It's 1912, and life in the Edwardian country house of Downton Abbey is idyllic and bustling for the Crawley family, aided by their cadre of servants. Robert, Earl of Grantham, his American heiress wife Cora, and their three daughters, along with Robert's mother Violet, have lived largely uncomplicated lives. But the sinking of the Titanic hits home in an unexpected and dramatic way — Lord Grantham's heir, James Crawley, and his son Patrick have perished. It's personally agonizing (momentarily) for daughter Mary who was supposed to marry Patrick. On a grander scale, suddenly all the predictable succession plans have gone terribly awry, and unheard of questions now loom large — Who will be the new heir to the earldom? And what will happen to this distinguished estate, now in jeopardy? Mary's grief is short lived as she sets her sights on another suitor, the Duke of Crowborough.
As the drama unfolds among the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, changes are happening amidst the servants as well. John Bates has arrived as a new valet for Robert, but he has a pronounced limp, potentially making him unfit to perform his duties. Also, Bates seems to have some previous link to Robert, and a murky past. And, someone else in the servant's quarters is darkly entangled with the fortunes of the family he serves.
Despite much angling and consternation, the course of action emerges — a new heir presumptive will soon arrive at Downton. As Matthew Crawley, the heir presumptive, and his mother Isobel arrive, the emotions of the onlookers range from anxiety to outright antagonism. But in crisis there may be opportunity, and Matthew is considered as a suitor for Mary. Yet, nothing is quite as it seems in the changing landscape and shifting fortunes of Downton Abbey.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
It's April, 1912, and a telegram is delivered with urgency to the English countryside estate, Downton Abbey. The Titanic has sunk, taking with it James Crawley and his son Patrick, the heirs to Downton Abbey. Nephew to Robert, the present earl, Patrick was to marry Mary, Robert's eldest daughter, and without him it is unclear not just who will inherit the title and the fortune tied to the estate from Mary's American mother, Lady Cora, but how the family will retain the splendid Downton Abbey itself. (The entail states that the house, land and title must pass to a male heir, but now the apparent male heir is dead.) Cora gently reminds Robert that everything has changed, and as long as Robert insists on not challenging the entail, the future is in question.
The earl's sorrow is lost on Mary, who is relieved to be freed of her commitment to the late Patrick Crawley, and is scornful of her grieving younger sister Edith, who was in love with Patrick. After the family's memorial service, Robert learns from his lawyer that the entail is unbreakable. Meanwhile, Violet, the dowager countess, allies herself with Cora, issuing the edict that "The entail must be smashed!"
As the dismaying complications unfold for the family, a new valet, John Bates, arrives limping and supported by a cane. Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, and Carson, the butler, take Bates's injury in stride, but Lady Cora's maid O'Brien and the first footman, Thomas, make no secret of their resentment, as Bates' new position was coveted by the coldly ambitious Thomas. Their bitterness grows when it is revealed that Bates had been Robert's batman in the Boer War. As O'Brien poisons opinion of Bates upstairs among the ladies, Thomas works downstairs to sabotage the new valet. But Anna, the head housemaid, shows him respect and kindness.
Before long, word arrives that the young Duke of Crowborough, ostensibly believing Mary's prospects altered, has planned a visit. While the staff prepares for the proud moment of welcoming a Duke to the house, Mary prepares for a marriage opportunity. When the Duke arrives, he requests Thomas as a footman; but his arrival is interrupted when O'Brien surreptitiously trips Bates and the man lands splayed on the gravel, humiliating himself and the family. Crowborough convinces Mary to break a taboo by showing him around the servants' quarters where he mischievously enters Thomas' room. Meanwhile, Robert reluctantly informs Bates that through no fault of his own, on account of his injuries, he has to leave Downton, and Anna later finds Bates weeping.
After dinner, Crowborough engages Robert in conversation about Mary's prospects, but learning that Robert does not intend to fight the entail, he blusters and denies that he had ever intended to ask for her hand. Later, alone with Crowbrough, Thomas pressures the Duke to take him away from Downton and make him a valet, and attempts to blackmail him about a summer dalliance the two shared. But Crowborough produces the incriminating letters he'd stolen and destroys them in the fire. Thomas will have to find a new way up or out. Come morning, the Duke is about to depart, taking Bates along to the train station, when Robert changes his mind at the last minute, ordering Bates to stay.
In Manchester, Isobel Crawley and her son Matthew receive a letter from Lord Grantham, their distant cousin. Astonished, Matthew explains to his mother, "He wants to change our lives." A year after the heirs Patrick and James perished, Matthew and his mother arrive at Crawley house. Settling in, Matthew protests his new position as well as his butler and valet, Molesley, vowing to resist being changed by his relatives and new status. Isobel tries to reason with her son, but he is in the middle of stubbornly defending his bachelorhood against the prospect of marrying one of the earl's daughters when Lady Mary is presented. She has heard the whole thing. When Matthew apologizes, she derisively makes it clear that she too opposes a match. Mary seeks reassurance from her mother that Robert will try to overturn the entail, but Cora can only commit to trying, together with Violet, to bring the earl around.
O'Brien, the ladies maid, also disapproves of the middle-class Matthew Crawley inheriting Downton Abbey, but the staff and the family both welcome the relatives to dinner. There, the imperious Violet frostily dismisses Isobel, Thomas subtly impugns Matthew's manners, and Matthew reveals to a puzzled Robert that he intends to keep working as a lawyer and tend to the estate on weekends. Nevertheless, Violet has hatched a plan to match Mary and Matthew together, and pays a mysterious visit to Isobel.
Later, while Mary disparages Matthew's work and his general fitness as heir, Edith secretively reads a letter of Mary's signed, "Evelyn." Alone together, Cora encourages Mary to give Matthew a chance — it would save Downton and secure her a position. Mary scoffs, dismissing approval of Matthew as provincial until Cora reveals that the idea had in fact been initiated by Violet.