Yes, it's back and everyone I know is watching it! The first episode of the second season of "Downton Abbey" aired on Sunday and much of it was about World War I, truly a watershed event, and how it has changed things at Downton Abbey. (Spoiler Alert: if you haven't seen the episode yet, read no further) It is 1916 and many of the men are either active soldiers and fighting in France, like Matthew and Thomas; aspiring soldiers ready to go to battle, like the footman William; or honorary soldiers like Lord Grantham, who is frustrated that he cannot fight. The war is horrific and there are many scenes that deal with the fighting and the wounded soldiers. The characters have all been affected by war, including the women. Lady Sybil has left to help at a wounded soldier's hospital, but first gets some cooking lessons from Mrs. Patmore and Daisy since she has never even made a cup of tea. Lady Edith has learned how to drive and seems to have found some purpose in life, and a little romance, offering to help on a neighboring farm by driving a tractor. Lady Mary is praying for the safety of the man we all know she loves, Matthew Crawley, the heir to Downton Abbey. He is engaged to another woman, much to the displeasure of all the characters. And there is something sinister about Mary's new suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle, owner of a newspaper empire.
The house itself has seen some changes and in the opening episode is the setting for a concert to raise money for the war. Mr. Carlson is stressed out, to say the least. The household staff has shrunk with the departure of Gwen and some of the young men. And there is a new villain on the show, Vera Bates ( the wife of Mr. Bates) who has forced his return to their marriage with blackmail threats regarding the Crawley family. And of course, Mr. Bates will only do the honorable thing. Remember the dead Turkish diplomat from last time? This incident continues to haunt the show. There are new servants and some are a bit pluckier than we are used to, such as Ethel -- she knows there are other opportunities out there for her and that things are changing in the world and will never be the same. Also, the new valet is a soldier who has returned from war to reenter service, though he seems fragile and is suffering from shell shock. It is obvious that the rigid class system of the past is changing and some of those who have been in service will decide to go out into the world and take advantage of new opportunities, as Gwen did. At the end of the episode it was decided that Downton Abbey was going to be used as a convalescent hospital. The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is obviously horrified at all these new developments.
And yet many things are reassuringly the same: the house still has its lustre, the bells ring, the silver is polished, the chandeliers sparkle, the fireplaces are made up each morning and the kitchen is running at full steam. The Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) is still concerned with getting her daughters married, and is encouraged that Mary has a new suitor. Mr. Carson continues to care excessively about keeping up the standards in the house, his way of staving off the unsettling social and war chaos going on outside of Downton. Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are still the reassuring parent figures downstairs just as the Earl and Countess of Granthan are upstairs, Mr. Bates continues to be an honorable man, and he and Anna just may be my two favorite characters! The romances between Matthew and Mary and Anna and Mr. Bates continue to be the driving force in the show. And Maggie Smith is always a treasure as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, delivering the best lines in her inimitable voice with eyes bulging and impeccable timing, always making us laugh. As her withering gaze surveys the flower arrangements made by Lady Grantham, she says "Cora's flowers always look more suited to a first communion...in southern Italy." Representing the old guard, she is afraid of the technological and social changes that are happening all around her and expresses her feelings with a flourish.
But for me the brilliance of the show is in the relationships between the characters. There are so many moments between them that are poignant and emotional. These special moments are the real heart of the show and here are some of my favorites from Sunday night's episode, the ones that required some kleenex:
When Cousin Isobel tells the family that Matthew is engaged.
When Mr. Bates and Anna talk about getting married, having children and buying a small hotel with the money from Mr. Bates' mother. Anna is overwhelmed with happiness.
When Matthew is leaving for France and Mary surprises him at the train station to wish him well. Mary's face often has the most anguished expression on it, and I think the actress Michelle Dockery is doing an amazing job playing this character.
When Mary visits Mr. Carlson in his room after his health scare, just about giving him a heart attack. They have such a special bond.
When Anna makes her speech to Mary about her undying love for Mr. Bates, claiming she doesn't believe she will ever find anyone else.
When Mrs. Patmore, the cook, (who I love by the way) after losing her nephew in the war, wells up with tears when she sees young William in uniform, knowing he will be in France soon and fighting for his life.
When it is decided that Downton Abbey will become a hospital for wounded soldiers. There is beauty in that moment when Lord and Lady Grantham decide to put the house to such good use.
It's going to be a great January and February for those of us who love the show!
What were your favorite Downton Abbey moments?