The second season of Downton Abbey debuts Sunday in the U.S. As I’ve discussed on the podcast, I couldn’t wait and bought it off the UK iTunes Store. I’ve already watched the whole second season and the Christmas episode.
So, for American audiences, here’s a non-spoilery preview of what I found notable about this season.
You can never get back to normal.
One of the main storylines in the first season was the entail, the covenant that required a male heir for the estate to stay within the family. There was a palpable dread that the Crawley daughters would lose their house and fortune until their third cousin Matthew arrived as heir presumptive and all-around white knight.
I don’t think we hear “entail” once this entire season. Instead, the danger is that nothing will ever return to the way it was.
Characters go to war, and some don’t return. Hierarchies are up-ended. The normal function of the house is disrupted, forcing the Crawleys to eat breakfast in a different room. (Sorry. I guess that was a minor spoiler.)
Where the threat of the first season was losing a lifestyle, the threat of the second season is not wanting it back.
For the first time, we hear the downstairs staff openly question their assigned place in society. And we hear similar dissatisfaction from the Crawley sisters.
Once you’ve learned to drive, are you content being driven?
Of all the show’s elements this season, I think this thematic line works the best. The characters seem appropriately aware, unnerved and exhilarated to realize that Everything Is Changing.
Maggie Smith speaks only in bon mots.
My friend Tom speculates that by contract all her dialogue is required to be pithy.
Yet it’s worth paying attention to every scene she’s in, because the show uses her as a proxy for the unseen history of the family, the estate, and their whole class. When she compromises, you know there’s no going back.
Wow, this really is a soap.
Again, no spoilers, but there are a few moments this season that feel like the Merchant/Ivory version of Dynasty.
Look: Shows need plot engines, but I found the soap tropes lazy. In a show with 20+ significant characters, how often do we need A Stranger Comes to Town or a Deathbed Complication?
I wish they’d gone a little more HBO, with internal rather than external forces pushing characters into choices and consequences.