The first episode of the second series picks up the story in 1916 during World War I. Many changes have taken place at Downton Abbey because of the conflict which has greatly unsettled all the occupants. A new maid proves difficult and an announcement from Matthew Crawley stuns everybody, particularly Mary. Meanwhile, there are dramas and surprises for everyone from both above and below stairs as the war rages on and all are caught up in it in some way.
Downton Abbey airs Sunday Nights at 9:00 ET on PBS. Check local listings.
Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey is a strange cookie. The British period piece currently airing on PBS has gained legions of fans from across the world, and the premiere of its second series in the US (it already aired in full in its home) can safely be called a small cultural phenomenon. Yet by all accounts, this show shouldn't be as popular as it is– it's cliché, it's hoity toity, it's everything that people should hate about a show. But all of that goes away the second the opening credits start to roll.
The first season famously opens with a mysterious stranger riding a train to Downton (the posh estate home of the Crawley family and their servants), and immediately draws the viewer into the rich world of early 20th century England, causing them to never want to leave and eventually annoying their friends, boyfriends, family and twitter followers by not shutting up about the show.
The second series opens just as magically as the first, though in a different, more terrifying sense (think Jim Rose Circus rather than Ringling Bros.). Picking up two years after the end of Series One, the opening shots reveal family heir Matthew Crawley ducking in the barracks on a battlefield during a firefight, a surprising change of view from the usual Victorian houses and exquisite costumes. The opening scene marks the beginning of a series of drastic changes that happen to the rest of the characters in the series (except for Miss O'Brien and Thomas, who are still giant fart faces).
Matthew returns home for a few days of military leave, and brings with him his new fiancé he met in London. In a scene recreating the dinner that introduces him in the first season, Matthew shows off his fiancé to the rest of the members of the Crawley Family. With the exception of Lord and Lady Grantham– who do a great job hiding the fact that this new girl throws a huge wrench in the inheritance plans– the house does not approve. She's too homely, she's an outsider, she's not Lady Mary.
Speaking of my favorite character on television with a face that always looks like something smells, Lady Mary has displayed very interesting character progression in this episode, particularly when she breaks down in prayer after the arrival of Matthew Crawley and his new fiancé. It's remarkable that when her first fiancé (and cousin, these were different times after all) died on the Titanic, the first thing that comes to her mind is whether to mourn him as a fiancé or just a cousin. Later, when the Turk dies in her bed, the first thing she thinks to do is hide the body. Lady Mary faced both of those situations with a cold heart. Yet, as soon as Matthew has a new fiancé, her life spirals out of control. But does she really love Matthew, or is she afraid of losing Downton and all of her money to a girl who came from nothing?
While Lady Mary and Matthew have emerged as the stars of DA, Sybil has become quite the fantastic character ever since she broke out with those crazy chiffon pants from the first season. Pairing her with Mrs. Pattmore (who is happily no longer blind, but still a soulless ginger) in the kitchen probably made me the happiest little boy in all of the world. With a weaker show, pitting two very headstrong characters in a kitchen together would likely result in a slapstick fight with lots of flour tossing and hair pulling. However, the writers took the highroad, making for a rather quiet pairing. Each knew their place in the house, and even though they fundamentally switched roles, a level of respect stayed, because it would be out of character for them to act any other way.
I'm not sure how I feel about the introduction of Bates' estranged wife, however. Bates has spent most of the series so far as an avatar for the viewer, a sort of fly-on-the-wall to the madness that is Downton. His relationship with (and subsequent proposal to) Anna felt odd and rushed, so adding a sort of "Tammy 2" to the whole situation made it seem stretched out and ridiculous. Brendan Coyle does a fine job of playing Bates and he is a great character, however putting him in a plot that is more than just the quiet observer feels slightly off.
That brings me to my biggest problem with the premier: it feels almost Americanized. The first season dealt with estate planning, women's rights and forced marriage, things that people these days don't deal with. The second season now seems to be about missed love, war and crazy ex-wives. The spectacle, the drama, and the foreignness made Downton Abbey into the success it is today. If the rest of the season plays out in the same fashion as this premiere, it will eventually turn into a CBS drama.
What I think will happen next week on DA: Matthew's fiancé returns to Downton without him, and gets used to the wackiness that is the estate. Bates will return with something shocking. Honestly, I think he murdered his estranged wife, because of his little angry outburst in the episode. Maybe some war stuff will come back and make Bates snap.
What would be awesome if it happened next week on DA: Sybil becomes a butch lesbian and meets a cockney London girl named Joanne. Edith takes off her wig and reveals she is actually Michael Cera.
Dylan Garsee is a freelance writer/bingo enthusiast currently living in Austin, TX. He is studying sociology, and when he's not winning trivia nights a pork-themed restaurants, writing a collection of essays on the gay perspective in geek culture. An avid record collector, Dylan can mostly be seen at Waterloo Records, holding that one God Speed You! Black Emperor record he can't afford and crying. You can follow him on twitter @garseed.