Downton Abbey is a British TV series in 6 seasons, depicting the life of the aristocratic Crowley family and their servants. It is a historical drama set in Yorkshire between the years of 1912 and 1926.
The show touches upon many historical events – starting with the sinking of Titanic in the very first episode, and going through many others including – the First World War, the Spanish Influenza Pandemic, the development of the telephone, the Marconi Scandal, the women’s right to vote, the Irish war of independence, the rise of the working class, and many more.
What I love about the show is that there is a lot of history and a lot of politics in there but presented in a very accessible way. After all, the show is about the private life of this one family and we learn about historical events and political affairs from their months, when they read the newspapers, or discuss them during breakfast, when they argue with each other, when they joke or gossip. So the show is serious but entertaining at the same time.
Apart from this historical context, there are many other topics and universal themes across the series, especially related to self-discovery, self-actualization, duty, responsibility, family, love.
Characters & Themes
All of the above is developed through the development of the different characters in the series. And I think this is the biggest strength of Downton Abbey – the characters, and not only the main ones. Each of the characters carry a strong presence – and through their eyes, opinions and behavior we, as viewers, completely emerge into the story. The characters grow, change but stay true to themselves, and by the end of the series, you feel them as old friends.
Let’s start with Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and his wife Cora – they both are the rulers of Downton Abbey, or well, rather he is. And here comes one of the big plot lines and topics of the first season, and of the series in general – who will inherit the title and the money after Lord Grantham dies. He has three daughters but only a man can be the hair of his fortune. This immediately sets the tone for a series that is more or less feminists, or at least depicting the struggles women faced at that time, and the unfairness of the old traditions and customs.
So naturally both parents are very concerned, trying to find the best suitable candidates for all of the daughters but mainly for the eldest one. Who they marry and who will get Downtown Abbey at the end, these are the big story lines in the series.
The image of Lord Grantham is the perfect reflection of the aristocracy of that time. He is fair, reasonable, depicted as this pillar of integrity and honor, but he is also very pragmatic, he knows his duty and responsibilities to the title and the estate.
Cora, his wife, is in fact American. There is not much information given how they met but on a few occasions we are made clear that Robert married her for her money, to save Downton Abbey from bankruptcy, but soon after that he fell in love with her.
So they both form a nice couple. And through the series we see them discuss the challenges of married life and raising children, compromising, and being parent and spouse without losing yourself. We also see their different attitude towards their children. I love how Lord Grantham appears really conservative and strong-headed at the beginning of the series and little by little shows his heart, and changes towards new ideas. There are also these moments, like taken from Pride and Prejudice, when he talks to his daughters, and I will say again, it is really important whom they will marry, but at some point he just says that their happiness is more important than the family fortune and family honor. And us seeing how much they want his love and respect and forgiveness for their mistakes, it is just heart-warming.
Cora is much softer than he is, and much more flexible with her daughter’s choices. She being American, gives the screen writers the opportunity to joke with some British customs and quirks.
This brings me to another character – the granny. She is like an institution – very respectable, old-fashioned, opinionated, and sharp-tongued. She always has something to say, and very often this something is a rather rude but smart-ass comment. Thanks to her character we can hear a lot of this English sense of humor – a sense of humor that is very sharp, very intelligent, laughing at others, but sometimes laughing at yourself.
The three daughters are Mary, Edith and Sybil, and they cannot be more different from one another. Mary is the oldest one, and in my opinion the most interesting character in the series. She has very strong beliefs and knows her value. As the first-born child of Lord Grantham she feels like it is her right to have Downton Abbey so naturally she wants to make sure it will stay in her hands. What is interesting here is that Mary is a different person to the different people in her life. For most of them, she is cold-hearted, and driven by interest, and even spiteful. For a few, however, she is a very loyal, dedicated, and very worthy person. I particularly like her relationship with the butler, Carson. He is the sole reflection of integrity, honor, duty and he always always does the right things and he will be loyal to the Crowley family until his last breath, or even after that. He is very fond of Mary and through the series this is like a stamp of approval, if you wish. So for sure Mary is the most complex character in the series, and inspires a lot of thoughts and feelings. Although I didn’t always like her, I somehow was always rooting for her.
The second daughter is Edith, and this is the most puzzling character in the series. So she is not bad person, and she is not ugly or stupid. But somehow they made her character very unfortunate. She struggles to find her place, has no luck in love, and somehow always ends up disappointed, or doing the wrong things. So this is a character that provokes mixed feelings, and one of the most controversial characters in the series. Till the very end I couldn’t decide if I like or dislike her, pity her or admire her.
Finally, the youngest sister Sybil – she is depicted as a free spirit and this very pure, innocent, and very passionate person. In the series she is the only one who truly doesn’t care about money and station. And thanks to this character we get involved in political and social issues related to class, women rights, governance.
But this show is not only about the life of the Crowley but also about the life of their servants, and many of them actually get the same screen time or even more. I want to talk about two characters in particular.
The first one is Branson – the chauffeur of the family. He is Irish, very political, very passionate, sometimes very disrespectful, and I would say very disruptive. I think this is the person who changes the most through the series. At the beginning of the show he has views that are rather extreme, and it seems that nothing and nobody can change his beliefs. Gradually he realizes there is another side of every coin.
Another character I want to talk about is Thomas – the big villain in the story. He is a footman, valet, at some point even an under-butler. He is very ambitious, even rootless, and ready to do whatever it takes to get his way. Thomas wants to advance in life and uses intrigues, lies, deception and all sorts of mischiefs to rise in station. He is also queer, although this has nothing to do with above. But it rather makes him feel very misunderstood, marginalized and very sad and lonely. And maybe it is his misfortunes that make him behave the way he does. So this is a character that you absolutely hate at the beginning of the series, but somehow he very seemingly gets under your skin, and until the end of the show, to your surprise, you kind of wish him well.
There are many more interesting characters here. No one is in the background, everyone has their own strong personality and story. It is amazing to see how they interact with each other, how they change their attitude depending on whom they interact with, how they form relationships with each other, and how they grow. And it is even more amazing how the simplest situation they find themselves into brings so much meaning and so many feelings in the story.
Downton Abbey is a period drama, depicting fairly recent time. For me it is the most similar to Grand Hotel (2011) – although this one is a Spanish TV show, it is set in the same period. It is also like The Crown (2016) or Victoria (2016).
Downton Abbey is entertaining, but by no means, simple. And, if I have to be honest, it is not a show that will make you feel easy, or happy. It could be very dark and even depressing, as it shows life as it is – unpredictable, ever-changing, and unjust. This is a story where love and loss walk hand in hand, bad things happen because they happen and all that one can do is adapt, appreciate even a day and hope for the best.
This is definitely quality television. Very English TV show but also very reliable. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys watching period dramas, and everyone who seeks something meaningful.