'Downton Abbey' is back as a movie; here's how the seasons rank
Every fan of “Downton Abbey” remembers that delightful Turkish gentleman: Mr. Pamuk appeared in only one episode, but his presence was felt for years.
Yet even his wavy hair and ability to slide into a lady’s bedroom after hours are not enough to propel Season One to the top of my ranking of this Masterpiece juggernaut of a show, which aired from 2010 to 2015. (I am well qualified to be judge and jury in Yorkshire: I love “Downton Abbey” so much, I got ready for each new season by rewatching the previous ones from the beginning.)
Early reviews of the new “Downton Abbey” movie, opening Friday, suggest that fans like me will not be disappointed; not much has changed in the structure or storytelling. As Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson declared in Season Three: “Come war and peace, Downton still stands, and the Crawleys are still in it.”
My rankings (spoilers ahead, bigger than an iceberg):
1. Season Two: The entirety of World War I. Spanish Flu. Edith learns to drive. We’re not yet tired of the melodrama that is Anna and Bates. That’s about 10 percent of what happens in this most plot- and emotion-heavy set of episodes. The basic premise of the show is fully in motion: Lives and prospects are changing, particularly for women and servants, because of social upheaval and events of the world. Soldiers come to Downton, new housemaid Ethel makes some bad choices and a Canadian might supplant Matthew as heir. Oh, and a much-desired engagement finally sticks, but not before Lavinia’s sad end or before we endure Sir Richard Carlisle and his inappropriate suit. Lord Grantham struggles to find his place in his changing world, which leads to yet another housemaid’s departure.
Also of note: Thomas breaks away from his partner-in-snark (and worse) Miss O’Brien, setting in motion one of the best character arcs of the show.
2. Season One: Oh, Mr. Pamuk. The first “Downton” episode I ever saw was Episode Three of this season. I was at my folks' in Kansas and asked my mom, “Are they going to catch Mr. Pamuk and Mary together?” She gave a knowing smile and said, “Just watch.” Oh, Mr. Pamuk! The season starts with the sinking of the Titanic and three sisters whose only goal in life is to marry well, while the staff downstairs is expected to be grateful just to be in service (kudos to Gwen and her liberation through correspondence classes). It ends with the start of World War I and the promise that “Downton” will not be your typical costume drama. Plus: We learn of Carson’s past on the boards as one-half of “The Cheerful Charlies,” and Mrs. Hughes has a fancy man for one episode. Maggie Smith absolutely owns every scene as Lady Violet, but the rest of the cast is able to keep up.
Also of note: Bates was an unexpected sex symbol before the melodrama sucked the life out of him.
3. Season Three: There is a moment in Episode Three that caused me to gasp, stand up and yell “Oh my god” with such force, my sweet and startled dog left the room. That moment: When Lady Edith is left at the altar. So much more happens this season, it would have edged Season One if not for Pamuk: Mary and Matthew wed. Lord Grantham almost loses the whole big Abbey. Sybil has a baby. Sybil and Matthew don’t survive to Season Four. The arc of Anna and Bates starts to get on our last nerves. Back to Edith: Not marrying poor old Strallan was the best thing to happen to her, although it would take a while to see that. A lovely, heartbreaking moment after Sybil dies is a reminder that Mary and Edith can be sisters to each other (Mary to Edith about Sybil: “She was the only person living who always thought you and I were such nice people.” “Let’s love each other now, as sisters should.”) We meet Cousin Rose, Shrimpy and Lady Flintshire, who all come into play through the years.
Also of note: It becomes clear that Mrs. Hughes and Carson have deeper feelings for each other, and this is a full season before they take that sweet wade out into the sea.
4-6. The rest: So, it’s hard to parse these. I would put Season Four last if only because Edna the lady’s maid and a terrible attack on Anna make some episodes a tough watch (as do more legal problems for Anna and Bates). I say, don’t give up and just enjoy the high points:
Season Four: Edith has a baby, Mary emerges from grief, takes her place as a boss at Downton and opens herself to love again. I have a soft spot for the put-upon Mr. Molesley, too, who has a sad, sweet arc. Plus, the holiday special includes a caper involving the Prince of Wales and a card shark.
Season Five: Lady Violet has a racy past with a Russian (Prince Kuragin), and a fire at Downton provides a moment of pure comedy expertly played by Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham. Edith gets her baby back, her father shows real growth, Mary has a tryst with Gillingham before she will commit to him (and then realizes “I can never commit to this guy”), and Violet and Isobel’s friendship deepens. Also: Carson and Mrs. Hughes get engaged. Fan service? WHO CARES!
Season Six: A lot is wrapped up, yes, and I am there for it. Tom returns to Downton for good, Carson and Mrs. Hughes get married. Mrs. Patmore opens a B&B on the side and finds herself in a scandal. Mary finds love again, although it’s a bumpy road, and she almost torpedoes Edith’s future for good in the process. But love wins all around, after Edith and Mary have the epic fight we’ve been waiting five seasons for, and Mary gets her act together. And then Edith outranks her, which feels like weird karma. Also: Thomas completes his transformation into a decent person, Carson retires (it’s sad, truly) and Isobel finally liberates Lord Merton from his terrible children.