Can you all believe that finally the long-awaited return of Downton Abbey is back playing on our American screens? Knowing that the time frame for the second series of this highly acclaimed Emmy-award winning series, it didn’t take an astute observation to see that this series would take an altogether darker approach. Logic suggests this is because of a war but it also might have something to do with the changes the characters are asked to traverse and the lessons that have brought them this far.

For those who might not have seen series two – or haven’t gotten through it yet, be forewarned, there will be some minor spoilers herein.

The date is November 1916 and the world is locked in a horrible World War that is changing the lives of those caught in it – and not a soul is unscathed. Lives at the stately country house Downton Abbey are already affected. Heir apparent to the estate and title, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is fighting with the rest of his fellow countryman and it leaves the woman whose heart he holds in a conflicted state. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) wouldn’t have ever suspected that she’d fall so hopelessly in love with cousin Matthew – the man she loathed for barging into their lives years prior with a claim to the estate. After rejecting his marriage proposal, she had her feelings crushed when she realized that Matthew wasn’t going to wait for her change of heart. Now, going months without seeing one another, the relationship between them is strained. Current master of Downton, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) isn’t happy in his latest role. He wants to be out fighting right next to the men on the front lines but has instead been given a courtesy title as a colonel without the actual duties on the battle field. His American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) becomes overly distracted by the task of turning their home into a convalescent hospital, and seeing her daughters spread their wings and leaving the nest which drives Robert into another’s arms.

The youngest Crawley, Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) receives news on a daily basis that all of the young men in her acquaintance are dying on the battle field, and feels that her purpose in life is idle. As a budding politician she is the most restless to do something good to support her country – she inquires about nurse’s training with the help of cousin Isabol (Penelope Wilton) and finds her place in helping broken soldiers… and is confused about her feelings for their revolutionary chauffer Branson (Allan Leech). Life continues on in a similar vein until months later while home on leave, Matthew visits with his fiancée Lavinia (Zoe Boyle) in tow – an engagement that is more whirlwind romance than love. Meanwhile William (Thomas Howes) is not allowed to join the fighting because his father forbids it – and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has helped back his father’s decision. Ever the perfectionist, Carson (Jim Carter) has had to make do with a much smaller staff and sees that the house he has seen ran smoothly for years is falling apart, and he cannot stand by while his favorite ‘lady,’ Mary is going though such turmoil at Matthew’s news. Away on leave following the death of his mother sees Bates (Brendan Coyle) return from London and a happy reunion with Anna (Joanne Froggatt) who has loved Bates since he arrived at Downton. Their plans are interrupted when Bates has an unexpected visitor in the form of his wife Vera (Maria Doyle-Kennedy) with thoughts of money on her mind – and she brings with her the threat of blackmail to the Crawley household.

It might not be the only thing to find at fault in series two, but before I can begin this collection of thoughts in earnest, one thing about this second series annoyed me – and when I say that, I mean it annoyed me: big time. I detested (for about… two episodes) Robert for his unfaithful behavior to his wife. Whether it was or wasn’t physical matters not - that isn’t the point. At the very least he was emotionally unfaithful – he still thought about it. No matter how distant she became, it still gave him no cause. Prior to this, I found him probably the most likable character as regards a master of a household. This time around, he does not uphold that same ideal – he went down a peg in my estimation. Instead the writers used a cheap cliché to try and gather an audience this series does not need. What has been this series strengths is not just the merit its characters have but also each of their individual stories – their moral character. The way everything relates and comes off is impressive even without complicated love triangles cluttering up screen-time. I have come to love how effortlessly the entire production comes together until it becomes like a group of dear friends. Apart from the revolving plots that sometimes seem as if they will never go anywhere productive, I found myself curious about Sir. Richard (Iain Glen), Mary’s new love interest (one had to know that wouldn’t end well) who we meet in the second episode. Something that did surprise me was that I never did detest the man. He wasn’t exactly my favorite person either but I never really hated him – he was a manipulator, but something about him remained… good; Mary was the one who dug herself into a place she couldn’t get out of. All of the little things that combine to “make” Downton Abbey just prove why it is still being nominated for awards.

I knew this series was popular but I think the impact of how popular has struck me with this second series. Not only did it advertise in a 30-some second spot prior to a theater show time but also it closed out the nightly news on the Monday after its second series premiere. All of the cast save for the dreamer Gwen is back and even if a tad worse for the wear, they are still spectacular. (And, yes, even the wicked Thomas is still around. Although how anyone could like him, I haven’t a clue! *shudders*) There seems to be a wonderful relationship between the Crawley sisters (subtle as it may be) than before but Sybil is still the sweetie of the three. Mary has reached a better place for which I am extremely appreciative. She still has a regal demeanor and pride but she is softer, and less horrid, and it wouldn’t be a typical season of Downton Abbey if Edith and Mary weren’t still at each other’s throats – and believe me, they are! And then if all of that weren’t enough, there is the newcomer, the evil Vera Bates. Say what you will about her (believe me, I am not her biggest fan) but whatever the outcome, Maria is an excellent actress who makes detesting her character sort of fun. Not only is Vera a new addition but we meet a new valet who, although past the age of drafting cannot handle the pressures of another war.

If the characters and stories aren’t enough of a draw, then the actors who bring them to life should be. Admittedly, they are kind of hard to forget when each of them turns in unforgettable performances. Critics particularly seem to praise Michelle Dockery as the reason this series enjoys such success – because her steely Lady Mary “saves” it even in its flubs. I do not entirely agree with this assessment. Everyone is worth their weight in gold while the nasty O’Brian is desperate to atone for a sin that is unforgivable. My mother and I spent six nights watching the nine episodes and fell a little bit more under Julian Fellowes spell of weaving together what is widely regarded as Downton Abbey. When the last scene rolled in the exquisite 2-hour Christmas special, my mother made the comment that this series showed more flaws than series one and a lot of people would agree with her. I definitely saw its few mistakes (namely by not resolving the fate of a beloved character) but to hope that these installments would be as light-hearted as the first was unreasonable. Given the time frame, it was only logical to assume changes would be aplenty. And they are.

At the end, this receives no lesser of a ranking than the first did with me. It was beautiful. The costuming was gorgeous, and a long expected ‘yes’ to a question fans will only be too pleased to finally see properly asked. I can hardly wait to discover what writers have in store for this family in series three – the roaring twenties at the Crawley household could either be very good or a disappointing letdown.

Downton Abby returns to PBS Sunday night with episode three. Check your local listings for times – you won’t want to miss it!
(Rated TVPG for a married couple on their wedding night in bed; one girl kisses a married man, another still becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Implications of an extra-marital affair are teased. Battle scenes are few but there are a few that sees men shot [some of who are loved characters]; one man gets injured purposefully, another commits suicide after he is in recovery; one man is vehemently against the war.)