The British historical drama
Downton Abbey ran in the U.S. as part of Masterpiece Classic on PBS for six seasons from 2010 to 2016. By offering a glimpse into English aristocracy, early 20th century propriety, and the era's lust-worthy fashion, the series became a massive hit. On Sept. 20, the will hit the big screen, fans will get to revisit the luxurious manor and all of their favorite inhabitants, including the posh Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Irish in-law Tom (Allen Leech), the charming downstairs staff and, of course, the incomparable Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith). Of course, marathoning Downton Abbey movie the best is one way to prepare for the show's feature film followup. Downton Abbey episodes
The new movie takes place in 1927 and focuses on a very important visit. "The beloved Crawleys and their intrepid staff," the official synopsis reads, "prepare for the most important moment of their lives. A royal visit from the King and Queen of England will unleash scandal, romance and intrigue that will leave the future of Downton hanging in the balance."
Naturally, in preparation for the movie, fans might want to revisit the series. But if you don't have enough time to marathon all six seasons, hitting these 20 episodes should do the trick. They all feature some serious British pomp and circumstance, saucy scandal, and at least one winning one-liner from the Dowager Countess. Shall we go through?
Few shows begin as dramatically as
Downton does, with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. When Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), Lord of Grantham, and his family learn that their male heir has perished in the sinking, the estate is thrown into chaos. The end of the pilot introduces the new heir, cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Meanwhile, a new valet named Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) arrives downstairs and charms almost everyone.
Lady Mary Crawley (Dockery) was set to marry her cousin Patrick in order to keep one of Lord Grantham's three daughters in the inheritance. But Patrick's death on the Titanic leaves Mary's fate up in the air, and leads her to be a little reckless with a Turkish Diplomat named Kemal Pamuk (Theo James). After Mr. Pamuk dies in her bed, the scandal reverberates throughout the entire rest of the series, yet solidifies the friendship between Mary and her maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt).
Of course, a lot happens between the third and seventh episodes. Youngest sister Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) learns more about feminism, sports a pair of pants, and begins falling for Irish chauffeur Tom Branson (Leech). Middle sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) spreads the rumors of Mary and Mr. Pamuk. While downstairs, footman Thomas (Robert James-Collier) and ladies maid O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) scheme and plot.
But this Season 1 finale packs a ton in as well. The Crawleys make one of the series' many trips to London. Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learns that she's pregnant, possibly solving the family's heir problems. That is, until O'Brien steps in with "her ladyship's soap" and causes tragedy. The season ends with Lord Grantham announcing the outbreak of World War I at what was supposed to be a posh garden party, and suddenly nothing at Downton will ever be the same.
The war is in full swing and has spread throughout Europe. Two years have passed and Downton is turned into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Sybil acts as a nurse and her relationship with Branson intensifies, while Mary's potential marriage to Matthew is jeopardized by his new fiancé, Lavinia (Zoe Boyle).
Meanwhile, Anna and Bates work on getting his wife to divorce him so that they can marry. But the whole episode really shows just how much every citizen, even those in the upper class, is affected by "The Great War."
A die-hard fan may not skip over this much of Season 2, but the middle of this season is where
Downton gets the most melodramatic. There's a wounded soldier pretending to be deceased cousin Patrick, an illegitimate love child between a maid and an officer, Bates' wife Vera plotting to ruin his life, plus a flirtation between Robert and another maid. It's all very soapy.
Best skip to Episode 8, where Matthew's war injury is healing, but many in the household are infected with the Spanish Flu. After Lavinia dies in the historic epidemic, Matthew and Mary's future is once again up in the air. Meanwhile Bates is arrested for the murder of his wife, beginning what would become a long and tiresome plot line determined to keep Anna and Bates apart.
Season 2, "Christmas at Downton Abbey"
Season 2 includes the first of what would be many Christmas specials for
Downton Abbey. A lot happens in this season ender having to do with newlyweds Anna and Bates, as well as beloved kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) and her husband (!) but the most important couple development is that Mary comes clean to Matthew about Mr. Pamuk, and Matthew proposes in the glistening Christmas snow.
Matthew and Mary finally get married! Just in time for Lord Grantham to lose all of his money in a botched railroad investment! Hey, at least the wedding is fab and already paid for.
Tom and a very pregnant Sybil return from Ireland and Tom doesn't shy away from sharing his views on Irish independence, which of course everyone at the British aristocratic table just absolutely
This ep also introduces the half Jewish, American members of Cora's family: her mother, Martha Levinson, played by a snappy Shirley MacLaine, who gives the Dowager Countess an equally quippy sparring partner, and her dry brother Harold, played by Paul Giamatti.
Oh, Edith. Perhaps feeling overshadowed by Mary's perfectly romantic and noble match, Edith pursues the feeble and way-too-old-for-her Anthony Strallan (Robert Barhurst). He reluctantly proposes, but in the end leaves her at the altar in a move literally everyone but Edith could see coming. Edith's first (yes, first!) attempt at marriage is like a train wreck, absolutely hard to watch but you just can't look away.
Meanwhile, Matthew accepts Lavinia's family's money in order to help Robert save Downton, because it's totally cool to accept your dead fiancé's family money to save your new wife's father from financial embarrassment. Downstairs, Thomas and O'Brien turn on each other.
Lady Sybil was always the most openminded of the
Downton bunch. Her love for Tom, an Irish chauffeur, transcends class and rejects gossip and labels. Sybil's forward thinking offers a glimpse into the future, which is why her death shortly after childbirth (mostly the result of her father and posh doctor's male pig-headedness) is so tragic. Prepare the tissues for this episode.
Season 3, "A Journey to the Highlands"
Another Downton baby and another Downton death. This Season 3 Christmas special sees that family off to Duneagle Castle in the Scottish Highlands to visit family. The episode introduces Lily James' Lady Rose, and a new love interest for Edith.
But Season 3 of
Downton seems determined to break our hearts. After Mary gives birth to her and Matthew's son George, the trio have a lovely moment together just like Sybil and Tom did with baby Sybil. But in a moment of euphoria, Matthew loses control of his car and dies at the close of the finale. Why, Julian Fellowes, WHY?!?
It's 1922, and Mary is in mourning for her late husband, Matthew, but that hasn't stopped other eligible bachelors such as Lord Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen), from pursuing her. But
Downton needs another young ingenue who bucks the status quo as Lady Sybil once did, and Lady Rose moves to the Abbey, bringing some fun with her.
But serious tragedy also strikes when Lord Gillingham's valet, Mr. Green (Nigel Harman) attacks and rapes Anna downstairs while most of the staff are upstairs enjoying a musical performance. She tells only Mrs. Hughes, but another crimes have struck the Bates couple, and the show seems determined to keep them from happiness.
Talk about a packed episode. Tom is blackmailed by maid Edna (MyAnna Buring), who is claiming to be pregnant with his baby after seducing him while he was drunk. Anna, still suffering from her attack, moves back into the main house, leaving Bates behind in their cottage. Mary and Rose go to London where Rose dances with a black jazz singer named Jack Ross (Gary Carr) causing quite the scandal. Lord Gillingham proposes to Mary, but she refuses him, citing the fact that she's still mourning Matthew.
But the scandal doesn't end there. Edith spends the night with her new beau, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), before he departs for Germany to obtain citizenship so that he can divorce his wife, who's been declared clinically insane. Perhaps Season 4 is the soapiest after all!
Season 4, "The London Season"
The Season 4 Christmas special sees the Crawley family move to their London residence for the summer of 1923. Cora's mother and brother come over from America once again, while Tom stays behind at Downton to keep things in line, meeting a new lady friend in the process.
Rose has her coming out ceremony before the King and Queen and gets caught up in a debacle involving the Prince of Wales, his mistress, and a mysterious letter.
In Switzerland, Edith gives birth to a baby girl whose father, Michael Gregson, has disappeared in Germany. She tries to leave the baby behind in Europe but eventually brings her daughter, Marigold, to live with farmers on Downton land.
And love blossoms between Mrs. Hughes and Carson when the staff ventures to the seaside for an outing. The two hold hands as they wade barefoot into the ocean, foreshadowing their relationship to come.
The Dowager Countess finally gets her own juicy story line when she reunites with an old flame, a Russian aristocrat named Prince Kuragin (Rade Sherbedgia), who has been forced to abandon the country in the aftermath of the revolution.
New ladies maid Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) finds out that Thomas is attempting to "cure" his homosexuality by self medicating. Mary refuses Gillingham's proposal. And in a plot point that simply won't die, Anna is now suspected of killing her rapist, Mr. Green.
Edith learns that Gregson was killed by Nazis during one of Hitler's early coup attempts. She inherits his publishing company and takes Marigold to London to start a new life seemingly away from the proper confines of Downton. Next season, Edith will stand up to a misogynistic male editor and replace him with a woman.
In other women's lib moves, during Mary's dalliances with Gillingham, she had Anna buy her a birth control device. Only here, Bates discovers a contraception book in Anna's drawer and assumes she's been using it. Can Mary's new 1920s bob haircut and their explanation save the day and reunite the Bateses?
This ep also introduces the charming Atticus (Matt Barber), Rose's future husband.
Rose and Atticus tie the knot, though not without some interference from his grumpy old father, who wants to keep them apart due to their Jewish heritage and Rose's Anglican roots. A manufactured scandal involving a sex worker and stag party photos threatens to upend their nuptials, but solving a mystery has never been something this family has been afraid to do.
Meanwhile Tom makes plans to take little Sybil to America, and Robert finally realizes what almost everyone else already knows: that Marigold is actually Edith's daughter.
Carson and Mrs. Hughes finally get married! It's adorable and of course not without some proper British tension, but it finally happens nonetheless.
The beginning of Season 6 marks a winding down of the series with events like this taking place. Rose's marriage to Atticus, the wedding of Carson and Mrs. Hughes, plus Anna's pregnancy all begin to come together to tone down the drama into a sort of happily ever after. But Mary and Edith's love lives are still up in the air, of course, and no lovely Lady of Downton can be left alone, can she?
The most blood-soaked episode of
Downton Abbey hits in the middle of this season, when Robert's often-problematic stomach ulcer finally bursts in the middle of dinner. He vomits blood all over the fine china and silver, staining the linens in a dramatic and violent spasm, He declares his love for Cora should he perish, in a final romantic gesture.
Sure, fun things happen in this episode, too. Edith starts dating Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton), and Mary becomes suspicious of Marigold's parentage.
After learning learning that if Edith should marry Bertie, she'd become a Marquioness and outrank her, Mary — also feeling uncertain about new flame Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) — lets it slip to Bertie that Marigold is Edith's illegitimate child. Both Edith and Tom let Mary have it, with Edith calling her a bitch in a most glorious monologue that is too good not to revisit here.
Just shut up! Who do you think you’re talking to? Mama? Your maid? I know you. I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch. You’re a bitch! And not content with ruining your own life, you’re determined to ruin mine. Don’t demean yourself by trying to justify your venom. Just go. And you’re wrong, you know, as you so often are. Henry’s perfect for you. You’re just too stupid and stuck-up to see it. Still, at least he’s gotten away from you, which is something to give thanks for, I suppose.
Tom's insults are pretty good too. "How many lives are you going to wreck just to smother your own misery?" he asks. "You’re a coward, Mary. Just like all bullies, you’re a coward."
Their words are both a long-time coming, and Mary is finally given the talking to she deserves. Their rants also serve as a kick in the butt, and Mary ends the episode married to Henry after all.
Edith gets her title, her man, and her happy ending in the series finale. In fact, pretty much everyone comes away with something they wanted in this joy fest.
Mary and Henry discover that they're expecting, while Henry and Tom decide to open their own car dealership. Anna goes into labor and gives birth to a baby boy. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) marries Baron Merton (Douglas Reith). Molesley (Kevin Doyle) gets a teaching job. Thomas gets promoted to butler when Carson retires. And the Dowager Countess finally gives Cora a supportive boost.
This set of episodes makes a good refresher for fans who've already seen the series or a helpful marathon for newcomers who want a quick catch-up. Just be aware if you're in the latter group — you'll probably catch the bug and end up watching the whole series anyway.