Original Airdate: January 9, 2011
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Director: Brian Percival
Executive Producers: Rebecca Eaton, Julian Fellowes, Gareth Neame
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Maggie Smith
With 18 regular cast members to introduce and about an hour to do it in, it’s shocking that “Downton Abbey” creator/writer Julian Fellowes not only managed to juggle all these characters, plots and subplots, but did so in such a way that kept his audience surprised, shocked and engaged enough to care about almost all of them. With most writers unable to do justice to casts of 5 and 6 in the hundreds of pilots produced today, the fact that Fellowes made the first episode appear so effortless is a tremendous achievement indeed.
The show focuses on the estate of the title and those that inhabit it, both upstairs and downstairs. Upstairs are the Crawleys, headed by the sensible Robert (Hugh Bonneville). Downstairs are the servants, led by the likewise sensible Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). In the first of Fellowes’ many brilliant decisions, he stages two “events” that threaten to forever alter the lives the many characters have built for themselves.
The first, which affects the Crawleys, is the sinking of the Titanic, which resulted in the deaths of the two heirs to Downton. If the world was fair, the money should be willed to Robert’s eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), but a woman can hold no claim to the fortune so, unless the family can figure out something drastic, it will go to some distant cousin who is * gasp! * a lawyer.
The second is the arrival of Robert’s new valet, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle). While the arrival of any new servant could possible shake up the downstairs section of a house like Downton Abbey, the transition is further compounded by the fact that Bates walks with a limp and needs to use a cane at all times for support. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes allow Bates to begin work, wary that he’ll be unable to stand the workload, but other servants sense weakness and aim to strike and ensure that Bates is fired so they may benefit.
The series opens by showing us the wires that transmit the message of the Titanic’s sinking juxtaposed against Bates on the train headed toward Downton – their impact on the great house inevitable. I should mention here that this scene is also the first time we hear the amazing theme music for the show, which perfectly captures the show’s tone.
A lesser show with a lesser writer would settle for allowing its characters to act overly emotional in the pilot in order to give us broad strokes as to who they are. Not here. Instead we are simply given a series of small moments and beats – sometimes merely a look – to clue us into who these people are. Note how Fellowes uses the two events to allow us insight into who these people are. How do they react to the news? Do they react at all? Sometimes the lack of someone’s reaction tells us more about him or her than a loud dramatic beat. Take Mary, who was engaged to one of the men who died on the Titanic. Her first reaction is to wonder aloud whether she’ll have to go into full-on mourning for her fiancé. She feels nothing, and that tells us what we need to know about what type of person she is.
For the first half of the episode, the two worlds couldn’t seem further apart. But then we notice connections in the way the Crawleys connive to get Mary to be the rightful heir with how some servants, specifically Mrs. O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) conspire to get rid of Bates. Turns out people are alike all over. Fellowes plays a wonderful game of smoke and mirrors with the audience concerning a Duke’s (Charlie Cox) arrival. We believe he is there as a possible suitor to Mary. Someone who, despite being a fortune hunter, could save the family. Then something goes amiss. The Duke hardens to the family and no one (not even the viewer) can figure out why. When his real motives are revealed, (Thomas, his lover, is blackmailing him to get a better position and the Duke has come to bring an end to it) the viewer is thrown for a huge loop. More than that, we have hated Thomas up until this point because of his treatment of Bates. But after his lover rejects him and throws him out, the camera lingers on Thomas as he stands in the shadows, on the verge of tears. And suddenly, against all odds, you feel for the man.
Another surprising thing is that both of the schemes here fail. Mary loses the inheritance in the end, and the final scene shows that lawyer (Dan Stevens) getting the news. Bates is indeed sacked, but before he can leave Robert has a change of heart and invites him back. Bates’ storyline is incredibly emotional, though Coyle’s performance never asks for sympathy and the writing never treats his character with the treacle one would expect (a later episode, where Bates tries using a leg brace that causes him great pain, does tip a bit too far into the saccharine). Every time he silently works through the pain and ignores insult upon insult, our hearts go out to him. He can’t help the way he is, we scream at the screen! That is, of course, the entire point. Robert’s final decision to keep Bates reinforces that, through all the scheming and plans, there is a beautiful humanity to these characters one might not expect.
This fascinating, fantastic tightrope act continued for the next five episodes. Fellowes certainly had a lot of fun dipping his cast into melodrama (in one episode a visitor dies on top of Mary, just about to take her virginity, and she must drag him across Downton to his own bed before anyone else wakes up or else the scandal could ruin the family) but then always pulled back before things went to a different level. In the final episode, things were especially heightened, to the point where the drama threatened to define the characters…but then Fellowes pulled the rug out from under viewers once again. Instead of giving us the easy payoffs and happy endings we expected, he left everything mid-stream with the announcement of the war. The show was originally envisioned only as a miniseries, so that ending was especially refreshing – a physical embodiment of Bogie’s line in “Casablanca”: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Maybe they shouldn’t, but to me, they mean oh-so-much.