Downton Abbey Review


Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Maggie Smith
Summary: Downton Abbey is an addictive period drama delving into the lives of the aristocrats and servants living in a British country estate.
Genre(s): Drama
Love, murder, romance, death, and war are just a few of the topics covered in the deliciously charming family drama Downton Abbey. The series, which premiered on ITV in 2010, has been a huge success with audiences and critics alike.  The drama lures viewers in by presenting the ups and downs of everyday life for the Crawleys and the dozens of servants who work  on their estate, named, as you’ve might have already guessed, Downton Abbey. The sprawling ensemble cast includes every member of the household, from the Earl who heads the household to the cook’s assistant.

The series is set in a small fictional English town, where Downton Abbey is the prize jewel. The first season of the show is set in the years leading up to World War I. The four subsequent seasons cover the years during World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, the formation of the Irish Free State, and the early unsuccessful attempts of Adolf Hitler to gain power in Germany.

Downton Abbey was an immediate smash hit, charming not only viewers in England, but also in the US.  It won an Emmy for Best Miniseries or TV Film in 2011.  Season six has been ordered by ITV and will air in the fall of 2015.

To watch Downton Abbey on Seven, check out the latest Foxtel packages.

Show Summary

There are two couples that head the Downton Abbey household: Robert and Cora Crawley, who serve as Lord and Lady Grantham; and Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, who serve as the butler and housekeeper at Downton. Many of the storylines in the series focus on the class system separating the aristocrats from the working class and highlight how these class rules begin to dissolve after World War I.

Also living in the estate are Robert and Cora’s three daughters: Mary, Edith, and Sybil. Mary is stubborn, fiery, and well ahead of her time when it comes to women’s issues. Edith is a quiet introvert, while Sybil is the rebel of the group. Robert’s mother, the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, played by the revered actress Maggie Smith, adds another generation into the Downton mix.

Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes have their hands full managing a staff that includes a variety of under-butlers, valets, footmans, ladies’ maids, cooks, and cooking assistants. The staff’s lives receive just as much attention from the producers of the show as those of their employers, and are full of stories about unrequited love, bravery, romance, and manipulation.

Cast

Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley

Michelle Dockery as Mary Crawley

Laura Carmichael as Edith Crawley

Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley

Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley

Jim Carter as Charles Carson

Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes

Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates

Brendan Coyle as John Bates

Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow

Allen Leech as Tom Branson

Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley

Jessica Brown Findlay as Sybil Crawley

Lily James as Rose MacClare

Season Recap

At the beginning of season one, we find out about the death of two of Robert Crawley’s relatives on the Titanic. One of these relatives was also Downton’s heir, who was set to marry Robert’s oldest daughter Mary. Even though Downton’s money comes from Robert’s American wife, Cora, Robert and Cora can only leave their fortune to a male heir – and they have three daughters.

To ensure that their daughters will remain financially secure, a distant male relative, Matthew Crawley, is brought in as a promising match for Mary. Matthew is joined by his widowed mother, Isobel. However, Mary and Matthew are far from an ideal pair. Matthew dislikes the class distinction between the aristocracy and the working class that is so apparent at Downton Abbey, while Mary refuses to be forced into a marriage out of obligation.

Downstairs, Mr. Bates, who served with Lord Grantham in the military, is hired to serve as Robert’s new valet. This angers one of the footmans, Thomas, who had his eyes on the valet position. Thomas attempts to get rid of Mr. Bates after he learns that Bates was previously arrested for theft. When it is revealed that Bates went to prison to protect his ex-wife not only does he keep his job, but Mary’s maid, Anna, starts to fall in love with him.

Throughout the season, the butler, Mr. Carson, is blackmailed by his former music-hall performer partner; contemporaries Isobel and Violet Crawley clash over the local hospital; Mary must hide the fact that a suitor has died in her bed; and William the footman tries to woo Daisy, the assistant cook. Other storylines include Sybil convincing the chauffeur, Branson, into taking her to a political event that ends in violence, Mary derailing her sister Edith’s courtship, and Cora’s maid causing an accident that results in her having a miscarriage.

Thomas ends up joining the military after his failed attempt to oust Bates, and Matthew finally realises he has fallen in love with Mary, despite their bickering. Unfortunately, Mary does not share his feelings and rejects his marriage proposal. As the season ends, news of an impending war is spreading, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

As season 2 begins, William, Thomas, and Matthew Crawley are all fighting in WWI. Matthew and Mary continue to be friends, but Matthew is now engaged to another woman, Lavina. Mary admits to herself that she does in fact have feelings for Matthew, but it now appears to be too late. Mr. Bates’ ex-wife causes trouble for Bates and Anna’s budding romance, and Bates temporarily leaves his position at Downton. Sybil starts nursing training and Branson reveals that he has fallen in love with her.

William asks Daisy to marry him after learning he will die from a war injury. She obliges, even though she does not share his feelings. Matthew is also injured in the war and is told he will never walk again. However, after being cared for by Mary at Downton, he makes a slow recovery.

Mary is forced to accept an engagement to keep news of her dead suitor secret and Bates’ ex-wife insists she will not stop until she has ruined his life. Shortly after this threat though, she is found dead. Anna and Bates secretly marry, but Bates is arrested and convicted for his ex-wife’s murder.

During season 2 the war ends and Sybil and Branson announce their plans to marry, which shock Sybil’s parents. Lavina tells Matthew that they should cancel their engagement plans after she sees that Matthew and Mary have fallen in love. Shortly after this announcement, Lavina dies of the Spanish flu.

As the season ends, Mary escapes her engagement with the man blackmailing her, Sybil and Branson wed, and Mary and Matthew finally agree to marry each other.

As season 3 begins, Downton Abbey is in a financial crisis, as Robert’s investments have failed. While Matthew has enough money to save Downton, he is initially hesitant to use it; the money came from Lavinia’s father, who Matthew feels he deceived.

Sybil and Branson are now married and expecting a child, but Branson’s working class background and his strong political beliefs about his home country Ireland complicate his new role in the aristocracy. When Branson runs into trouble in Ireland, he is saved by his father-in-law, Robert. However, Branson learns he will face charges if he ever returns to Ireland.

Edith’s wedding day becomes an embarrassment as she is left jilted at the altar. She then finds sanctuary writing for a London newspaper. Anna continues to visit Bates in prison. He is eventually proven to be innocent and is released. Mrs. Hughes has a cancer scare and the hiring of the attractive young footman Jimmy causes a stir in the kitchen.

Tragically, Sybil dies during labor after an argument between two doctors concerning the proper treatment of her condition. Sybil and Branson’s daughter survives and Branson names her Sybil. Lady Rose MacClare, a young and somewhat wild Crawley relative, comes to Downtown to escape her warring parents, while Edith’s married newspaper editor declares his love to her.

As season 3 ends, Mary gives birth. Unfortunately, shortly after meeting his son, Matthew is tragically killed in a car accident.

Season 4 of Downton Abbey picks up six months after Matthew’s shocking death. Mary is still in mourning and struggling to show affection to her young son. Cora gets a new ladies’ maid, Edna, who takes an inappropriate liking to Tom, still grieving over Sybil’s passing. Edna leaves Downton after unsuccessfully trying to force Tom to marry her.

Lord Grantham grudgingly lets Tom and Mary work with him on much needed estate upgrades. Mary starts a flirtation with Lord Gillingham, but refuses his marriage proposal. When Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green, brutally rapes Anna at Downton, she pleads with Mrs. Hughes to keep it a secret from her husband who she fears will seek revenge. Mr. Green later dies in a freak accident in London.

Edith spends the night with her married suitor, Michael Gregson, right before he departs to Germany to gain a divorce from his mentally incapacitated wife. Edith discovers that she is pregnant. With no word from Gregson after his departure, she decides to have her baby abroad with the help of the Dowager Countess. Rose has a brief romance with a black nightclub singer; Mrs. Hughes and Anna fear Bates may have had a hand in Mr. Green’s death; and Tom struggles to find his place at Downton and befriends a local school teacher.

As season 4 ends, Edith decides to give her child to a local tenant farmer to raise her so she can see her grow up. Also, it appears as if Gregson has been killed by violent men in “brown shirts” while in Germany.

As season 5 begins, Edith struggles to maintain a relationship with her secret daughter who is living with a local farmer. Robert and Carson are tasked with building a war memorial in the village and Tom’s new friend Miss Bunting causes quite a stir at Downton with her blunt political opinions.

Isobel receives an unexpected marriage proposal and Violet is reunited with a displaced Russian aristocrat from her past. Both women reluctantly turn down proposals of marriage and companionship.

Later in the season, Mary asks her maid Anna to procure her a birth control device so she can spend a weekend with Lord Gillingham. Soon after their weekend together though, Mary rejects Gillingham’s proposal and steers him to another woman.

Throughout the season, the police make several trips to Downtown investigating Mr. Green’s death and Anna is eventually arrested for murder. Thomas becomes ill and starts a treatment meant to cure his homosexuality. Cora is romantically pursued by a fellow art lover, which leads to a temporary strain in her marriage to Robert.

After Edith learns that Gregson has in fact been killed in Germany by violent men in “brown shirts,” she takes her daughter from the local farmer to raise her on her own. While Edith initially tells everyone that she had taken the child in as a ward out of charity, most of her family soon guesses the truth.

Tom decides to move to America and Rose marries a Jewish man, Atticus, whose father is at first very disapproving of Rose. Rose’s parents announce that they are going to divorce and Rose’s mother unsuccessfully tries to derail her daughter’s wedding.

As season 5, ends Mrs. Hughes accepts a marriage proposal from Mr. Carson and Anna is released from prison after a witness changes their story.

Our Critic Review

If there is such a thing as a high-class soap opera, Downton Abbey brilliantly fits the description. The enormous cast allows the writers to delve into a large number of compelling storylines involving romance, deception, and even murder. What sets this show apart from a regular family drama is the excellent writing that gives the actors to chance to fully explore the depth of their characters.

There are so many unexpected twists and turns during Downton’s five seasons that the show always leaves viewers eager to figure out what will happen next on the fascinating English estate. If only the seasons were just a tiny bit longer!

VIDEO: watch the Series 5 Cast Interviews with Lord Grantham, Lady Mary, Carson, Branson and more!

Critic Reviews

It seems like the series is ready to reinvent itself. Perhaps not too much but enough to keep viewers tuning in. Read Full Review

Rob Lowman, Los Angeles Daily News

After some awkward aspects to season four, the new year returns exploring many of the same issues while adding wrinkles to old ones, as Julian Fellowes continues to masterfully juggle a vast assortment of players upstairs and downstairs. Read Full Review

Brian Lowry, Variety

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