Ready to reenter the world of the classiest soap opera in television history? When Downton Abbey begins its third season here in the States on PBS this Sunday – it’s already aired in the U.K., leaving the entire Internet a spoiler minefield more dangerous than a World War I no-man’s-land – it’s set to make television a more beautiful place pretty much singlehandedly, with opulent sets and costumes, gorgeous cinematography, a cast that’s restrained and rock-solid from top to bottom, and a rapturous theme song that makes fans of Edwardian romance drool like Pavlov’s dogs.
But it also brings with it a cast as sprawling as any on TV, from the Crawleys – the aristocratic family who dwell in the huge country house that gives the show its title – to the many servants who keep both the house and the family afloat. Add a marriage, a pregnancy, and a visit from the Crawley kids’ American grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) on the way this season to the show’s trademark breakneck twists and turns, and things will only get more complex.
Now’s the time to sort out the daughters, suitors, butlers and dowagers that make Downton the most popular public TV drama of all time, so we’re pairing off the characters to give you a couple-by-couple breakdown of who’s who and what they’ve been up to. Whether you’re new to the Abbey or a repeat visitor in need of a refresher, couple up and read on.
Lord Robert and Lady Cora: Land-rich and cash-poor, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, took the sleazy way out of potentially losing his family’s ancestral home, the sprawling estate called Downton Abbey: he married American heiress Cora Levinson for her money. But eventually they fell in love and became the patriarch and matriarch of Downton’s entire miniature society: the “upstairs” segment, consisting of them, their three daughters, and Robert’s mother, Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess; and the “downstairs” servants who keep the household running – maids, cooks, footmen, housekeepers, and more.
Both Robert and Cora pretty much radiate reassurance and warmth when required, but the outbreak of World War I strained their relationship in Season Two. Relegated to the home front, where all he can do is polish the brass on his uniform, Lord Grantham grows disillusioned with the system that gives him such power but none when and where it really counts. Meanwhile, Lady Grantham throws herself first into the conversion of Downton into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers, then into the relationship woes of her eldest daughter, Mary. Robert briefly falls for Jane, a war widow recently hired as one of Downton’s maids, before recommitting to Cora, who narrowly escapes a potentially fatal bout of Spanish influenza. Now their main concern is the well-being of not one, not two, but three scandal-plagued members of their household, to which Lord Grantham has proven surprisingly, endearingly understanding.
Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley: Mary’s the high-strung, porcelain-skinned eldest daughter of Robert and Cora, prevented by law from inheriting their shared estate and fortune. Matthew’s the ridiculously blue-eyed, middle-class lawyer and distant cousin set to inherit the Earl of Grantham’s lands, titles and money when the previous heir, a closer male relative, dies on the Titanic. Together they’re the romantic heart of the show, with a new break-up, make-up, scandal, love triangle or tragedy reshuffling their relationship in nearly every episode.
Class and cash have come between them, with Mary seeing Matthew as an interloper and Matthew suspicious that Mary only wants him for his soon-to-be money. Scandal has threatened to separate them too, like the (true) rumor that Mary lost her virginity during a one-night stand with a hot Turkish diplomat who died of a heart attack mid-thrust. They’ve even been engaged to other people: Matthew to sweet Lavinia Swire, who stayed by his side when a war wound briefly cost him his ability to walk or have children, only to die of Spanish flu shortly after catching him kissing Mary, and Mary to Sir Richard Carlisle, a nasty nouveau riche newspaper magnate who uses his power to quash the Turk scandal in exchange for marrying her despite her rumor-tainted reputation.
But love conquers all, and rather than subject both herself and Sir Richard (whose heart, let’s face it, is really with the Khaleesi) to a loveless marriage of convenience, she dumps him for Matthew, saying yes to his marriage proposal even though she knows the vengeful Richard will now spread her sex scandal.
Lady Edith and Sir Anthony Strallan: Middle sister and perpetual also-ran Lady Edith has long stood in the shadow of her vivacious, occasionally vicious older sister Mary, but her experience working in Downton’s army hospital – and conducting a brief and chaste but memorable affair with a married local farmer – seems to have given her a sense of greater purpose and self-confidence. Sir Anthony Strallan, a much older member of the upper class’s lower tier, is the nice guy (not in the “Nice Guys of OKCupid” sense but in the “genuinely nice guy, if a bit on the boring side” sense) who was seen by many as about as good a match as Edith could hope for. In retaliation for leaking the truth about the Turk, Mary nuked Edith and Sir Anthony’s relationship by lying to him about insults Edith was allegedly making about him behind his back. But when Sir Anthony returns home from the War with a wound, the two appear to have a rapprochement.
Lady Sybil and Branson: The cheerfully rebellious youngest sister of the Crawley family, Sybil’s the most likely to challenge convention (in a safe, Downtonesque way): helping a maid get a job as a secretary, becoming a nurse during the War despite her young age and high station, wearing pants. Her chief weapons in these minor crimes against conformity are her incongruously sultry bedroom rasp of a voice and Branson, Downton’s chauffeur, who also supports the slightly more serious rebellion in his native Ireland. It takes her a long time to reciprocate the feelings he confesses to her, but when she finally does, they defy Lord Grantham’s orders – and his attempt to bribe Branson into staying away – and insist on getting married. Grudgingly impressed with Branson’s moral fiber, Robert gives them his blessing to marry, move to Ireland and start a family, as English aristocrats are so famously wont to do when their youngest daughters fall in love with Irish rebels they hired to drive the car.
Bates and Anna: Far less tempestuous than the on-again, off-again love affair between Mary and Matthew, the slow-build relationship between Lord Grantham’s valet John Bates and the Crawley daughters’ ladies’ maid Anna still manages to be the most heartache-inducing on the show, simply because the two of them are just so nice and so cursed. An old war buddy of Robert’s, Bates received a wound that forces him to walk with a cane – a bad look for someone in the prestigious right-hand-man position of valet – but Lord Grantham hired him despite both his disability and the discovery that he was both a reformed drunk and ex-con. Anna was the one Downton employee who treated Bates with kindness as he struggled with his new job; that kindness became the basis for a love that both eventually admitted but neither dared act on for years.
Just when Bates overcame his self-doubt and was ready to marry Anna, his vindictive estranged wife Vera resurfaced, refusing to grant him the divorce he’d been seeking ever since he took the rap for crimes she committed. After playing a key role in exposing Mary’s sex scandal just out of spite against Bates, she died under suspicious circumstances. Despite the support and testimony of Lord Grantham, Bates is tried and wrongfully convicted of Vera’s murder after just one night of happiness as husband and wife with Anna.
O’Brien and Thomas: While there’s no romance between them for a whole host of reasons, not least of which being the fact that he’s secretly gay, Thomas (one of the footmen) and O’Brien (Lady Grantham’s lady’s maid) are Downton’s dark power couple, a pair of bad-apple BFFs whose schemes and petty revenge plots wouldn’t be possible without each other’s support. Angry with Bates for swooping in and stealing the valet gig they believe Thomas deserved, the pair waged a long shadow war against him, culminating in O’Brien narcing about his relationship with Anna to Vera.
But by the end of season two, both had taken a few steps back from pure villainy. O’Brien regretted both her involvement in the scheme that led to Bates’s imprisonment and the miscarriage she caused Lady Grantham to have before the war, when she set up the pregnant Cora for a fall in the bathroom over her erroneous belief that Cora was going to fire her. Meanwhile, Thomas had already unilaterally disarmed against Bates, and after a series of unfortunate events during the war – falling in love with a dying soldier while working as a medic, losing all his money in an ill-fated attempt to become a black marketeer, almost losing Lord Grantham’s beloved dog in a hare-brained dognapping scheme – he cooks up a plan to make his way to the top of Downton’s hierarchy so crazy it just might work: doing his job cheerfully and well.
Lady Violet and Isobel Crawley: The show’s most quotable character, Lord Grantham’s mother Lady Violet, a.k.a. the Dowager Countess, is to Downton Abbey what Mike is to Breaking Bad, Omar is to The Wire and Ben Linus is to Lost, and she’s only slightly less dangerous to cross than any of those guys. Deadly with a well-placed putdown, she’s opposed to the forces of progress slowly pulling apart Downton’s old ways, but nonetheless becomes the number one supporter of Mary and Matthew’s everything-rides-on-it relationship. Her chief sparring partner has been Matthew’s opinionated mother, Isobel, whose middle-class self-confidence, and her determination to use her training as a nurse to influence the local hospital that Downton funds, gets on the Dowager Countess’s every nerve. Typical exchange: “I take that as a compliment.” “I must have said it wrong.”
Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes: The heads of the male and female servants respectively, Carson is Downton’s butler and Hughes its head housekeeper. The pair are almost fanatically devoted to the reputation and well-being of Downton and its residents, which they work to protect both officially and sometimes sneakily, like the good-hearted yin to Thomas and O’Brien’s a-hole yang. Both of them are essentially married to the job, with Mrs. Hughes going so far as to turn down a proposal from an old flame. Their own relationship, which frequently unfolds in closed-door meetings in their modest offices, is strictly platonic. Carson’s stately baritone may be the best speaking voice on this show, which is saying something.
Mrs. Patmore and Daisy: The real couple here ought to be scullery maid Daisy and footman William, who had a thing for the mousy assistant cook for years. But Daisy only agreed to marry the kind-hearted William after he incurred a mortal wound on the battlefield, and only went through with their deathbed nuptials out of the encouragement of her boss, the blustery cook Mrs. Patmore. Having recently lost a nephew to the war, she wanted William to die happy, even though she knew Daisy didn’t really love him. The sweet but flighty Daisy eventually accepted the widow’s pension that William’s service earned her, too.