Downton Abbey: Series 2 Episode 1
Downton Abbey is a British period drama set in the late 1910s and early 1920s. It tells the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and the people who serve them in their palatial country estate and how the events that occurred throughout history affect their lives. A trademark of the series has always been its’ relatively sympathetic view of aristocratic and wealthy families and the class system during 20th century. The first episode in the second season of Downton Abbey eludes to that theme by presenting a storyline that features the effects that World War I has on everyone who lives and works at Downton. Also, as with most period pieces, romance and the hardships that come along with it is a prevalent theme throughout Downton Abbey and especially in the first episode of the second season. The storylines of Matthew and Mary and Bates and Anna paint a perfect illustration of the theme of romance in the series.
A prevailing theme in this episode of Downton Abbey is the power and the effect that war has on all types of people. While Matthew, the heir to Downton, joins the army and faces battle on the front lines of World War I while many others at Downton struggle with finding ways to contribute to the war effort. Robert, The Earl of Grantham, longs to be an active participant in the war. He has no actual duty to fight and he certainly wouldn’t be expected to because of his aristocratic status, however, his ultimate desire in this episode is being able to join the battle and he fears he is not doing his duty. He is at first thrilled to learn that he is given the title of Colonel of the North Riding Volunteers, only to be humiliated when he later learns that it is only a symbolic position. William, a footman at Downton, also wants to join the army. However, his father has forbidden him from joining and he feels bad for not stepping up in his country’s time of need.
He is horrified when he is given a white feather and called a coward in front of a room full of people. Sybil, the youngest of the Crawley girls, feels useless and she decides to help those in need by joining a nurses program. Later in the episode, Matthew discovers that he is fighting in the same trenches as Thomas, a former footman at Downton. They end up having tea together in their downtime and Thomas brings up the irony that a footman is sharing tea with the Lord he once served. Matthew says, “War has a way of distinguishing the things that matter and the things that don’t.”
All of the above examples not only illustrate a theme of the episode, war and its effect on everyone, no matter what class, but it also points to a larger theme in the entire series. The prevailing theme throughout Downton’s time on television has been the sympathetic focus it places on aristocratic families and the class system that was still very prevalent in early 20th century England. The Crawley’s treat their house staff with respect and kindness and they often do all they can to help them when they need it. They are mostly treated as equals and this episode supports the overall theme of the series by illustrating that both the Crawley’s and those who work for them are affected pretty equally by the events of the war. Both groups have members fighting on the front lines and both have people who feel they should be doing more to aid in the war efforts. In enforces the fact that although these two groups of people live very different lives, but at the end of the day we all are affected either physically or emotionally by the powers of war.
Downton Abbey is a period drama and along with that comes themes of romance and the struggles that come along with falling in and out of love. The show often uses the familiar formula of two people destined to be together but nothing ever seems to work out at the right time. This episode features two storylines that strongly depict this theme. Featured heavily in the first half of the episode is the relationship between Matthew and Lady Mary, the eldest of the Crawley daughters. Matthew returns to Downton on leave and Mary is forced to gracefully deal with the fact that he has brought a new fiancé with him. It is the first time they have seen each other in months, after Matthew told Mary he didn’t want to marry her, and it is obvious that there is still a romantic spark between them. However, they act as though they couldn’t be happier for each other that they are both moving on. Despite this, Mary goes to see him off at the train station before he returns to battle and she gives him a good luck charm to keep him safe. At the end of the episode, we see Mary praying to God to “keep him safe.” The other romantic focus is between Anna, the head housemaid, and Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet. Bates returns from London after his mother’s funeral and he tells Anna that he has figured out a way to get a divorce from his wife. Anna is elated and brought to tears because this means that they can finally be together. However, this only lasts a short while as Bates’ wife shows up at Downton and tells Bates that she will expose Lady Mary’s indiscretions if he goes through with the divorce. Being loyal to the Crawley family, Bates reluctantly leaves with his wife leaving Anna heartbroken.
In conclusion, the first episode in the second series of Downton Abbey presents themes that are often present throughout the entire series. This episode specifically features a storyline about the effects of war on both wealthy and working class individuals in order to reinforce the theme of wealthy aristocrats and the class society in 20th century England. The story connects different groups of individuals through their experiences and emotions about the war that illustrates that these different people are more the alike than it would appear. The episode also features storylines focused on the difficult romantic relationships between some of the characters. The stories between Matthew and Mary and Anna and Bates help to reinforce the overall theme of romance that is so common in period pieces.