A drama about the upstairs lives and downstairs lives in a (just post-) Edwardian English country house isn’t exactly a new idea. If you have even the barest interest in the topic, you could probably rattle off a half-dozen films and TV series right off the top of your head that explored a world either exactly the same as the one depicted in this series or a world that differs from it only by a decade or two in either direction. When Downton Abbey was first recommended to us, we shrugged at the concept but settled in to watch the first episode because, well, there was nothing else on TV that night.
We were hooked within minutes. If you’re a fan of the show, you probably were too.
One of the really interesting things about this first episode of the show is that it quite confidently strolls through the mise-en-scene, recreating a world at the corner of your eyes as the actors speak and the camera moves smoothly from place to place. In other words, this first episode (and all the subsequent ones, but this first one was the most important) does an elegant job of setting the time and the place for the viewer. You inhabit it almost immediately. Part of the way the show does this is by reveling in certain scenes and actions that, at this point, could charitably be considered cliches: the ironing of the morning newspaper, the setting of fires in the first floor rooms, the whispered backstair conversations, the Lord and Lady of the house rising and being tended to like royalty by quiet, efficient people in black and white who know their place. We’ve seen it all many times and yet, it’s presented here with a rhythm and pacing that gently draws you into this world.
Of course, another way to set the scene in a period drama is to fall back on that other cliche of starting off with a famous historical event that all the characters can comment on. Certainly, the sinking of the Titanic serves that purpose nicely. It’s probably the single most famous 20th Century event predating World War I (and perhaps not coincidental to its appearance here, became one of the most popular period dramas of all time). Between the ironing of the newspapers and the sinking of the Titanic, one could come away with the early impression that the show’s creators are stacking the deck right in the beginning of the story. In other words, you could argue that the use of these cliches were a somewhat easy way to get the audience onboard right at the beginning.
But wisely, show creator Julian Fellowes used the Titanic sinking not just as a way to set time and place for the viewer, but also to set the entire story in motion. Everything now hinges on the fact that Lord Grantham’s sole male heir died in the tragedy and the future of the estate is now in jeopardy. Even if a 21st Century audience can’t wrap their head around the aristocratic lifestyle depicted here, they can understand quite easily something like inheritance drama, even if the entail is a concept completely foreign to most modern people (and certainly most modern Americans).
Better yet, the entail drama serves as an introduction to pretty much every single family member; Lady Mary, who as the eldest child (and the one betrothed to the now-dead heir) has the most skin in the game, but middle sister Edith is clearly suffering from Jan Brady-ism: the forgotten middle child, neither as marry-able as her older sister nor as precious as her younger sister, Sibyl, who serves as a peacekeeper among the three girls, mainly because she has removed herself completely from any marriage or inheritance drama. And finally, there is the Dowager Countess (and we would just like to say that a typing error left one of the preceding words without an “o” and we laughed at how appropriate itsounded), Lord Grantham’s mother, who is probably more invested than anyone in the inheritance drama as Downton Abbey represents her life’s work as much as it does her son’s. She is also, because Maggie Smith inhabits her skin, the most entertaining of any of the characters and gets the absolute best lines. “Are we to be friends, then?” asks her daughter–in-law. “We are allies, my dear,” responds the Dowager Countess, “Which can be a good deal more effective.”
Further complicating things is the fact that all the money tied up in the estate originally came from Cora, who was an American heiress when she married into the family. Interestingly, the show sometimes tends to walk briskly past the class issues on display here, but revels in the anti-American classism that both Cora’s mother–in-law and even daughters sometimes subject her to. Classism in Downton
Abbey isn’t about servants vs. masters; it’s about rich Americans vs. titled English.
So what purpose do the servants serve here, dramatically speaking? It’s not so obvious in this first episode, but in subsequent ones, the show takes a fairly ahistorical view of the relationship between employer and servant, depicting it in a far less rigid way than the historical norm allowed. In short, the servants here are quite often far too familiar with the family and the family seems to encourage it. It’s not a coincidence that the very first thing Lord Grantham commented on when news of the Titanic sank was “all those poor people in steerage,” and let’s face it: even if he was an uncommonly open-minded aristocrat, that’s just a little heavy-handed when the likelihood of him knowing non-steerage people who died in the sinking was very high. But it sets the tone: the masters of Downton Abbey are affectionate to the servants and allow them quite a bit off leeway in expressing – and even bettering – themselves. Nothing illustrates this better than the hiring of Mr. Bates as Lord Grantham’s personal valet.
Re-watching these episodes with a far more critical eye, we can’t help thinking that there was definitely something to the complaints some of the other servants were making about the appropriateness of hiring Bates for a job that required so much of him physically. For all Bates’ assurances that it wouldn’t be a problem, the fact is, it WAS a problem, because he couldn’t fill in at the table the way a valet would be expected to from time to time, and it seems he often needed help with the luggage and the stairs. Yes, Thomas and O’Brien make deliciously evil antagonists and we do so love to hate them, but they weren’t totally in the wrong for voicing some concern (of course, they took it a lot further than that, straight into sabotage), but when Carson, the butler, voiced similar concerns, we found ourselves wondering if they all didn’t have a point. Even Cora pushed her husband about it, due mainly to the fact that she’s a bit distressingly eager to accept anything the sour O’Brien tells her. There’s a great scene between Robert and Cora that illustrates that of the two of them, it’s the American that suffers from class snobbery far greater than the titled Englishman. Lord Grantham’s stubbornness in the face of so much opposition (he eventually relents and allows Bates to continue on as valet, after originally sacking him) sets the tone for the rest of the series, as the family tends to go in and out of the downstairs drama, oftentimes injecting themselves right into the lives of their servants.
And speaking of the lives of servants, let’s hear it for Thomas, the evil, gay, blackmailing servant who has the steel balls to get himself involved in Lady Mary’s marrying prospects, only to have it blow up in his face, or at least go up in smoke. That little Duke was a slimeball from the word go (yet strangely hot in Boardwalk Empire). Thomas, you little status queen, you; we hope you learned a lesson: “One swallow does not a summer make.” Ouch.
But of all the servants, we fell in love with Anna, the sweet head housemaid who sees through Mr. Bates’ bluster and reaches out to the pained man underneath. Even better, she can sass O’Brien like no one else on the staff can. If Lord Grantham is the heart of Downton Abbey, then Anna is the heart of its downstairs inhabitants. Mrs. Hughes the Housekeeper and Carson the butler may be the parents of that downstairs family, but Anna is the one most in tune with what’s going on around her.
And with the very brief last-minute introduction of new heir presumptive Matthew Crawley and his mother Isobel, the cast and the plot are secured in place going forward. The family will be forced to welcome an unsuitable stranger into their house as the new heir, just as the servants have been forced to welcome an unsuitable stranger into their midst as the new valet. Will bitchy Lady Mary fall for her cousin or is she just too damaged and exhausted from being treated like a prize no one seems to want? Will Mr. Bates ever have it out with Thomas? Will Anna ever give the evil O’Brien the back of her hand? Will the Dowager Countess ever get used to electricity? Will sour Edith ever learn to hold her tongue? Will scatterbrained Daisy ever open her eyes and see that sweet William is the man for her and not scowling, gay, blackmailing Thomas?
Stay tuned! And please refrain from posting any spoilers.
[Screencaps: tomandlorenzo.com – Video: pbs.org]