|Staff: O'Brien, Daisy, Hughes, Thomas, Bates, Anna|
Family: Edith, Robert, Violet, Cora, Mary, Matthew, Sybil
After the first series set up all the players and then spent 7-odd hours having them interact, things were getting a little stale at the Downton estate. There needed to be something new tostir the water again. Enter World War 1, ready to split families, redeem roustabouts, and generally muck things up for the characters in Downton Abbey. It's a brilliant device, causing characters to discuss the future, the end of the aristocracy, and everyone else's affairs. And both halves of the Downton estate discuss all of this in hushed tones, even though someone is bound to hear anyway.
The second series has been accused of being a bit soapier, and it certainly is, with secret babies, midnight liaisons, a few slaps, murder, devilish wives, and a character (I won't spoil who) saying the line "We're cursed, you and I" with a completely straight face. But, though soapy, it's certainly not lacking in quality. Sure, things get off to a rocky start, with Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley behaving like a petulant child, angry that nobody wants to play with him. Cora, two years past her miscarriage (at O'Brien's hands), is back to taking a more active role in Downton's affairs, even if Matthew's mother Isobel Crawley is trying hard to wrestle power from her. Sybil and Edith are looking for purpose, Mary is looking for a way to stomach her new beau, Richard Carlisle, and Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess Violet is making sure she can get in as many zingers as possible.
And it is no less busy downstairs with the staff. Thomas and O'Brien are still scheming (though one of them has seemed to have grown a conscience), Anna and Bates continue their adorable and boring courtship but face problems when Bates' past comes back to haunt him, Carson deals with his paternal feelings for Mary and his damnable old body, Hughes is changing stance on all sort of matters and becoming our favorite character, and Daisy is just being pulled in all sorts of directions with no say in the matter at all.
|Mary and Matthew Crawley|
What takes the forefront for this series is Mary and Matthew Crawley, who continue their will-they-or-won't-they courtship, complete with love triangles AND quadrangles (The previously mentioned Carlisle and Matthew's Lavinia). Since the show is less a miniseries now and more an outright, long-running series, the show has to tease a relationship without actually delivering. The Sam and Diane of it all would be nauseating, but, like Sam and Diane, the actors playing Matthew and Mary (Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery) are great at sexily bantering back and forth and tearfully repressing their feelings. There are viewers on both sides of the Mary/Matthew debate, some vehemently against and some intensely for the pairing, and there will be plenty to debate this season. Even with the war keeping Matthew on the front lines, he certainly finds a lot of time to get back to Downton, and it's not just to see his mother.
There is always a lot going on in Downton, and the changing moods and tides of war make sure that nobody leaves the season without being (in some way) affected. The season can also be emotionally exhausting. By the time the Christmas special rolls around, you'll be begging for something - anything - to go well for these people. If not, then you're either dead inside or you don't tie yourself emotionally to fictional characters. Either way, we have nothing to talk about.
Downton Abbey is a brilliant piece of period fiction, deserving of all the accolades it's received and more. It's not perfect. There is a lot of time talking blatantly about class relations, which can, at times, seem like overkill. But it's a small problem, and on most levels the show completely delivers. Plus, it's incredibly engaging to watch because it's a period drama with no 'based-upon' novel or novella, so literally anything could happen, especially with the sped up timeline. The series finale could include a 50-year-old Mary (still confusingly played by Dockery) accidentally killing Hitler during a passionate liaison!
Premiere Grade: B+
Season Grade (With Christmas Special): A-