WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Downton Abbey
Somewhere between a nighttime soap opera and prestige historical drama lives Downton Abbey, the hit British series that has been setting viewership records for PBS since making its “Masterpiece” debut in 2010. Created by Julian Fellowes, a.k.a. Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, the series follows the ups, downs, and waydowns of the aristocratic Crawley family—inhabitants of the titular estate—and their (mostly) loyal team of servants.
Like Upstairs Downstairs before it, Downton Abbey features a hearty helping of snobbishness, both within the family and from a few of the more entitled staff members, but it does so with a wink. Watch the first few seconds of the show’s opening credits, in which John Lunn’s gorgeous theme music is accompanied by the image of a dog’s ass (or hindquarters, if we’re being proper), and you’ll see it. No, it’s not meant to be crass—there’s very little of that in the show. But it does establish that Fellowes has got a cheeky side.
The series kicks off in 1912 in the hours following the sinking of the Titanic, an event that has a personal effect on the Crawley household: the estate’s heir, Patrick Crawley, was one of the ship’s fatalities (more on that later). That irruption of real history into fiction is a hallmark of the series, and a clever device for advancing its narrative; World War I, the Marconi and Teapot Dome scandals, and the Beer Hall Putsch are just a few of the world events that eventually work their way into the series. And it’s that mix of real-world events and the show’s frothier elements (sex and blackmail and fortune-hunters, oh my!) that make it such a compelling watch.
As Downton Abbey resumes its Sunday night position on PBS for its sixth and final season, it’s time to catch up on all the Crawley family drama. Here’s how to binge-watch the most Emmy-nominated non-American series of all time.
Number of Seasons: 5 (43 Episodes)
Time Requirements: With 43 episodes (and growing each week following Sunday’s S6 premiere), it will take 45 hours to catch up on the series’ first five seasons. Thankfully, because the show often jumps ahead in time, most episodes work well as standalone hours. Even major events or storylines (like a wedding or heir to Downton Abbey’s return from the dead) are generally played out and conveniently disposed of within a single episode, making it easy to watch the show one episode per sitting—or even one season. Treat the series like a feature film, watching two episodes per day, and you’ll be caught up in less than a month; that gives you plenty of time to watch all of the current season in time for the series finale in March.
Where to Get Your Fix: Amazon Prime, PBS On Demand, YouTube
Best Character to Follow: As a genuine ensemble drama, there are dozens of characters to follow—both upstairs and downstairs. The servants-quarter love stories of John and Anna Bates or Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes offer up some of the show’s sweetest moments; scheming Thomas Barrow enjoys one of the show’s most wide-ranging character arcs, and while there have been points where it seems like the show’s creators can’t decide whether to make him a villain or not, his personal struggles offer an interesting—albeit surface-level—glimpse of homosexuality in old-school English society; and that minxy Lady Mary Crawley is often up to something interesting (even if none of her many, many suitors have managed to match the chemistry she had with Matthew Crawley in the show’s earliest days). But Downton Abbey’s undoubted star is Violet Crawley, a.k.a. The Dowager Countess of Grantham, Maggie Smith’s surprisingly hip matriarch, who steals every scene in which she appears with her deliciously biting one-liners.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip: Truth be told, even Downton Abbey’s weakest episodes offer an hour of 20th-century escapism and lush imagery. That’s not to say that every episode is must-see television: like many small-screen juggernauts that take off from the pilot, Downton struggled to captivate its audience as strongly in its sophomore season. And its fourth season was widely decried as its worst. But if you’re going to invest in the show, you may as well drink in every hour of it (you can at least count on a memorable remark or two from The Dowager). That said…
Season 2: Episode 6, “Episode #2.6” Better known as “The Episode Where Patrick Crawley Returns from the Dead,” this second season episode is the one where Downton Abbey officially crossed over into soap-opera territory. Like something out of The English Patient, but far less engrossing, a mysterious soldier arrives at Downton (which is operating as a convalescent home) and reveals himself to be Patrick Crawley, the heir to the Crawley fortune, who almost certainly died on the Titanic back in the pilot episode. Edith (#PoorEdith) is convinced that the man is who he says he is, even if the rest of the family questions it. (To say nothing of the fact that no part of him—including his voice—is recognizable to the rest of the family, even with his bandaged face.) Like all the men in #PoorEdith’s life, this one sneaks away under the cover of night, never to be heard from again. The producers must have heard the audience groaning even while they were writing this one.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip
Season 1: Episode 1, “Episode #1.1” Though one could get the gist of the show and its characters without having seen the pilot, you shouldn’t want to. If ever there was a primer for the saga that’s about to unfold (and a little bit of backstory, which isn’t something the show delves into all that often), this is it. While there’s a lot of information to take in—the Titanic has sunk, the heir to Downton Abbey (to whom Lady Mary Crawley was kinda sorta engaged) was on it, and now the future of the estate and the entire Crawley family is at stake—the episode moves at a breakneck speed, so you’ve got to keep up.
Season 1: Episode 3, “Episode #1.3” If the first two episodes of Downton Abbey are meant to make clear the Crawleys’ well-respected position within the British aristocracy (even if the Countess is an American), the third episode serves to undo all of that in a way. Or at least provide proof that the times they are a-changin’ when “Lady” Mary Crawley beds a visiting Turkish attaché (played by Theo James) and gives the poor young man a heart attack—no, really! (Creator Julian Fellowes swears this plotline was based on true events.)
Season 1: Episode 7, “Episode #1.7” Miss O’Brien, lady’s maid to the now-pregnant Countess Cora Crawley, is one of the series’ most consistently bad-tempered villains, though she does seem to hold a genuine soft spot for her employer. Which makes her actions with a bar of soap in this episode all the more surprising (*minor chord*).
Season 2: Episode 3, “Episode #2.3” Highclere Castle is the estate that stars as the titular home in Downton Abbey, and Fellowes took some inspiration from the property and its real-life history—including this turn, in which Downton Abbey (at the behest of cousin Isobel Crawley) is transformed into a convalescent home for returning soldiers. That happened at the real-life Highclere Castle as well, though it probably didn’t make for the kind of dramatic tension that comes to a head as Cora and Isobel face off in a power struggle.
Season 2: Episode 9, “Christmas Special: Christmas at Downton Abbey” In season two, Downton added a Christmas special, which has become a staple of the series ever since. And it’s in these episodes (which run more like a movie at 90-plus minutes) that some of each season’s biggest moments (good and bad) are played out. In this case, it’s the romantic future of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley.
Season 3: Episode 5, “Episode 3.5” The bane of many unexpectedly popular television series is that any one of its main stars may want to leave the show in order to pursue bigger projects (see: David Caruso). And Downton Abbey saw its own share of unfortunate departures in season three, which Fellowes handled in as straightforward a way as possible: he killed off the characters. The less we say about this one the better.
Season 3: Episode 9, “Christmas Special: A Journey to the Highlands” Downton’s second Christmas special was even more drama-filled than its first, with the family heading to Duneagle Castle in Scotland to visit with family (and find a logical way to turn Lily James’ Lady Rose into a main character). While the trip itself is pleasant enough (at least for anyone who isn’t nicknamed “Shrimpie”), its aftermath is anything but. Remember that thing we said before about killing off major characters? The trend continues.
Season 5: Episode 6, “Episode 5.6” It’s a rare episode of Downton in which Edith gets a storyline that doesn’t involve her being sad and pathetic. Which is kind of how we like her. But she comes into her own a bit here, when it’s confirmed that her married-to-a-crazy-woman lover (and baby daddy) is dead, and that she has inherited his estate. She goes a little bit crazy, understandably so, and for once breaks free of her #PoorEdith stereotype. At the same time, lady’s maid Baxter discovers that Thomas has been poisoning himself to “cure” his homosexuality, In other news: Lady Mary got a haircut!
Why You Should Binge: Like any proper soap opera, the Downton drama can be addictive—even (or perhaps more so) in its most over-the-top moments. Love, death, sex, murder, debutante balls—Downton Abbey has got all the soapy tropes. But it’s rooted in history; like Mad Men, the show uses major world events to push its narrative forward and drive its characters’ motivations. Though it loses some of the historical context as it forges ahead, what makes the series so immensely watchable is its meticulous attention to detail. With the assistance of historical advisor Alastair Bruce—and a budget of about $1.5 million per episode—Fellowes is as concerned with the imagery that fills the screen as he is the dialogue being spouted and storylines being played out. And we’re okay with that. (Even if there was a little oops involving a plastic water bottle and some promotional shots.)
Best Scene: From births to deaths (to multiple births followed by deaths), Downton Abbey has produced dozens of memorable moments in its five full seasons (Matthew’s second season marriage proposal and Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ adorable bit of hand-holding in season five are two of them). But there’s a reason why “Shit The Dowager Countess Says” has become a thing. Maggie Smith effortlessly steals the moment in every scene she’s in.
The Takeaway: While it’s an historical drama by definition, Downton Abbey’s popularity around the world (it’s broadcast in 250 territories) is a testament to its thematic universality; one doesn’t need to be a Count or Countess to relate to romantic woes, sibling rivalry, or financial challenges… though it’s probably a lot easier to contend with when there’s a full staff of servants to attend to you. So there is an aspirational aspect to it, too. More than anything, though, it’s about very pretty pictures.
If You Liked Downton Abbey, You’ll Love: In many ways, Downton Abbey is just a modern-day update of Upstairs Downstairs, which ran for five seasons beginning in the early 1970s. The show followed the interactions of the Bellamy family and the below-stairs staff of their London townhouse (and the entire series is streaming on Acorn TV). Also on Acorn is A Place to Call Home, which has been called “Australia’s Downton Abbey” by just about every outlet that has ever written about the post-war drama, so we might as well too. For a truncated version of the same kind of historical drama, the 2002 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, starring Damian Lewis, is only 10 episodes. There’s also Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, the 2001 film (also starring Maggie Smith) that earned Fellowes an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and clearly served as a blueprint for Downton Abbey.