's a mansion almost doesn't do it justice. No, this place is a palace—filled with priceless art and unmatched craftsmanship and who knows how many bedrooms and gardens and rolling acres. "I suppose if you know how many rooms you've got, you haven't got a very big house," says the current real-life owner of Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey. The estate seems big enough to require its own time zone, and you have to wonder whether the house itself could use multiple postal codes.
Little surprise, then, that this beautiful edifice is a bit of a diva.
Yes, she's gorgeous. Yes, she's charming and stately and all of that. But in this high-gloss British ITV drama (re-aired on PBS in the United States), she's incredibly high maintenance too. And the fictional Crawley family, which has owned Downton for centuries, is exhausted from keeping the old belle up to snuff.
Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and the current (early 20th century) master of Downton, will do almost anything to keep the estate in the family, of course. But it's not an easy task, heating a place that big—not to mention paying salaries for its phalanx of servants. And while his wife's fortune (she's the daughter of an American tycoon) helps pay the bills for a bit, Robert knows that big, aristocratic houses like his are growing ever more rare.
And if it wasn't hard enough to keep this landed grande dame afloat, he must deal with a bevy of flesh-and-blood women too: His wonderful wife, Cora; his often headstrong daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil; and his mother—the imperious, old-fashioned, needle-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham (known to perhaps one or two people as Violet), a power almost as formidable as the house itself.
But Robert's monetary trials and familial troubles are nothing compared to the drama downstairs, where scullery maids sulk and footmen scheme and valets are tossed in the clink for allegedly murdering their would-be ex-wives. Here in the servants' quarters, title and class are as firmly set as they are in Downton's parlors and dining rooms—and butler Mr. Carson and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes rule the house with unshaking propriety.
But even a half-century before Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin'. Old walls of decorum are crumbling. Class distinctions are falling. And everyone in Downton Abbey must learn to adjust with the times—or be crushed by them.
Downton Abbey is a sprawling, almost soapy epic of a story—beginning in 1912, trundling through World War I and now heading into the '20s. As such, it feels a bit like another acclaimed period series, AMC's Mad Men. Both are preoccupied with change—the promise it brings and the casualties it leaves behind. But instead of focusing on the more salacious societal earthquakes of the 1960s, Downton focuses its attention on the more outwardly genteel (but no less profound) changes that took place in post-Edwardian England, from universal suffrage to class friction to the fall of an age-old aristocratic system in favor of a more egalitarian world.
As such, Downton Abbey doesn't have nearly the content concerns that often muddles Mad Men. Sexual revolution? Oh, Downton's characters may sometimes find themselves locked in something other than holy matrimony, but sexual relations outside wedlock are deeply scandalous, not standard procedure. They may drink often, but rarely to embarrassing levels. Thomas, one of the Abbey's most duplicitous characters, is also gay. But the subject of homosexuality was barely breathed back in the early 20th century, and it seems as though even the show's writers hardly remember the guy's sexual advances after the program's first handful of Season One episodes.
Otherwise, many of the characters here have so far embraced some pretty high-minded moral standards—even as immorality sometimes swirls around them. And while wealth and class are important, the virtues of love and family feel even more so.
We live in an age when some of the "best" television shows are also its worst: Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Dexter may be critical faves, but they're familial flops. The much lauded and wildly popular Downton Abbey breaks through that trend with staid, British aplomb.
"Season 3, Episode 1"
It's 1920, and Mary is (finally) getting hitched to Matthew. But Robert has other concerns on his mind: The earl lost most of his family fortune, and much of his wife's, in a speculative investment, and there's a real possibility that he might need to sell Downton.
When a tearful Robert tells Cora that he lost her money, she smiles and tries to comfort him. "Don't worry about me," she says. "I'm an American; have gun, will travel." Mary sees a potential lifeline in her marriage to Matthew, who may come into a huge inheritance. But because the fortune comes (indirectly) from his dead ex-fiancée, he'd feel dishonorable taking it. They fight, and the wedding is nearly cancelled. But love (at least for now) wins the day: Agreeing to disagree for the moment, Matthew tells Mary, "I would never be happy with anyone else as long as you walk the earth." And he sweetly kisses her.
We hear mild sexual innuendo and references to nudity. When Mary asks if Matthew's looking forward to the wedding, he coyly says, "I'm looking forward to all sorts of things." Cora asks if Mary needs any "marriage" advice; Mary says she probably knows more than Cora did on her wedding day.
Tom, Sybil's husband, fights with family members over political issues. A guest drugs Tom's drink to make him appear drunk and act more belligerent. People drink whiskey and cocktails. Daisy disobeys her boss. There's talk of murder and suicide. Characters say "blimey" and use God's name inappropriately a few times.
"Season 2, Episode 4"
It's 1918, and Downton is serving as a convalescent home for officers injured in the war. "It's like living in a second-rate hotel where the guests keep arriving and no one seems to leave," grouses the Dowager Countess. Isobel travels to France after she and Cora differ on house management, leaving Isobel's servants without anyone to care for. So in an effort to stay busy, Mr. Molesly (Isobel's butler) helps around "the big house" while cook Mrs. Bird launches a soup kitchen, with help from Downton cook Mrs. Patmore and, eventually, Cora.
Branson, the chauffeur, continues to woo Sybil, saying, "The truth is, I'll stay at Downton until you want to run away with me." Sybil (who says the two of them have never so much as shaken hands) is unsure of her feelings for Branson; Mary cautions that a relationship with a chauffeur would mean horrific scandal.
Mrs. Hughes catches a maid in bed with an army officer (both are covered but apparently naked) and promptly fires her; the maid later returns, telling Hughes she's pregnant. We see German soldiers chase and shoot at Matthew and his manservant. Soldiers bear the wounds of war. Bates (Robert's valet) discusses his attempts to divorce his wife. We hear people say "bloody" and "b‑‑tard," and God's name is used inappropriately once or twice.
"Season 1, Episode 6"
It's 1914, and Matthew has proposed to Mary. But word of Mary's interlude with a foreign seducer—who died in Mary's bed—begins to leak out. When the Dowager Countess asks Cora if the rumors are true, Cora admits that they are—adding that she helped drag the body out of the bed herself.
Meanwhile, Sybil (against her father's express wishes) cons Branson into taking her to political rallies in town. But things get out of hand at one, and after a scuffle (we see both Branson and Matthew get involved), Sybil's knocked unconscious, bleeding from her head. Robert wants to fire Branson over the affair, but relents after Sybil threatens to run away.
Thomas and Mrs. O'Brien try to frame Bates for stealing wine (actually stolen by Thomas). Mr. Carson eventually exonerates Bates, but Bates confesses that he used to be a drunkard and was once jailed for stealing. He offers to resign, but Carson insists that, until Robert says otherwise, he stay at his post.
Violet toys with the idea of having the Turkish ambassador assassinated. She's aghast when Mary says she plans to tell Matthew about her tryst. "Everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden," the Dowager Countess insists. Mary tells her parents that "smart" people don't sleep in the same bed; Robert says that he keeps another bed made up to keep up appearances. References are made to a "smacked bottom."
There's discussion of the role of women in politics, the situation in Ireland and the disparity of classes. Mary gently chides her father for preferring that the servants stay away from reading political tracts and instead "read the Bible and letters from home." We hear "blimey," "bloody" and a couple of misuses of God's name.