Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey: Rarefied Heir

In Recaps on January 10, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Cora and Robert Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville) in last night’s “Downton Abbey.” (Screen cap)

Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece soap opera that debuted last night on PBS, boasted the presence of Oscar winner Dame Maggie Smith, but the first episode’s real attraction was creator and writer Julian Fellowes’ delicious dialogue.

The four-part series is named after its setting, a magnificent British estate that is home to the aristocratic Crawley clan and their many servants.

In the show’s opening moments, set during the spring of 1912, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham and the household’s gentlemanly head, learned that his cousin’s son Patrick has perished when the Titanic sank.

Robert seemed devastated by the news, and we soon learned why: He and his wealthy American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) have three daughters – and no sons – so under British law, when Robert dies, his title and estate will pass to his closest male heir.

Robert had planned to marry off his eldest daughter, beautiful-and-spoiled Mary (Michelle Dockery, a McGovern lookalike) to Patrick so they could have a son to inherit the fortune and become Downton’s next master.

(Yeah, I think it’s weird that Robert’s daughter was going to marry her third cousin, but no one else did. I guess that’s how aristocrats roll?)

One of the servants declared it “a shame” that Patrick has died, but gossipy O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Cora’s maid, snapped, “It’s worse than a shame – it’s a complication.”

See what I mean about delicious dialogue?

When Robert broke the news of Patrick’s death to Mary, she hardly seemed upset.

“Does this mean I’ll have to go into full mourning?” she asked.

Robert seemed to strain to avoid rolling his eyes; he explained that the entire family will be grieving.

“No, I mean with the other thing,” Mary responded, referring to her unannounced engagement to Patrick; Robert told her the decision about whether to mourn Patrick as a fiancée was hers alone.

“Well that’s a relief!” Mary declared.

Meanwhile, Robert’s imposing mother, Violet (Smith), the dowager countess, summoned daughter-in-law Cora to the drawing room (Cora: “I wonder what I’ve done wrong this time?”), where she informed Cora that the next designated heir is Robert’s third cousin, once removed.

Violet declared that the “entail” – the legal arrangement that would prevent Mary from inheriting the estate, and Cora’s wealth – “must be smashed. … She can’t have the title – but she can have your money, and the estate. I didn’t run Downton for 30 years to see it go lock, stock and barrel to a stranger from God knows where!”

Cora readily agreed.

“Are we to be friends, then?” she asked her mother-in-law.

“We are allies, my dear,” Violet replied tartly, “which can be a good deal more effective.”

Later, Violet – straining her eyes in the glare of Downton’s newly installed electric lights (symbolic of the changes happening in the world around the Crawleys and their servants?) – confronted Robert and suggested that he didn’t “care” about who inherited the estate.

This upset him.

“I’ve given my life to Downton,” he told his mother angrily.

“I was born here, and I hope to die here. I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes, I do care!”

The succession crisis had the servants on edge, too.

Carson (Jim Carter), the loyal butler, confided to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the chief housekeeper, that he didn’t want to see “our family” lose the estate.

“They’re not our family,” Mrs. Hughes said.

“Well, they’re all the family I’ve got,” Carson responded, rather sadly.

The servants were also up in arms over the arrival of John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Robert’s new valet, who served with Robert (a.k.a. “his lordship”) during the Boer War and now walks with a limp.

Bates’s new coworkers believed his injury made him unfit for the job; nasty O’Brien even tripped him in front of the family to prove the point.

Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head housemaid, took a liking to Bates; his other ally was Robert, whom Cora persuaded to dismiss Bates, but Robert changed his mind as his old friend was about to depart Downton.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the ambitious first footman who wanted Bates’s job, turned out to have secrets of his own: The gold-digging Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox), a potential heir and suitor for Mary, arrived at Downton but only had eyes for Thomas, with whom he once shared a youthful dalliance.

Thomas tried to use some of the Duke’s old love letters to blackmail him into making Thomas his valet, but the Duke rejected him, snatched the letters and tossed them into the fireplace.

Mary fancied the Duke and seemed sorry to see him leave.

Her jealous sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) couldn’t resist getting in a dig.

“So he slipped the hook?” she asked Mary as the Duke slinked away.

“At least I’m not fishing with no bait,” Mary retorted.

Finally, new heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) – Robert’s third cousin, once removed – and Matthew’s mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) arrived and moved onto the grounds of the estate.

Matthew, a self-described middle-class lawyer (“Upper middle class!” Isobel corrected him), told the family at dinner that he wouldn’t give up his career and would tend to Downton on the weekends.

“What is a weekend?” Violet wondered.

Mary overheard Matthew imply that Robert was going to push him to marry her.

He apologized, saying he was “only joking.”

“Of course,” Mary responded. “And I agree. The whole thing is a complete joke.”

Matthew also insulted his newly appointed valet Molesley (Kevin Doyle), refusing the nice man’s help.

Molesley said he was only doing his job.

“It seems a very silly occupation for a grown man,” Matthew said.

In the episode’s final scene, Cora visited Mary and suggested she should consider marrying Matthew – an idea Mary instantly rejected.

“Did you mention this to Granny? Did she laugh?” Mary asked her mother.

“Why would she? It was her idea,” Cora responded as Mary’s jaw hit the floor.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) in last night’s “Downton Abbey.” (Screen cap)


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