I, along with millions of others, tuned into PBS last night with great anticipation, ready for the new season of Downton Abbey. And I’m happy to report it did not disappoint! The first episode flew by at a fast clip, almost too fast at times. I was still digesting what I’d learned in one scene when it darted to the next. But the episode did an excellent job of setting up numerous plots I look forward to following in the coming weeks’ episodes.
Warning: Spoilers below
The first episode begins at the Somme in 1916. The Somme Offensive was launched by Britain and France on July 1, and did not end until mid-November of that year. A total of 6 miles of ground were gained from the Germans, at a cost of approximately 420,000 British casualties, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German. This is where we find Matthew Crawley, covered in mud, surrounded by death and destruction. Inside a trench bunker that is constantly shaken by exploding shells, Matthew states that when he thinks of his time at Downton, it seems like another world.
This set the tone for the episode. The world we came to know in season 1 is slowly crumbling under the weight of the war. Some members of the household staff are coping with the change better than others. Carson is determined to keep up the superior standards he sets for running the house, even though he is losing footmen right and left and Mr. Bates is replaced by a valet suffering from shell shock. Mrs. Hughes attempts to make him see reason, that things must change because there’s a war on, but Carson fights it so fiercely he is forced to take bed rest after he collapses in the dining room.
The atmosphere among the other staff members has certainly changed since the first season. Anna and Mr. Bates are briefly happy until his wife returns, bringing with her the secret of the infamous scandal involving Lady Mary and the late Mr. Pamuk, using it as leverage to take Bates away from Downton. Ethel, the new housemaid, has an air of headstrong confidence and big dreams for a life beyond service. O’Brien, without her partner in crime Thomas, works on her own to put Ethel in her place.
The same sort of conflict over change takes place upstairs among the Crawleys. Ladies Edith and Sybil jump at the chance to do real work for the first time in their lives. Edith volunteers to drive a tractor on a nearby farm, and Sybil becomes a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Meanwhile Mary carries on much as she did before, enjoying the society of London and inviting one of the men she met while visiting there to Downton. When Edith discusses her work and Sybil is packing to attend her nursing courses, we see Mary off to one side, feeling out of place in this transforming world. Her sisters are moving forward, and she is getting left behind.
Amidst all this change, we still have quite a bit of character drama. It’s been two years since Mary and Matthew last saw one another when they reunite at the beginning of the episode. Despite the concern of their family, the two (surprisingly quickly) put the past behind them, and Mary is nothing but gracious towards Matthew’s fiancee, Lavinia Swire. The war seems to have subdued her to some degree, and the pettiness that we saw in the first season isn’t there anymore.
Mary is currently preoccupied by the pursuit of Sir Richard Carlisle, a “self made man” in the newspaper business, who I can only assume will bring trouble to the family. Something tells me he’s going to find out about Mary’s dirty little secret. And what does he know about Lavinia Swire?
Meanwhile Branson declares his love for Sybil, which isn’t exactly reciprocated, and Edith kisses the married farmer she’s been helping. Downstairs, Anna nurses a broken heart after Mr. Bates’s departure, while Daisy unintentionally loans hers to William before he goes off to France.
I greatly enjoyed the first episode and was intrigued by the changes many of the characters have undergone since we last saw them (Thomas for instance–I actually feel a bit of pity for him, something I never thought I’d have). The war penetrates every corner of their lives, so one can only expect that it will leave its mark on their outlooks. The new season looks like it will not disappoint in the area of plot twists either (again, I want to know what Carlisle has on Lavinia! And Ethel’s bound to get herself in trouble with her headstrong attitude, right?). This is a very different Downton than the one we visited before, and it has captured my fascination once again.
Next week the casualties of war come to Downton Abbey, which has been volunteered as a convalescent home (despite the Dowager Countess’s protests).
What did you think of the first episode of the new season?