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) co-master of Downton (more on his shared role in a minute), 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.
Of late, the blue-blooded, drenched-in-tradition lord must share power with (gasp) a woman—and not just any woman. His headstrong daughter, Mary, who now co-owns the estate after her own husband's untimely death. (It's complicated.) And while daddy and daughter love each other very much, each has quite a different idea of how to fund and run the grande dame.
His younger daughter, Edith, isn't much help—distracted as she is by her own illegitimate (and secret) daughter, currently raised by a nearby village family. Tom, his estate manager, does what he can—but he's been known to have some radical ideas himself. And let's not even begin to discuss Robert's feisty mother, Violet, the estate's Dowager Countess, who's almost as formidable as the house itself.
Robert's monetary trials and familial troubles are nothing compared to the drama downstairs, where scullery maids sulk and footmen scheme and conflict is almost as bountiful as freshly churned butter. Scandal, mayhem and even a whiff of murder can rise from Downton's staid depths. 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, soapy epic of a story—beginning in 1912, trundling through World War I and now in 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 turns its attention to 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 for incremental sexual change (forget about calling it a revolution yet), Downton's characters may sometimes find themselves locked in something other than holy matrimony, but carnal contact outside wedlock is still deeply scandalous, not standard procedure. And while wealth and class are important, the virtues of love and family feel even more so. That does not, however, mean the screen is clear in this category. Paramours of the Crawley daughters rarely keep their hands to themselves—nor are they asked to. A rape has been depicted, as have homosexual attraction and actions.
Those depictions come nowhere near the content concerns that so often muddle the likes of Mad Men, though. We live in an age when some of the "best" television shows are also its worst. But warts and all, as is the British way, the much lauded and wildly popular Downton Abbey seems determined to break through at least parts of that trend with staid aplomb.
"Season 5, Episode 3"
Lady Mary is shown in bed with her (shirtless) lover, Anthony Gillingham. They kiss, but when Tony suggests that Mary "worked up an appetite," she tells him she can't stand vulgar jokes. They're spotted leaving the Liverpool hotel together by the Dowager's butler, who reports the matter to "Granny." She, then, confronts Mary and encourages her to accept Tony's proposal of marriage, asserting that their affair is deeply scandalous. (But Mary suspects there's more to the righteous Dowager's own past than she lets on.) Mary has Anna smuggle a "thing" (perhaps a method of birth control) out of the house. Anna does so, but says she feels like she's "aiding and abetting sin—and I hope I won't be made to pay." Cora is, meanwhile, flirted with, and the incident causes a bit of calamity for her later.
An inspector questions Bates about the death of Mr. Green (who raped Bates' wife and was, in fact, secretly killed by Bates last season). We hear about someone who was shot for cowardice during World War I. People drink wine and brandy. Cora's personal servant, Braxton, confesses that years earlier she stole jewels at the urging of a cad she was in love with. "Golly" is as in-the-gutter as the language gets.
"Season 4, Episode 2"
Opera singer Nellie Melba stars at a big party held at Downton, but her soaring voices only serves to hide a horrible rape that's happening elsewhere in the house. Valet Mr. Green attacks Anna, forcibly kissing her, then hitting her, then shoving and manhandling her, showing enough to the camera for viewers to fully understand what's happening. We hear her screaming after the camera removes itself from the room. We see her sobbing in the aftermath, afraid to let anyone know what's been done to her because she's sure her husband, Bates, would murder Mr. Green if he knew, and that then Bates himself would be hanged for the secondary crime.
In other back rooms, high-stakes poker games are going on with several men getting taken by a card sharp. (The scoundrel is ultimately paid back in kind, and gambling is deemed "stupid," a waste of energy that pushes men into throwing away their fortunes.) We hear talk of what good fortune it is that beer was invented, and, indeed, quite a few folks drink (whiskey) and smoke cigarettes or cigars. God's name is misused once, and "bloody" pops out as an exclamation.
"Season 4, Episode 1"
This American merging of British episodes 1 and 2 takes place about six months after Matthew was killed in a tragic car accident, and Downton is still heavy with grief. Molesley, Matthew's valet, struggles to find work. Isobel, Matthew's mother, is despondent. "When your only child dies, you're not a mother anymore," she says. "You're not anything, really. That's what I'm trying to get used to." And Lady Mary, Matthew's widow, still mourns as if he died the day before. "You must choose either death or life," the Dowager finally tells her.
Both Mary and Isobel do eventually choose life—Isobel moving forward by concerning herself with an act of charity, Mary in the running of the estate. And it's a good lesson for us all: Sometimes focusing outside ourselves can help ease our most inward pain.
When an informal will is found that gives Matthew's share of Downton to Mary, Robert struggles with whether to even tell her. Meanwhile, Rose convinces Anna to go dancing with her—wherein Rose masquerades as an off-duty maid. Michael Gregson considers becoming a German citizen to marry Edith (a big deal, given that England just wrapped up a war with Germany, and Adolf Hitler himself is due to cause a stir in the very near future). As they talk, a stylized, bare-breasted statue is visible in the background.
Edith and her married beau kiss. We hear a reference to "living in sin." Characters smoke and drink, one getting drunk and throwing up. At the dance hall, Rose asks a waiter to put "something a little special" in her tea. She dances with a guy and, when someone tries to cut in, the men get into a fight. Anna and Jimmy (who serendipitously arrives) drag Rose away before they all get arrested. A fellow butler sabotages Molesley's ability to get another job. A nanny calls Tom's young daughter a "crossbreed"—apparently referring either to Tom's humble background or his Irish lineage—and is promptly sacked.
The words "God is good" are emblazoned across a wall in a decrepit workhouse, but characters also misuse God's name twice. Violet encourages Mary to mislead her father. "There can be too much truth in any relationship," she quips. Servants lie to get others in trouble. Someone says "d‑‑n."
"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.