As Season 3 of Downton Abbey gets underway, let’s take a look back at what happened during the first two seasons. I’m Laura Linney, and this… is a Chas Gillespie summary of Downton Abbey. (Cue music. Cue impressive-looking book pages flapping. Cue faces that appear as ghosts in between tangible and transparent phases.)
Many years ago a family of women, dogs, scones, and one dad lived on a large estate called Downton Abbey, where people liked to engage in eating, walking, snooty harrumphing, and hardcore gallivanting. And when I say Downton is an estate, I mean it’s like a castle without the armaments. Instead of armaments, there’s a library. There’s a massive, subterranean bunker kitchen. There’s a series of rooms known only as “the flirtation rejuvenation center.”
Why the flirtation? Because the Earl and his wife, Cora, have three daughters, and their eldest, Lady Mary, is looking for a husband. Mary’s pretty sexy, and by that I mean, she wears long gloves from time to time. Here’s the problem: she killed a Turk (typical). Well, she didn’t exactly kill him, and no, he didn’t die in some metaphorical way; he suffered a heart attack while lying in bed with Mary. The Turk was attractive and very forward (typical), and it’s not like Mary to invite a man to her room, but he went in there late one night, and she said no at first, and at second, but at third she was like, OK, I guess. Great message for all the guys out there.
This is a problem because those in the know tried to cover up the scandal, but it didn’t work because the middle daughter, Lady Edith, found out and told the Turkish embassy. And before you could say “Possibly Anachronistic Expletive,” all of London had heard the rumor that Mary is fallen. Why would Lady Edith do such a thing? Some say it’s because she is relatively unattractive. Others, because she has red hair and therefore a fiery disposition. Still others, because she was under the spell of Professor McGonagall.
The Headmistress of Gryffindor House is the grandmother of the family. The Countess-grandmother-witch is without a doubt the funniest person on the show. She says hilarious things like, in response to Cora saying that an unattractive guy is pursuing Lady Edith, and Lady Edith is interested in him, “Any port in a storm.” Such a betch.
Best supporting character: hats.
The youngest daughter is Lady Sybil, and you can tell she’s the youngest because she’s restless and reckless and into feminism or whatever. She has stricken up a friendship with the Irish driver, a young socialist named Spunkman SirPolitics Carguy. Branson for short. Back to feminism: Sybil attended a couple political rallies in favor of the liberal candidates, and she got beaten up at one of them by some political toughs with dirty elbows. Her father was quite pissed after that. He was going to take it out on the socialist, but Sybil insisted that it wasn’t his fault. Sybil also has been helping a maid, Gwen, apply to be a secretary via sircraigslist.
The time period: 1912-WWI.
Gwen is one of a number of maids and other house servants. Without the servants, Downton would not function. Nobody would eat. Nobody would bathe. Nobody would get dressed. Nobody would sleep in beds. Only half as many people would stand in V-shaped formation when first greeting a guest of the house. Nobody would do anything except sit in large rooms and wait for someone to enter the room with news.
There are guy servants, too. One is a black-haired, young, pretty boy with a heart of coal. It’s unclear why he’s so mean, but it might have to do with the fact that he frowns all the time. I’ve read that if you smile, you can trick your brain into being happy and more kind-hearted. But if you frown, your brain assumes you’re sad or angry or perhaps sitting on a porcupine. This nincompoop, named Thomas, wouldn’t be so bad, but he lets out his anger on “the new guy,” Mr. Bates.
Another thing about the hats: if you think they’re all symmetrical, boy, do you have another thing coming.
Bates is a man of mystery. No, I don’t mean that he’s a spy. But he could be a spy. But he’s probably not a spy…yet. He appeared out of nowhere, and all we know is that he has a cane. Thomas is very mean to Bates, mostly on account of the cane. See, it seems Bates can’t do all the work that a valet (pronounce “VALE-it”) is supposed to do, like carry luggage or do CrossFit. Nobody minds except the mean guy, Thomas, and his co-conspirator, O’Brien. O’Brien is also inexplicably mean, perhaps because she has a thing for Thomas, or perhaps because she’s super annoyed by the deluge of handwritten letters about friends joining Spotify and their stupid playlists.
Luckily, Bates has a few servants on his side. For example, Anna. For example, Carson. For example, Sir Crawley himself. Anna: blond servant of cheerful, good-natured disposition, very cute, who when she cries, you’re like, no, don’t cry; don’t cry, Anna. Carson, AKA Mr. Carson, AKA Head Butler: this guy’s awesome. He keeps everything running smoothly in Downton. He’s stern, but fair. His head is large, physically.
Anna’s not just on Bates’s side. She loves him. They love each other. But one of Bates’s many secrets is that he’s married to some wench who committed crimes, and then Bates took the blame. He’s noble/stupid like that. A divorce is in the works. Bates also has almost left Downton about 15 times, and by the end of Season 1, he resigns because he claims he’s the one who committed crimes.
The estate: has its own flag, which looks like the Union Jack and in the middle is Judi Dench’s face.
I haven’t mentioned the most important character yet, likely because I forgot his name. To me, he shall always be known as Blond Man Sitsalot Always Either Out-of-Breath Or Slightly Annoyed. For short, Matthew Crawley. By birth, he’s the Crawleys’ third cousin, and he is interested in Lady Mary because the estate was supposed to be handed down from Robert Crawley to this one guy in the family, named Estate Guy Who Died On The Titanic: Probably Leo-Style (Could Have Fit On Some Plank If He Tried). Now, Estate Guy Who Died On The Titanic was supposed to inherit the estate, but something tragic happened. He got on the Titanic, and he died. This event is the first thing one hears about at the beginning of the show. Because Estate Guy died on the Titanic, and because Robert Crawley has no sons, the estate is bequeathed to Matthew, a distant relative, an unknown entity.
To make him less unknown, the Crawleys invite him to Downton, and he moves in next door to some kind of neighborly, high-class shack mansion. Matthew is middle class — a lawyer — and he must learn the high-class ways. Being single, he is looking for a wife, and he immediately falls for Mary (the gloves did it, surely). But Mary finds him small-minded and uncouth. Like any great Jane Austen story, some persuasion is involved, and Mary comes to like him. She finds him charming and funny, in fact. They arrive at a state of friendship, and eventually Matthew proposes to Mary. She says she’ll think about it. Then World War I starts.
Daisy: An assistant in the kitchen. Does she have spunk? Oh, yeah. Is that spunk being strangled by an overbearing, crazy, red-headed, half blind she-munchkin chef? Naturally. Like Odysseus, she has to escape this Cyclops. But not once — every day, three times per day. Number one coping tactic: bein’ plucky and adorable.
Mrs. Hughes: sort of the female version of Carson. Might Carson and her strike up some kind of something? Odds are, no.
William: I don’t know what his job is precisely, but he has a crush on Daisy, and he seems like a decent enough fellow. A little downtrodden due to Thomas, sure, but I believe in him.
Mrs. Isobel Crawley: Matthew’s mother. She has opinions, oh yes, and she’s going to let you hear them.
A bunch of other people: There are like 100 other people who come and go. There’s a doctor who does some stuff, and maybe a neighbor or two, some suitors who make their feeble attempts, and an unspoken Presence, inevitable and irrevocable, that seeks to modernize and destroy the family’s lifestyle. Normal things like that.
“May I present Miss Lavinia Swan.” That’s one of those question-sentences people say before super fancy 1917 fundraisers. Lavinia is Matthew’s new fiancée, and she proves her devotion by nursing Matthew after he’s wounded in battle. Yes, Matthew and William arrive at Dowton badly injured, having bravely served their country. Sadly, William dies after marrying Daisy. But more important, Matthew’s dingaling doesn’t work so great. He became paralyzed from the waist down, and it looks like his inability to sire a tepid race of Li’l Matties will spell the end of Downton. But, as if by magic, luck, or unvanquishable horndog randiness, Matthew begins to feel a sensation in South Oxfordton. In the words of George Costanza, “It moved.” Mary, who also has been nursing Matthew, no longer has a reason to see him once he’s healthy, and Lavinia and Matthew hasten toward marriage.
Meanwhile, Sybil and Branson become Facebook official, much to the chagrin of Sybil’s parents. The pair even tries to run away together, but are thwarted by Anna and Mary, a duo that’s become more like a couple Hardy Boys girls than a servant and her Lady. Sybil and Branson return, but their love is steady and strong, like Mufasa, and they announce their plans for a proper marriage.
Downton turns into a convalescent home for injured soldiers, which leads to a surly soldier doing the Overcast Macarena with a new servant, Ethel. Ethel gets pregnant, the soldier denies any association, Ethel is fired, comes back, confronts the soldier’s parents, and decides to raise the baby herself. The newly busy Downton allows Sybil and Edith to volunteer as nurses; finally, Edith has found her calling. She has even attracted the interests of a suitor named Strallan. But Lady Edith has turned around her bitter and comely reputation, and I think she can do better than Old Farmer Captain No Hands.
Bates and Anna’s love encounters a series of obstacles, roadblocks, false starts, and life sentences behind bars. Bates’s wife Vera does not want a divorce, and she does not want Bates to marry someone else. Then she dies. Just when things look like they’re going to work out for Bates — he quits his job at a public house, starts working at Downton again, earns a brown belt from his judo sensei — he’s accused of murdering Vera. Bates and Anna marry because Anna wants to stand by her man. Eventually Bates goes to trial, is found guilty by a jury of powdered wigs — partly on account of Lord Grantham’s unintentionally damning testimony — and is sentenced to death by poisoned crumpet. Luckily, his sentence is commuted to life in prison.
All is not well with Lavinia and Matthew, either. It is impossible for Matthew to subdue his feelings for Mary, which are like an unstoppable, mighty river rolling down Mt. Destiny. But Mary is tied up with Sir Richard Carlisle, known affectionately to me as Snakeface Newsman Jealousmuch; he’s like Christian Bale from Newsies having grown up and gotten mean, his body a mere shell of the constantly singing and dancing young rabble-rouser he once was. Snakeface often threatens to expose Mary’s Turk problem through his vast news conglomerate if she leaves him. I still say Mary should have stuck with her grandmother’s plan: “In these moments, you can normally find an Italian who isn’t too picky.” Despite the looming scandal, Mary and Matthew kiss after dancing, which Lavinia sees. Lavinia then comes down with the Spanish flu, and tragically, she goes away to the Great Downton in the Sky. The doctors say she died of the Spanish flu, but I say she died of a broken heart. And also the flu.
After a bout of self-conscious pining, Matthew finally acknowledges his feelings for Mary; he kayaks across the Sea of Emotion, hikes through the Valley of Aphrodite, and climbs Mt. Destiny — a sacred mountain previously known by the natives as El Gran Sexo. He proposes marriage to Mary after Christmas, as the wet snow falls gently in the pale night, above them the Moon an elephant’s tusk in a savannah of stars, below them a mole family huddling in the darkness of their tinseled burrow, behind them a Christmas carol ringing through the ears of a nation after weary years of war, and in front of them many smiling seasons of slow dances and nights out and children and feeling breathless just at a lover’s touch, amidst overvaulting cultural change. That we may know their happiness and take shelter in its warm embrace.
And now we enter Season 3: The Marriaging.