Downton Discussion: What You Need to Know About the Downton Abbey Series 2 Premiere

The highly anticipated second series of Downton Abbey returned to America this past Sunday with strong ratings, plenty of drama, and lots of twists to get fans talking. So…let’s do that, shall we?

The two-hour first episode introduced war to Downton, offered lots of changes to relationships both new and old, and brought some new characters into the fold. Click through for a recap of the big plot takeaways and share your thoughts on the episode in the comments!

So, here are the big takeaways from this episode:

There’s Been a Rather Significant Time Jump and Some Things Are Very Different. As we watch scenes of William helping Lord Grantham get dressed, Branson teaching Lady Edith how to drive, and the kitchen staff working to prepare food for a hospital fundraiser, we realize that quite a bit of time has passed since the end of Series 1. They did tell us this fact as a subscript during the series’ opening scene, but reading it is one thing, and realizing the very real impact that fact will have on the show is another.  (And I imagine a lot of people just might not have twigged to simple fact that two years have passed between series, and we didn’t just jump right into the beginning of the war.) Either way, that’s a lot of narrative ground that has been covered off-screen and adjusting is a bit of a shock.

Relationships between characters have been altered or forged during this gap period, and relearning how some of the characters now relate to each other can feel confusing or sudden. The characters themselves have changed as well. For example, it’s a bit odd to see what is, for us, a completely different O’Brien than we remember and to have to keep reminding ourselves that she’s had two years to grow from her experiences at the end of Series 1. Don't worry - she’s not grown enough as a person to stop being a master manipulator, she’s at least lost that hint of ULTIMATE EVIL that hung ‘round her at the end of last season.

Maggie Smith Remains Amazing. Smith gets the best entrance (obviously), as the Dowager Countess suddenly appears in a doorway in a blaze of snarky commentary and fabulous fur to judge people and take over control of the flower arranging. She’s also surprisingly supportive of Sybil’s nursing ambitions and, as it turns out, has been instrumental in trying to keep both William and Moseley out of the war.

But, of course, what everyone really wants to know is, what are her best lines?

  • “That’s a relief. I hate Greek drama, when everything happens off stage."
  • “You can’t pretend it’s not respectable. Not when every day we’re treated to pictures of Queens and Princesses in Red Cross uniform, ladling soup down the throat of some unfortunate.”
  • “My, my, you’re very well-placed if you’re ever in trouble with the law.”
  • Lady Grantham: “I’m afraid meeting us all together must be very intimidating.”  Dowager Countess: “I do hope so.”

Everyone Wants Some Social Mobility. Sybil becomes a nurse. Ethel wants to be more than a housemaid. Branson wants to date above his station. Edith learns to drive and works on a farm (wait…what?). Self-made newspaperman Sir Richard Carlisle wants to marry Mary in order to get some aristocratic manners to go along with his piles of money.  Yes, things are very different in this new world of Downton Abbey at war, and as Ethel is so (overly) fond of pointing out, things are changing for everyone. It’s possible that every one of our characters – whether they live upstairs or down – will have to figure out a way to forge new lives for themselves after the war is over. At the very least, their lives will be all very different from what they knew before, if only because so many of them, whether gentry or servants, have now experienced life outside of those previously proscribed boundaries.

After all this upheaval, it almost warms your heart to see Mr. Carson doing something as familiar as performing social recon on Matthew’s new fiancé Lavinia by looking her up in Burke’s Peerage. It’s comforting in a “some things never change” way.  

Anna and Bates Are So Adorable and Tortured. Anna and Bates get engaged! Anna and Bates kiss! Everything is adorable and perfect! (Except for his proposal, which was kind of the worst thing ever. But: “You might start calling me John.” It’s too precious!) This of course lasts for….about fifteen minutes, until Mr. Bates’ evil wife Vera shows up and threatens to ruin the Crawley family by dredging up the whole dreadful Lady Mary and Mr. Pamuk business unless Mr. Bates gives their marriage another shot. (Though I do wonder – would anyone still care about that 2-3 years afterward in terms of spreading scandal. Anyway. I suppose she did threaten Anna, too.)  Vera is awful and, personally, I’m angry that Bates actually went to prison to keep this horrible woman out of jail. 

It’s also a bit hard to take Anna’s sudden attitude shift after Mr. Bates leaves though – her insistence that her life is basically over without him, that she can’t have dreams or goals or another relationship is depressing and sad. I’ve always found her a stronger character than that, and while I’m rooting for them to get back together as much as (probably more than) most people, her response is troubling.

Sidebar: Mrs. Hughes! How Are You So Cool? The revelation that Mrs. Hughes’ eavesdropped on the conversation between Vera and Bates that basically amounted to blackmail was cheer-worthy. Here’s hoping she can fix things with her magical organizational prowess.

The Matthew-Mary Situation Continues. Sometime during the two-year gap between seasons, Matthew has gone and gotten himself engaged, to a perfectly nice but terribly bland girl named Lavinia Swire. She is so bland and inoffensive that it is actually hard to dislike her, and part of you wonders for a second if maybe Matthew might be better off with someone like this, who won’t run him emotionally ragged with her indecisiveness and self-absorption (and this is coming from someone who likes Mary). But then something like that scene at the train depot happens, where Mary gives Matthew her little stuffed dog as a lucky charm to keep him safe at the front, and suddenly you’re swooning all over the place and googling pictures of the two of them together for your desktop wallpaper.  Ugh. Why do they have to be so swoon-worthy? Matthew’s engaged and Mary’s considering a proposal from the throwback version of Rupert Murdoch (and his proposal might actually be worse than Bates’, what is wrong with these men?), so who knows what’s next for these crazy kids. I’m guessing we’re in for tremendous amount of longing looks. (Yes, more than normal.) And of course there's that bit where Sir Richard seemed to be threatening Lavinia for some unknown reason. That should be interesting.

Sidebar #2: Isobel Crawley Needs to Calm Down. Cousin Isobel’s constant do-gooding and super judgy attitude may have permanently converted me to the Dowager’s opinion of her. I get that she’s trying to do her bit for the war effort, and she seems very competent at it, but must she be so high-handed and irritating about it? Poor Moseley, who virtually had to say thank you to her after watching her argue about all the compelling reasons he shouldn’t be allowed to avoid being sent off to war.  

Goodness, is it next Sunday yet?

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