Sunday, June 05, 2016

Re-Watching Downton Abbey (Series One)

I've begun to turn the corner in terms of energy and appetite, but I'm still very limited in terms of what I can do each day. I get around better on my leg than I used to, but I'm struggling with neuropathy (numbness in my feet and a little in my hands) as a result of the chemo, which is also slowing me down. In between trying to do what I can do each day, I still need to rest a lot. Enter good books, my sketch pad, and yes...library copies of the first seasons of Downton Abbey.

We finally finished watching the final series (number six) a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself feeling really sad that the show was over. I also found myself trying to remember what the Abbey was like at the beginning of the show, which originally starts in 1912 (it ends on New Years 1926). Those fourteen years covered by six seasons cover a lot of change in the characters' lives.

Last week I wound my way through series one, which covers 1912 (it begins with the sinking of the Titanic and the drowning of the would-be heirs to the estate, propelling the plot forward) through 1914 (the declaration of what would become the Great War or World War I). Here are a few things that struck me as I watched the show with 20/20 hindsight (or as my husband chuckled, with "2016 hindsight"). I'm making comments here based on the entire show, so if you've not watched the whole thing, beware of spoilers.


The music and the house itself are magical from the very beginning. The house is clearly set up as the "main character" from the get go, and everything swirls around the estate -- how people feel about it (upstairs and down), how the family is trying to hold onto it in the midst of change, how they navigate its rooms or make the whole place run. And the music is just wonderful. I've put a collection of Downton Abbey tunes on hold and am looking forward to listening to the evocative melodies minus the narrative to see how it holds up.

Bates and Anna become fast friends from the beginning too. After everything we end up watching those two go through -- their tumultuous courtship and their angst-ridden soap-opera riddled marriage -- it was refreshing to see them as friends before all that. They quickly become allies in the house against the scheming O'Brien and Thomas and it's a delight to see the reserved Bates start to unbend and smile as he chats in the kitchen or the hallways with sweet Anna. I'm not sure I really like where they took Bates' character in subsequent seasons -- they always seem to cast doubts on whether or not he was really guilty of heinous crimes -- but watching series 1 made me remember how much I originally liked him, and helped me remember why Anna fell in love with him in the first place. They do a good job of establishing Bates' deep sense of honor and loyalty (which can sometimes make him rigid and get him in trouble). They also do a terrific job of establishing those same things in Anna which somehow aren't as rigid. I also love seeing her friendship with Lady Mary and how strong it is from the beginning as well. Mary will let down her hair (literally!) with Anna when she won't with anyone else.

The Dowager and Isobel Crawley are at daggers from the beginning too, and it just makes me laugh in delight because we know how many more years of those wonderful zingers are still to come...and yet how much of a friendship will ultimately be built between the two of them as well.

I still love Matthew Crawley and mourn the knowledge that he will only survive half of the show. It's almost impossible not to love him from the very beginning, when he toddles around the village on his bicycle, exuding sweetness and putting his foot in it with Lady Mary and scandalizing the Dowager with his middle class roots and his talk of work and weekends. We begin to see his essential kindness in the way he treats Mr. Moesley even when he feels that the work Moesley does is superfluous and pointless. You begin to realize that in some ways, learning to get used to Matthew is like a trial run for the Crawleys who are going to have to face much harder things in sons-in-laws down the pike (like the Irish nationalist chauffeur).

Lady Sybil! She's alive! I'd forgotten how much I loved Sybil and why I mourned her passing with actual tears. It's so much fun to see her in the early shows, shaking everyone up with her sprightly youth and her modern ideas. She is such necessary ballast for the family, especially for Mary and Edith.

And speaking of Edith, I had completely forgotten how utterly unlikeable she was in series one, at least a lot of the time. Kudos to the actress who does an amazing job of taking the character through one of the best character arcs in the show. Edith really matures over the years, deepening in ways we can respect and admire. It's almost impossible to reconcile the elegant, assured, and caring woman we know at the end with the insecure, pinched-face, mean-spirited young woman she is at the beginning. The best we can do is to feel sorry for her because the ultimate insecurities of the younger daughter come through from the start. But it's hard to feel too sorry for her when she's manipulating events and trying to wreck everything for her sister. I know Mary's not terribly likeable at the start either, but there feels like more depth to Mary from the beginning, even though she goes out of her way to hide it. I kept wanting to say "oh, grow up!" to Edith in exasperation, but it feels good to know that she will do exactly that.

I had forgotten how much Mrs. Patmore yells in the first series, especially at poor Daisy. Knowing how close they will grow over the years, it's a little startling to see her treating Daisy like the mere servant she is...and oy, how hard Daisy works.

Then again, they all work hard....and there are so many of them in series one. I'd forgotten just how big the downstairs staff was before the war. No wonder Mr. Carson spends the rest of the show lamenting the glory years when they had a full working staff, not the skeleton crew they end up with. The pre-war years show Downton in its full almost still 19th century glory. Maids and footmen seem to be everywhere, all of them in much more formal attire than I recalled.

Mr. Carson is such a loveable curmudgeon from the start. His devotion to Downton and to Lady Mary becomes an essentially understandable part of who he is from the very beginning. Downton is his family in ways that none of the other servants ever quite feel. I was also surprised to realize how close he and Mrs. Hughes are, despite their differences, from the very beginning....I was thinking that developed more over time. We get small glimpses into each of their pasts (Carson's time on a vaudeville stage, Mrs. Hughes' early opportunity to marry a farmer) which makes them richer characters we want to know more about. I find it interesting that the only person that Mrs. Hughes tells about the farmer's second proposal (when he comes back into her life in the episode where the fair comes to the village) is Carson. I don't know if it was my imagination or not, but Carson seemed awfully relieved that Mrs. Hughes was staying...and I don't know if that was just because he prized her skills as a housekeeper.

Daisy is another character who goes through great changes; she is lovably daft in series 1. She retains some of that daftness the whole way through, but she also grows up a lot. I had forgotten her hapless crush on Tom and her cluelessness about William's crush on her. William is just a sweetie. It's a bit hard to enjoy his presence in this first series knowing what's ahead for him in the war. 

I barely recognized Tom Branson. Golly gumdrops, as Lord Grantham might say, the early Tom and the later Tom are continents apart. I remembered, of course, that Tom was an Irish nationalist and a socialist, and that he was part of Lady Sybil's political awakening ("votes for women!") but it's a bit startling to see just how much fervor young Tom has for revolutionary politics and how much disdain he has for the English aristocracy when he essentially becomes a card carrying member of that aristocracy later in the show. I get that he comes to love the family, and that he wants them to know young Sybil (especially after her mother dies) but does it seem totally realistic that he would step so easily into the world he derided for so long? I like both manifestations of Tom (and I was especially glad he was still around to help the family after the writers killed off Matthew) but I'm just not sure that I believe in the ease of his transition from one kind of life to another.

Who remembers the back story of Cora and the Earl of Grantham? I certainly did not recall that he married Cora solely for her money (they seem to have no trouble admitting that, either of them, when Robert is bemoaning the awful fortune hunting Duke that snubs Mary) and only fell in love with her later, in their first year of marriage. Some prequel fan fiction just seems to be begging to be written here. Can you imagine the Dowager Countess' indignation over her son the Earl chasing a vulgar American in order to save the estate? Even though she would understand the practical need. No wonder she and Cora are still a little prickly with each other, even twenty years or so on.

O'Brien is just wicked this first season, though she becomes a little more sympathetic in season two (more on that season later...I've only just started watching it again). I had forgotten what a terrible influence she was on Thomas, who has moments when you wish you could like him. He is so easy to manipulate, maybe because he's hungry for friendship and respect. It's amazing the way Thomas keeps managing to keep his job at Downton, despite all of his scheming.

Gwen was an interesting character in series one, but I can see why they moved her on quickly. In many ways, she stood most symbolically for the changes that were happening in the world....for women, for the servant class. She also plays an important part in showing Lady Sybil's kindness and her openness to not just embrace change, but to be part of its unfolding. I am glad that they decided to bring Gwen back for a scene or two in the final series, as it just felt like a "full circle" sort of ending to her story. It also helped us to remember why we loved Sybil's character so much.


Erin said...

Great thoughts! Very much in line with mine, I think. It took me a few episodes, as it often does, to really start feeling like I knew the characters. Will and I rewatched the first couple seasons again a while back, before we finished the full series, and it was interesting even then to see how very much things had changed and how much we forgotten. And nice to be able to focus on characters from the get-go in a different way since they were now familiar.

I really love Anna and Bates in season one. So sweet. Daisy's clumsy naivety is very funny, and Sybil is such a refreshing idealist. Of course, Maggie Smith was the one I heard the most about going into it, and she did not disappoint one bit. There's an awful lot of humor in the show, in the midst of sweeping romance and some very dark drama. I don't think they ever expected it to become the phenomenon it did, but I can understand why it enchanted so many people!

Beth said...

The actors are really excellent. Right from the start, they seemed able to capture their characters so well and to get us to really care about them. I am discovering a new fondness for Lord Grantham. He can seem so gruff at times, but deep down, I think he's really an old softie. And I think the changes they all go through may be hardest on him...and Carson (one reason I think they connect so well and respect each other so much).

I remember it took me quite a while, in the original run, to warm up to Cora. I like her much more from the get-go when re-watching.

I forget the name of the older would-be suitor for Edith (the one who ultimately leaves her at the altar later on) but I like him very much. I actually get the sense that Edith could have been happy with him, though in the end, things worked out so well for her that it's good that her happiness took a while to find her.

The actress who plays Mary really impresses me, the more I watch her. She walks an amazing line between being insufferably superior (the face she presents to the world) and vulnerable. She's so good at letting the vulnerability show through that you can't help but like her, even when she says and does things you wish she wouldn't. Right from the start, we need to be on her side in the matter of the entail and the estate. Matthew is a great foil for her because he brings out her soft side, the side she hardly lets anyone else see.

I didn't know you and Will had re-watched the early seasons. I plan to keep going this summer...I may actually let myself go through the whole show straight. ;-)

Erin said...

Yes, Grantham and Carson really do make a great pair. :) And of course I love Isis, and Lady Violet getting him another puppy at the end. Every show ought to have a faithful dog around someplace!

Yeah, I liked Edith's older suitor too (and was so irked with her and Mary's nastiness to each other around that time). I think he really was a good guy. Season two brings out a lot of the best in Edith too, with her having the chance to show off her softer side as she helps the soldiers. Matthew was such a sweetheart... It was so brutal to lose Sybil and him both so close together.

I actually caught an episode in the second season first, out of order, so at first I thought Downton Abbey was basically a hospital show, albeit set during WWI England. It was odd for me to realize that was really a pretty small part of the overall storyline!

Beth said...

Oh, that's funny that you thought it was a hospital show! I can see how you thought so -- it was a huge part of season 2 (which I just finished). It must have seemed so strange for the whole family to go back to Downton being a private house again. A relief in some ways, but on the other hand, they were able to do a lot of good during the war and the younger generation at least seemed to appreciate having something meaningful to do.

Edith changes so much throughout the course of season 2 -- she really becomes the person we know and love during the war.

I hated losing both Sybil and Matthew.