Our favourite quintessentially British period drama is back! After the first episode’s tumult of quick-fire über-scandal (complete with thievery, manipulation, class-conflict, illegitimate children, illicit sex, walking in on illicit sex, and a life-threatening fire), episode 2 saw mostly a continuation of the loose ends episode 1 left behind, to tremendous effect. It’s true, Downton Abbey seems to be showing no sign of faltering.
Having said this, sometimes Downton does show traces of repetitiveness, which is hard to avoid when a period drama reaches it’s fifth series. Yes – we know that Tom, ex-chauffeur, is stuck between two worlds – no need to labour the point. (Get it?) And what’s this, a fresh-faced young footman bedding an older aristocratic lady – am I watching Downton Abbey or Gosford Park? In addition to this, I haven’t quite made my mind up about the character Rose, played by Lily James. This episode especially showcased her as a spoilt little girl, designed to create cheap laughs at the expense of her shallow girlyness. Certainly a poor substitute for Lady Sybil.
But that’s as far as I can go in terms of rant, as I still think Downton’s power of hindsight, historical relevance and jaw-dropping levels of drama are unparalleled. Of special note this episode was the development of the Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lord Gillingham’s (Tom Cullen’s)… ‘arrangement’ shall we call it? What I would call a truly original plot-line, putting to shame the mundane modernity offered in Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached, this plot-line lends itself to hilarious levels of awkward foot-shuffling, stiff upper lips and mortifying trips to the pharmacy. It’s truly magically how immersed one can get when watching Downton Abbey – in a society where extramarital sex is the norm, you instead find yourself quivering with shock when Lady Mary so much as utters the word ‘sex’. On a similar note, the introduction of Richard E. Grant’s character Simon Bricker, and his suspicious closeness with Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is definitely something to keep an eye on.
The person that stood out for me most this episode (and indeed, through many episodes over the course of Downton), was Thomas Barrow, played to perfection by Robert James-Collier. Barrow’s delicious manipulativeness and brooding stature certainly makes him a fan-favourite. But in this episode, (after his heroic rescue mission of episode 1) we got a rare glimpse into Thomas’ inner softness, and the vulnerability that manifests itself with someone of his sexual orientation in 1920s Britain. It’s true that he has shown genuine kindness in previous series, but in many ways this has been overshadowed by his hatred and consistent need for conflict. Thomas’ honest and silent sadness at the dismissal of his friend Jimmy invoked genuine sympathy, when most of us are more used to grimacing at his unrepentant bitchiness. I hope this element of his character is explored further as the series progresses, and we can delve deeper into this complex character, at the expense of his becoming a predictable and one-dimensional pantomime villain.
With both new and continuing challenges plaguing both upstairs and downstairs, plus the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that consistently hangs in the air, I’m sure we have a lot to look forward to at Downton. Although understandably not everybody’s cup of tea, Downton Abbey continues to spellbind lovers of intrigue, scandal and history.