In Season 2 of “Downton Abbey,” we rejoin the Crawley household in the midst of World War I. If you haven't been watching this Emmy-winning British drama series, the crisis that sets it in motion is one of inheritance.
In Season 2 of “Downton Abbey,” we rejoin the Crawley household in the midst of World War I. If you haven't been watching this Emmy-winning British drama series, the crisis that sets it in motion is one of inheritance. It is the late Edwardian era (1916-19) and the vast estate of Downton Abbey, the country home of Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), must go to a male heir. Since the earl has three daughters, his eldest, Mary (Michelle Dockery), is set to wed a distant relative on the Crawley side. But the prospective groom goes down with the Titanic, throwing the succession plan into crisis. They find a solution in cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens), who is recruited for the job of heir and husband to Mary.
As a family of immense wealth, the Crawleys have a loyal staff of maids and butlers who live “downstairs” on the lower floors of the house. Some are honorable, others are manipulative and a few provide comic relief. The upstairs/downstairs set-up allows for multiple stories to be told, so there are the trials and tribulations of the maids and butlers and the dramas and crises of the Crawleys. But their stories also intersect, which has the effect of dissolving class distinctions (if only temporarily) and promoting the idea that despite the social gap between the occupants, the household is a family.
When the second season starts, the collective Downton family feels the impact of war as the conflict brings worry and change to the household. Matthew is at the front along with likeable servant William (Thomas Howes). The estate, as much of a character as the people in this period drama, is also changed when several of its grand rooms are converted into convalescent spaces for soldiers.
With their house a makeshift military hospital, the family and its servants look inward this season. Some gain a new perspective and others, a new purpose. The series addresses themes of rigid social and gender roles and suggests that despite differences dictated by birth and demanded by duty, people share the same highs and lows. It is about equality among the seemingly unequal.
But at its core, “Downton Abbey” is a soap opera, and it's good in the ways that soap operas are good — by depicting various crises, schemes and manipulations that in one way or another are related to star-crossed love affairs. Whether it's the “will they or won't they” relationship between Mary and Matthew, the dangerous flirtation between the youngest Crawley daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and the chauffeur or the seemingly doomed love between head housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), this series is all about the heart. The characters' ill-advised relationships and passionate longings, whether they take place in ornate rooms or sparse servants' quarters, connect them both to each other and to the universal idea that everyone wants to be loved.
“Downton Abbey” is on Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS.
Melissa Crawley credits her love of all things small screen to her parents, who never used the line, "Or no TV!" as a punishment. Her book, “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing,’” was published in 2006. She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.