So Downton Abbey kicks ass. We all know it. We all love it. And, in my mind, nothing exemplifies what makes the series so great as its very first episode.
Once upon a time, there was a Ship of Dreams named The Titanic that struck an Iceberg and dragged Leonardo DiCaprio, a huge-ass blue diamond, and the two heirs to the Yorkshire estate of Downton Abbey down to their watery graves.
Robert Crawley, the current Earl of Grantham and owner of Downton Abbey, is in a difficult situation now that his cousins and heirs' souls have wafted to an afterlife comprised of clapping politely during Kate Winslet's dream sequence. His estate is entailed, and so, according to Jane Austen's Law, everything has to go to a male relative, bypassing his three daughters completely.
It is super-awkward because his money isn't actually his - it's his American wife Cora's money. Grantham married her to shore up his estates' finances but very fortunately fell in love with her a year after they married and dear God Julian Fellowes, when are we going to get that prequel already?
So Grantham and Cora are Totes Happily Married Now but Cora is Less Happy about the fact that her money will not go their daughters but to some Unknown Schmuck.
Robert has three daughters - Mary is the eldest and terrible. We know this because she doesn't want to go into extra-strength mourning for dead Patrick Crawley on account of him being her fiancé. Edith is the middle child and is also terrible, but people thinks she's more terrible because she's less hot. She was in love with Patrick Crawley but while she fell out of the same Beautiful Tree as her sisters, she hit a few too many Unconventionally Beautiful Branches on the way down. Sybil is the youngest and so it falls to her to make blandly nice comments about everything in an unexpectedly husky voice.
The inheritance situation is so dire that Grantham's Bad-Ass Mutha Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, actually teams up with Cora to see if they can combine their Outspoken Feminine Powers to convince Grantham to break the entailment - i.e., separate Downton Abbey and the money from the earldom and allow Mary to inherit the loot and the Unknown Schmuck to inherit the title.
So while all this is going on, the Crawleys have a bunch of people living in their basement who are paid to serve their food and eavesdrop on their conversations.
We have Carson, the Conservative Butler, and his work wife Mrs. Hughes, the house keeper. Beneath them are O'Brien, Cora's lady's maid and quite possibly The Devil; Thomas, the snarky first footman who is a shit and I love him; William, the other footman who is Not a Shit, but Less Interesting; Mrs. Patmore, the cook who is redheaded and yells a lot; Anna, the head housemaid and All-Round Decent Human Being; Gwen, the maid who is redheaded but doesn't yell at all; and Daisy, the scullery maid and Human Punching Bag.
All these servants are discombobulated when Grantham's new valet Mr. Bates arrives and they discover that his Leg Don't Work Because of the War but he's Totes BFFs with Grantham So It's Cool. Everyone on the staff (except Anna) proceed to take a collective dump on his head because they think they'll have to work harder around Bates because he's not physically capable of doing all of his tasks. Thomas and O'Brien despise Bates especially because Thomas was gunning for the Valet position and O'Brien is his evil BFF.
Suddenly! A Hot Duke appears! The Duke of Crowborough, to be exact, who invites himself to Downton as a prospective suitor for Mary. All the servants line up to greet His Grace, and O'Brien reveals herself as The Devil by kicking Bates' cane out from under him and embarrassing him in front of EVERYONE.
Mary is delighted by Crowborough, because he is Hot and a Duke, and so allows herself to play silly games with him like Let's Sneak Into The Servants' Quarters to Steal Incriminating Evidence. Crowborough's flirting comes to an abrupt end, however, when Grantham ultimately decides that he cannot ruin Downton by breaking the entailment so Mary will only get a Very Nice Settlement when she marries instead of a Grotesquely Enormous Settlement.
Crowborough eases his disappointment by making out with Thomas the Hot Footman, who'd told him about Mary's possible inheritance in the first place in the hopes of becoming Crowborough's valet and Secret Boyfriend for Ever and Ever. Crowborough tanks Thomas's Secret Gay Wedding plans, and when Thomas makes a clumsy attempt to blackmail him, Crowborough reveals he stole Thomas' cache of ducal love letters during his interlude with Mary and promptly sets them - and Thomas' aching heart - on fire.
And that is when I know that I love Thomas and that he's my favourite character despite that fact that he is a shit. He kept the Duke's love letters! He tied them with ribbon! Poor Thomas.
Meanwhile, after months of O'Brien and Thomas making an ungodly stink below stairs about how incompetent Bates is, Grantham finally hears about it and decides to let Bates go. Bates knows he will likely not be able to find another position after this with his infirmity and he CRIES in his room ALONE. Thankfully, Grantham changes his mind at the last minute and begs Bates to come back. And everyone is happy.
Except for Thomas, because he got dumped.
The Unknown Schmuck:
There's still the plotline that some stranger bitch will be inheriting Downton to get through, and that stranger bitch turns out to be Matthew Crawley, a middle-class lawyer from Manchester.
He finally arrives at Downton with his mother Isobel Crawley and despite being reasonably handsome, is unreasonably oblivious and rude and his poor mother spends practically the rest of the episode apologizing for him.
He and Mary are Destined To Be and we know this because they spend almost as much time catfighting as he spends being Unintentionally Awful to his new butler, Moseley.
And finally the episode ends with Mary learning that Cora and Bad Ass Mutha Violet both want her to consider marrying Matthew to secure her inheritance. Welp.
Oh Snap! Moments:
- O'Brien kicking out Bates' cane.
- Bates passive-aggresively offering to let Mary and Crowborough search his room after catching them in the servants' quarters, provoking a guilty Mary to utter the line:
- "I always apologize when I'm in the wrong - it's a habit of mine."
- Crowborough's surprisingly thick pelt of chest hair (I'm sure Thomas agrees)
- When Thomas pokes fun of Moseley's unenviable position of butler to Matthew Crawley, only for Bates to ask him why he tried out for that position first.
Best (Un?)Intentional Gay Pun:
"After all, one swallow doesn't make a summer." Crowborough to Thomas, indicating he was just a fling. Yes, I know this is a legitimate British expression, but coming right on the heels of Crowborough macking on Thomas' face I can't help but wonder if there was a second meaning.
Or maybe I'm just gross.
One thing I liked about this episode is that Bates is quite the ambiguous character for a while. His Sainthood is fully polished by seasons 2 and 3 but here, at least in this first episode, he's allowed to be an unknown element who could portend good or ill, and the concerns the staff have about his ability to contribute to the team are perfectly reasonable.
Rating: Five Spiteful Cane-Kicks Out of Five!