The genius of Downton Abbey’s first season was the show’s ability to capture the dizzying claustrophobia of Edwardian life; its idea (props to Upstairs, Downstairs) that one vanilla-frosted house could contain the entire universe within its walls. Everyone felt constrained by something: Mary by the need to marry off in order to inherit her fortune, Edith by her homely jawline, Sybil by formal wear, the Dowager Countess by basic decorum. And then there were the servants down below, limited in their own ways not only by their lower-class lots in life, but also by a scrappy territorialism and petty infighting.
The whole thing was deliciously tense and tightly-wound, so much so that a single breach in conduct had explosive effects. One night of romantic disobedience led to Mary dragging a limp body through the halls. One act of soapy negligence and O’Brien was responsible for manslaughter. High stakes had finally returned to the sleepy British period drama. In writer-creator Julian Fellowes’ hands, a pantsuit debut felt like a bra-burning.
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And now it’s back! Riding in on the coattails of extreme hype, of course. In the year-long hiatus between seasons, the show won four Emmys and the Guinness Book called it the most “critically well-received show in the world.” The younger cast members frolicked around London for jarring photo-ops in modern dress (a thing I will never not unsee: Lady Edith in skinny jeans). The older ones shipped to India to get their groove back with the kid from Slumdog Millionaire. Maggie Smith became so revered that the Internet showed us how to make her Dowager hat. You definitely heard about the show more than once from your mother. So what other way could Fellowes ride in on this wave of gushy froth than with a literal bang?
Yes, yes, y’all, we are at war now. Our first episode back begins and ends with gunfire, a bullet sandwich that is more zombies than Pride and Prejudice, but that’s the point: we are not in Downton anymore, Toto. The year is 1916, Matthew is now a burly commander with Ramboic reflexes, Thomas is so terrified of combat that he sacrifices his precious footman hands and all of the men back in the country are preoccupied by whether or not they are going to the front.
Of course, not everything has changed. The national crisis cannot overshadow all of the mini-dramas inside the house. If anything, the war (in this episode at least) cements each character’s most basic personality traits. O’Brien is still a conniving hag. Sybil still leaks idealism from her corset. Carson would still pass out if he saw a tarnished goblet. Lady Crawley still has the cloying moral compass of a nun (she puts the abbey in…well). The Dowager is still deploying withering one-liners. Edith is still insecure and trite. And Anna is still so gaga in love with Bates that she stretches his last name into three syllables. The only character that seems to have had a true soul transplant in two years is Michelle Dockery’s impeccable Lady Mary.
So here we are friends, at the start of our grand WWI adventure together. Because Downton packs so much into each episode, it’s impossible to run a play-by-play. Instead, I like to think of each installment in terms of yearbook superlatives. Let’s do this.
The Dowager Countess Medal for Best Dowager Countess One-Liner: “Cora’s flowers always look more suited to a first communion in Southern Italy.”
Most Desperate to Go to War Award: It’s a dead tie between Lord Grantham and William, but we’ll give it to the Earl and his burning desire to march through the Somme, crickety knees and all. It’s too early in the war yet for Lord Granny to understand the brain-twisting horrors that Erich Maria Remarque would later spell out in All Quiet on the Western Front. All he sees is his honor being slowly drained from him through fake regimental dinners and partycrashers bearing white feathers. We feel sorry for the guy. I mean, not really, since he isn’t getting his head blown off in a trench somewhere. But we want him to feel useful.
The “All the Boys I’ve Ever Danced With Are Dead” Award for Community Service: Of course Sybil wants to go train as a nurse and get her hands inside the gritty wounds of Britain’s bravest youth. It’s a logical extension of her rebellious nature that she would be “the first to leave the nest,” as Cora’s delicate American side laments. The best part of the storyline was finding that Sybil, despite her populist politics, has no domestic skills whatsoever. Girl has to learn to fill a tea kettle. This matters little to Branson, who confesses his burning love for her while one-legged men do calisthenics in the background. Romantic! Though Sybil sweetly refuses to live in socialist sin with him, I’d guess that this isn’t the last time the chauffeur melodramatically corners her in an alley.
The Obnoxious Yet Golden Moral Compass Prize: The thing I love about Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley is that she has found the nuance in a character that is, above most things, a general nuisance to everyone in town. It is impossible to hate a character who always does the right thing (or is it? I kind of hate her.) She delivers the news that Matthew is engaged, and aims to correct the Dowager’s meddling in the war recruitment process. Yet, as with all overly pious people, one also wants to snap her neck. We have to commend her for her “everyone at the front is a special case to someone” speech, but we don’t have to like her.
The John Bates Ribbon for Speaking Too Soon: Season one led us to believe that Bates is the romantic hero of Downton Abbey, with his hidden past and stoic devotion to Anna, his mother, and his crazy wife. His ability to fall on his sword for the women in his life casts him as a truly sensitive man. He is perfection with a limp. Season two complicates that. It finds Bates overstepping himself, rattling off ambitious “we” dreams for Anna’s future: “We will buy a hotel! We will fill it with little kids! We will live in bliss!” It all leads to a lot of snotty smiling on Joanna Froggatt’s part, and later, a lot snotty frowning. It’s always a good idea to check that your wife wants a divorce before promising the world to your emotional mistress, but that’s a lesson Bates had to learn the hard way.
We don’t fault him for leaving the Earl without a cufflinks expert in order to save the house from scandal, but there is something upsetting in the way he leaves Anna on the note that he is worthless. His self-abnegation is noble, but it leaves Anna second-guessing her desires. For now, he’s just another man who made promises he can’t fulfill. The character assassination has begun!
The Kemal Pamuk Memorial Character-as-Roadblock Prize: How do you solve a problem like Lavinia Swire? She’s perfectly nice, and knows a lot about lawyers and law things and legalese. She probably wouldn’t make life hell for Downton’s future inhabitants. But she is in the way. The only upstairs love story that really matters is between Mary and Matthew— no pressure, but the future of the entire estate is riding on it — and that waifish strawberry blonde is ruining it. Ruining it! Now we just have to wait until she mysteriously dies in someone’s bed.
The Most Improved Award: Maggie Smith may be Downton’s comic relief, but Michelle Dockery is its heart. Her portrayal of Lady Mary is so precise that she can deliver ten layers of expression in a single glance. When she spies Matthew and Lavinia together at the concert, she magically seems to move from excitement to regret to resentment to cool indifference to elegant kindness in seconds, giving her “I’m Mary Crawley” introduction a spine-tickling depth. The character has matured, understanding that being the golden child no longer means she can take anything she wants for herself. She is practicing patience and grace, a first for her. Though if Matthew’s devotion to the stuffed dog lucky charm says anything, she won’t have to be patient for too long.
The Inaugural Award for Using A Catchphrase from Clueless to Punctuate a Dramatic Moment: I didn’t know they said “AS IF!” in Edwardian England, but Vera Bates and her evil cackle did.
In past lives, Rachel Syme has been Books Editor of NPR, Culture Editor of The Daily Beast, Entertainment Editor for the New York Post and a senior editor at Radar. She is currently at work on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years for Random House. You can find her on Twitter at @rachsyme.