Last night was the US premiere of our favorite new Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey.
Missed it? Don't worry, PBS will be doing several reruns over the next week. Check your local channel listings for details and don't read any further for there WILL be spoilers!
I recently showed Season 1 to my grandparents and they loved it, although they thought the ending was a bit of a letdown. Which is absolutely true, and exactly why we needed Season 2. The question is, does the first episode really live up to its predecessors?
My answer is yes.
With the very first shot we are plunged into the horrifying trenches of the Somme. WWI is portrayed with mud, explosions and a sense of terror, but a well set up shot list that avoids showing anything truly gory (which is perfectly in keeping with the generally PG sense of the show). Matthew is in charge of a unit in the trenches and we are shocked to see him covered in mud rather than dandied up in a dinner jacket. It's a look Matthew wears well, however, and no surprise. He's a man of honor, and no man (or woman) of honor would be able to maintain their self respect if they didn't contribute in any way they could to the war effort.
Indeed, that is the central theme of this episode with nearly every character struggling to deal with their own acceptance or avoidance of this obligation -- or the obligation in places on those they love.
Lord Grantham finds himself back in uniform but little more than a figurehead for his regiment. He's forbidden to go overseas and can do little more than show up for regimental dinners, a fact which galls him to no end.
Sylvia, the youngest daughter, meanwhile finds a way to aid the war despite all conventional rules. She goes belowstairs to take cooking lessons in preparation for a nursing program - then launches forwards into a neverending whirlwind of hospital care. Cousin Isobel supports her in this, and surprisingly enough, so does the Dowager Countess. This, in turn, leads to what one might consider Lady Grantham's contribution to the war effort -- letting her youngest daughter leave propriety and expectation behind to take on this very menial and demanding job. Lady Grantham can seem selfish at times, but the smile on her face when she watches Sylvia learn to bake a cake reminds one that every character on the show is three dimensional, with both light and dark sides, human temptations and the capacity to love.
Even Thomas, the head footman we all hate, after his cowardly action to get away from the war front, shows a genuine desire to help another in his attempt to cheer and save a blinded soldier at the Downton Hospital. Lady Mary also shows a softening of character. She is deeply in love with Matthew, but where once she would have fought to win him back, she now stands aside, seeing (at least for now) the true worth of Matthew's new fiance, Lavinia.
Actually the only character I still don't feel any sympathy for is Edith. Although I was pleased to see her finding some satisfaction in her work on the farm, I can't help but see that everything she does is to find and prove her own self worth. She lacks discretion and any sense of consequence, freely encouraging a romance with a married man. Yes, Edith is a product of her background, of being ignored and set aside for Mary all her life, but I have yet to see her do one selfless thing or really anything that endears her to me as a person. I hope to see her character grow and develop into a woman of honor and integrity, or at least see her face the true consequences and meanings of her actions.
I could go on and on about all the characters. Anna. Bates. Daisy. William. Mrs Patmore. Carson. Each one of them was given quite a solid re-introduction in this premiere episode. We also got quite a good view of our two new cast members, Lang and Edith, who both promise to be interesting and unique additions.
But the biggest question of all is how Downton Abbey as a whole is going to weather the change from country estate to war hospital... well, convalescence home.
So far I have been quite happy with Season 2 and think it lives up in every way to Season 1. I'm looking forwards to tuning in next week to episode 2!