Tonight is the beginning of season 5 of Downton Abbey. I have been a fan of the show since 2011. Here is a post I wrote about it in February 2012.
I don’t watch that many dramas on TV because most have gotten too R rated in their content (too much nudity, profanity, violence etc). I did watch a little of Gothem this year and enjoyed that but most of the time I end up watching either reality TV (Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race) or comedies (Goldbergs, The Middle, Simpsons).
So when I found Downton Abbey on PBS I was thrilled. It is a show about the aristocratic family The Crawley’s in early 1900 Great Britain. It is considered the post-Edwardian era by historians and it was a time of change away from the old caste systems to a more equal playing field.
The first episode of the show starts in 1912 and by the end of season 5 we are at 1925. The show maintains a ton of characters both upstairs and down and the acting is across the board great.
Writer Julian Fellowes does a great job of integrating all the characters with the immaculate costumes and sets. The tone is soapy but always with real heart. Even a character like Mary Crawley who under a less capable pen (and actress) would be a one-note snob but here she is more nuanced and tough to pin down. One moment you hate her and then she does something really likable.
A lot of people have turned off the show because in season 3 they had 2 big castmembers who left the show and were killed off. Then in season 4 a rape occurs which is brutal and tough to watch but I thought well acted and probably pretty realistic to what would happen to a raped servant in that age.
It will be interesting to see what happens in Season 5. Very excited!
It was hard to decide a character to profile because I love so many of them but I decided to pick a person who in a way bridges both the upstairs and downstairs world- Isobel Crawley.
A working class relation by marriage to the Crawley’s, Isobel is the widowed wife, daughter and sister of doctors and is a trained nurse, a skill that comes into play frequently on the show. She also interacts often with Dr Clarkson who may be a potential love interest?
Isobel is played by legendary British actress (and dame I think?) Penelope Wilton. She is lovely in her performance managing to pull of a strength and hidden vulnerability. On one hand you feel she is more noble than some of the Crawleys but on the other it seems like she is way over her head.
What gets her into trouble on occasion is her desire to help people. Being from another class than the Crawley’s she often fights for people in the servant class whether it insisting on a new treatment for a man with dropsy in season 1 or helping shunned Ethel who is reduced to prostitution after meeting hard times (in that plot line even the staff is violently opposed to the hire).
Her relationship with the entire Downton staff is lovely. She is on a different level but kind of like Branson she both dines with the family and has worked with Mrs Hughes and others on a pretty equal playing field. I like that she both obeys conventions and defies them at the same time.
In fact, when they arrive at Downton she tells Matthew “What they expect is that we won’t know how to behave so if you don’t mind, I would rather not confirm their expectations”. I think that sums up how she lives her life- self-aware, confident, willing to please others, but also wanting the best for herself and her son. I would say she wants to defy expectations by both the staff and family of the house.
Isobel is also at constant war with Lady Violet played unforgettably played by Dame Maggie Smith. The writing between these two dynamic women (both characters and actresses) is the best in the show.
In season 4 we got to see a new side of Isobel who has lost her Matthew, her only son. There was a new vulnerability and a sense she does not handle grief with the perfection we might have expected. She isolates herself and only comes out to see little George. I am very curious to see where her story goes and what Fellowes does with her as both a lonely but independent woman.
I do have one plea to the show. It started out with a good mixture of light humorous banter mixed with drama and soapy conflict. With the deaths in season 3 and rape in 4 the show got considerably darker and I miss the wit and fun. I hope we can get back some of that lightness. Not that I want the show to be silly but a lighter tone would be nice. There are plenty of shows on TV with anti-heroes and conflicted, wounded creatures. I watch Downton for the great writing and bubbly look at a different era. The drama should absolutely be there but give us a break from time to time.
But even if it continues to be dark I know I can count on Isobel Crawley to be one of the most fascinating and hard to pin down characters on the show. That’s what great writing, production values and acting can do for a character. Can’t wait for tonight!!!
Who is your favorite Downton Abbey character? What do you think of Isobel? Do you agree with me on the tone of the show?