Updated: Aug 8
How this British series is the epitome of clever writing and incredible acting
I can’t believe I haven’t watched Downton Abbey in all these years.
Yes, I knew about it, and it has been on my watch list for a while, especially for Maggie Smith. But somehow, I never got around to checking out this blockbuster period drama.
But I did, starting a few weeks ago, thanks to Amazon Prime Video’s carousel of recommendations. In fact, I finished viewing the finale episode yesterday and will watch the movie as well.
Let me put it this way: Downton Abbey is the most epic thing I’ve ever seen on the small screen. I don’t think I can make do with anything less now, and I’ve realised I have lots more to learn as a fiction writer. The bar for PiKu & ViRu 2 (buy/download, read, and review the first book here) couldn’t have been raised higher.
Several factors work in its favour: a larger-than-life setting, exemplary performances, seamless writing, clean and tasteful depiction, and multidimensional characters.
Plus, the X-factor you can’t put a finger on but know it’s the very substance that makes something click.
No wonder I’ve been on a major binge-watching spree with this British series.
Downton Abbey has, indeed, raised the bar for me with respect to film and television content.
While, of course, I will have to check out other shows as well, there are some moments from the show I still keep replaying on either YouTube or APV. Here they are in episodic order.
When Robert stops Bates from leaving (S1E1)
It was this scene that made me realise why Downton Abbey has been such a big deal in global television. Without it, the series just wouldn’t have stood a chance.
John Bates (Brendan Coyle) has a humiliating first day of work at Downton Abbey, despite his recruitment by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), himself. His limp doesn’t arouse much confidence among the other servants, except—ahem—the ladies’ maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt).
Partners-in-crime Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) even team up against him, with the former surreptitiously kicking his troubled leg at an important event and pitting him as the cause of the family’s embarrassment.
Consequently, Bates is asked to leave. He’s on his way out when Robert, after a moment’s thought, runs after the car and pulls him out from within. You just can’t stop yourself from going “Woot woot!” at this.
Sybil, Gwen, and Tom’s group hug (S1E7)
While this bit is one of the show’s sweetest moments, it’s also among the most powerful, as it captures the blurring of all barriers of class and rank.
Housemaid Gwen Dawson’s (Rose Leslie) aspirations for a career upgrade don’t go unnoticed by Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). The youngest—and kindest—Crawley daughter then steps into gear to help Gwen with job applications, interviews, and the required transportation.
When Gwen finally gets an offer, the news comes through a phone call that’s incidentally picked up by the chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). An ecstatic Branson passes on the news to Sybil, who then informs Gwen. The three celebrate with an overjoyed embrace, only to be interrupted by Downton Abbey’s housekeeper, Mrs. Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan).
Mrs. Hughes’ words of caution to Tom, after seeing his and Sybil’s hands accidentally entwined together in the process, confirm what was obvious all along: Sybil and Tom’s impending romance, which will go on to plant Tom as one of the most important figures in Downton’s history.
When Sir Anthony Strallan saves Tom’s reputation (S3E1)
Larry Grey (Charlie Anson), son of Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) godfather Lord “Dickie” Merton (Douglas Reith), is still seething from the fact that Sybil chose Tom, a chauffeur, for her husband over a blue-blooded lad like him.
To avenge this humiliation, Larry spikes Tom’s drink during one of the Crawley house’s numerous dinner parties, because of which Tom ends up blabbing out politically charged comments at the Crawley dinner table, much to everyone’s embarrassment.
Thankfully, Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst), who happened to be the love interest of the second Crawley daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) at the time, intervenes just then with his eyewitness account of Grey’s spiking.
Grey spills out the truth and spews a lot of venom in the process, so he’s asked to leave. Before he does, Matthew (Dan Stevens), a distant cousin who’s the Crawley heir presumptive, announces Tom as his best man for his wedding to Mary, who’s also the eldest Crawley daughter.
The most amazing part about the scene: Matthew and Robert getting up together from the dinner table in support of Tom following Larry’s insulting confession. Truly, a family that sticks together stays together.
When the Crawley women refuse to leave Ethel’s luncheon, despite Robert’s orders (S3E6)
Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mother, invites the Downton ladies to a luncheon soon after Sybil’s untimely demise from eclampsia.
They’re heartily enjoying the food when Robert comes bursting in through the door, ordering everyone to leave immediately.
The reason: Isobel’s cook, Ethel Parks (Amy Nutall), took to prostitution to support her illegitimate child after her exit from Downton as a former employee, and Robert, at one of his narrow-minded worsts, expresses fears of losing their goodwill if they ate her food.
Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), his wife, however, stays put, and so do their three daughters and even the staunch matriarch Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Violet, in fact, quips that it would be a “pity to miss such a good pudding,” right in front of her livid son Robert. This was women's power at its greatest!
When Bates steals the letter from Sampson’s coat pocket (S4E10)
Barrow was right. Bates’ prison sentence, following the wrongful sentencing for his first wife’s death, had changed him.
How else would you explain a self-effacing man like Bates nailing forgery and pickpocketing like a proper criminal?
Yes, you read that right. Bates’ character arc passes an interesting point with this scene, wherein he successfully traces a scandalous letter, capable of destroying the Crawleys’ reputation, to the coat pocket of a family acquaintance named Terence Sampson (Patrick Kennedy) and smoothly nicks it from there.
Robert’s astonishment comes as a treat, as the Crawleys had given up on ever retrieving that paper.
Contrast this scene with Bates’ woe-is-me moments in the first season of Downton Abbey, and you’ll see how far he’s come.
When Mr. Drewe takes in Marigold and pledges his loyalty to Edith (S4E10)
Here’s another scene that shows how the rich can be so wrong in their assessment of the poor.
After Edith’s jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony, she becomes a column writer for a magazine and develops a relationship with its married editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards).
Gregson wants to tie the knot with Edith, but because his wife is recovering at an asylum, it wouldn’t be easy for him to divorce her in England. So, he moves to Germany to take advantage of its apparently loophole-y marital laws.
Unfortunately, he goes missing there (it’s later revealed he’s killed by the Nazis), and then, Edith becomes pregnant. Her paternal aunt, Rosamund (Samantha Bond), takes her to Switzerland under the pretext of a learning holiday.
Rosamund pressures Edith to give away Marigold, the baby, to an influential couple in Europe. Edith, however, wants to keep her with the Drewes, a family of tenants at Downton’s estate, so she could be close to her.
Rosamund opposes Edith’s idea, as she feels the Drewes would try to profit from the situation. But the supposition is instantly proven wrong when Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) compassionately swears complete secrecy to Edith and forever honours his word.
When Tom calls Larry Grey a “bastard” and orders him out of the house (S5E7)
Why Lord Merton would want to invite his sons over to a Downton dinner after Larry’s spiking of Tom’s drink is beyond me.
Yet, he does, assuming the worst is over.
As a result, he’s shocked when his two sons show their bigoted colours and Larry especially takes potshots at Edith for “adopting” Marigold from the Drewes, Tom for his former chauffeur duties (again), Isobel for not being high-status enough to marry their father, and Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), the boyfriend of Crawley cousin Rose Maclair (Lily James), for being Jewish.
Tom, being the perfect son now more than son-in-law, rises in pure volcanic anger from the chair and asks Larry to get out, while also addressing him with the B-word.
Robert seconds Tom, despite not “endorsing his language,” and Carson (Jim Carter), the family’s head butler, instantly signals to the footman, Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle), to open the door for the ousted guest.
It’s exactly for reasons like these that Tom is one of the show’s most beloved characters after Maggie Smith’s quick-witted Violet Crawley.
When Robert’s ulcer bursts and Thomas springs into action (S6E5)
This one was shocking and horror-filled, as it came out of nowhere.
Robert is diagnosed with a stomach ulcer, but despite all the care and precautions, he frequently experiences abdominal pains that he chooses to neglect.
Amid this, Violet drags everyone into a pointless debate so she can retain control of the village hospital instead of seeing it go to a larger organisation as per everyone else’s decision.
The stupid argument continues over a grand dinner, but in a way, it’s a good thing because it brings Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), the village doctor, right where he’d be needed.
Things seem to lull. And then suddenly, after complaining of even more pains, Robert projectile vomits a fountain of blood, spraying red everywhere.
Dr. Clarkson immediately summons Thomas, who was standing right behind Robert, and the otherwise malicious under-butler sincerely rises to the call of duty.
That Thomas was formally trained in medicine with Sybil at Dr. Clarkson’s hospital during WWI is another reason why the aged doctor may have chosen him for the moment over anyone else.
While the scene itself is frightful, it also made me wonder why Thomas is such a conniving devil when he has so much goodness within.
When Violet leaves Robert the best gift ever (S6E7)
Violet loses the hospital debate and she’s ousted from the committee.
Subsequently, she travels to the south of France to cool down.
But before going, she leaves something behind for Robert. And when he unravels the present, it brings joy to everyone in the house.
No, I’m not saying anything more—find it out for yourself if you haven’t watched it yet. All I can add is that the gift is truly adorable.
When Molesley becomes a teacher (S6E8)
If there’s one character who’s got a raw deal through most of Downton Abbey, it’s Joseph Molesley.
From facing joblessness after his employer Matthew’s death to being exploited as a lowly footman at Downton, he’s been through a lot. Not to forget the embarrassing drunken dance at the Maclairs’ do in Scotland. He never deserved that.
But when Molesley begins tutoring the Downton cook Daisy (Sophie McShera) in her studies, he realises his true passion for education.
His enthusiasm for the cause is so infectious, the village teacher sniffs it out and offers Molesley a job at the school. It’s an emotionally moving moment when it happens.
Later, Molesley passes the requisite examination and begins taking classes, empowering students to visualise possibilities that seem beyond their reach. His character arc couldn’t have ended on a more amazing note. Keep your handkerchiefs ready for this one, even if you’re watching it on repeat mode.