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Downton Abbey: Series 2 - First episode reviewed

Downton Abbey

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

THE biggest challenge facing Downton Abbey‘s second season was always going to be maintaining momentum while keeping things fresh in a bid to meet the heavy weight of expectation.

On the evidence of Sunday’s first episode, Julian Fellowes’ drama looks set to remain one of the nation’s favourite dramas… but only just.

While certainly good to have these characters back, some of the plotting felt highly contrived and there was the occasional sense of trying too hard in terms of moving the story forward.

Events this time take place around the First World War, which is already casting a heavy shadow over the lives of just about everyone.

For Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley, in particular, it’s about experiencing life at the sharp end of combat in the trenches of the Somme, while for Hugh Bonnveille’s Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, it’s about realising that age has made him surplus to Army requirements.

And then there’s Thomas Howes’ willing servant William, a man desperate to do his bit and go off to fight, but who cannot get his father’s blessing. His desire to experience the ‘glory’ of defending one’s nation is brought into sharp contrast by the experiences of Rob James-Collier’s former servant Thomas, whose desperation to escape the trenches saw him eventually placing a hand above the firing line in a bid to get wounded and discharged.

It was a powerful statement on how the nobility of war can be replaced by the horrific reality of it and, to be fair, the trench scenes – while brief – succeeded in capturing the gritty, grubby despair of fighting and the swiftness of death.

One of the contrived moments I mentioned, for instance, even came during one of these sequences, as a cocky soldier lamented that you never know when your time is going to come before promptly being shot in the head, as if to underline the point.

Thus far, it is Stevens’ Crawley who looks to have the lion’s share of interest in the series. His war-time exploits provide the requisite heart in mouth scenario, while his feelings for Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary appear stronger than ever, but complicated by his own fresh engagement to Lavinia Swire (played by Zoe Boyle).

Back home, there’s more drama involving Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his love for head maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). But here’s where things became really contrived.

No sooner had he returned from a funeral to declare his undying love to Anna and discuss the possibility of marriage and kids, then his evil wife Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy) returned to blackmail and take him away.

As ever, rather than stay, fight and risk Downton and Anna’s name being muddied, Bates did the right thing and meekly departed, ‘never to be seen again’. We all know, of course, that this can’t be allowed to happen (Kennedy has been signed on for eight episodes), so expect lots of tugged heart-strings as the hapless Bates attempts to find a way out of yet another predicament.

A word to the wise, though… Bates may need to demonstrate some more back-bone this time around if he is to remain the nation’s favourite. His tame surrender didn’t feel right last night.

Of the other big happenings, the arrival of a new maid in Amy Nuttall’s confident Ethel gave rise to some fun humiliation, as did Jessica Brown-Findlay’s Lady Sybil’s attempts to learn to cook in preparation for becoming a nurse.

Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet, remained as acid-tongued as ever (and a continued scene-stealer), while Allen Leech’s chauffeur Tom Branson looks set to provide another of the unrequited love scenarios the show specialises in, brazenly declaring his feelings for Lady Sybil, only to be politely discouraged.

And so the foundations have been laid for more of the same with a few twists and turns, all played out under the darker shadow of war. Even at this stage certain plot points look easy to predict, even if they do feel shamefully contrived.

But Fellowes’ has earned our loyalty, as have the various actors whose portrayals of each character have found such a fond place in our hearts.

So, while by no means perfect, this first episode of Series 2 remained compelling viewing and a welcome return to the Sunday night schedule as the dark shadow of Autumn (and those cold, wet, windy Monday mornings) looms near.