As the new Mad Men season aired last spring, Grantland writer Mark Lisanti wrote “Power Rankings” for each weekly episode, ranking the top ten most powerful characters that really held their own, characters that had the nerve do something bold and unprecedented. I set out to do the same with America’s new favorite period piece television obsession Downton Abbey, a Masterpiece Theater series created by Julian Fellowes. The series depicts the lives of the British aristocratic Crawley family and their servants at their country estate, Downton Abbey. Seasons one and two are set between April 1912 and December 1919, during which great world events shape the lives of the people at Downton and the British social hierarchy in general. These events include the sinking of the Titanic, WWI and the Spanish influenza epidemic.
The series begins with Lord Robert Crawley, head of the Downton estate, receiving news of the death of his heir aboard the Titanic. Lord Crawley sees the preservation of the Downton estate as his mission in life, and feels strongly about the necessity to marry off one of his daughters to the heir of Downton in order to maintain the estate’s line of heritage. In turn, he bringS a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, to the estate to act as his new heir. Matthew and his mother, Isobel, are very progressive and socially engaged, and clash at first with Lady Mary Crawley, eldest daughter of Lord Crawley, and the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, Lord Crawley’s mother. Meanwhile, the staff members of Downton have intriguing storylines amongst themselves, storylines of dedication, heartbreak, and inner strength, even as they lead most of their entire lives within Downton’s servants quarters.
Only a total of seventeen episodes in, this television import from the UK has captured the undivided attention of over fourteen million Americans—but why? Is it because everyone loves watching the Earl of Grantham stomp around the estate in his old military uniform? Probably not. How about watching Carson the Butler all puffed up in a rage, spurting out ridiculous phrases like “hobbledehoy?” Definitely not. It’s really all about the women when it comes to Downton Abbey.
The ladies of Downton Abbey are the backbone and the soul of the show, and when it comes down to it, they are the ones who hold all the cards. In a time where most period piece television shows revolve around males (think Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Vegas) or if there are female storylines, they’re always dependent upon the storylines of their male counterparts. No period television drama currently on the air really explores female issues of the time, other than as a secondary or tertiary storyline. Even though Downton Abbey is an ensemble show, it does a fantastic job of showing the nuances of womanhood in post-Edwardian British society, from many generational and socioeconomic viewpoints. If there’s any women’s issue taken up in an episode, such as employment for an aristocratic woman or the women’s vote, you’ll see the it from all sides, from the perspective of an elderly countess to the perspective of a teenage kitchen maid. Moreover, even issues that aren’t as gendered as “women’s” issues, such as the First World War, the changing significance of the aristocracy in British society or adapting to new inventions like the telephone or increasingly modern automobile models, you can bet that elderly countess, that teenage kitchen maid, and every female in-between will have something distinct and poignant to say about it, something that will resonate with you even after the episode’s over.
So, here it is, the Top Ten Key Female Players on the Downton estate:
1) The Right Honorable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith)
If you have ever watched even a single episode of Downton Abbey, you know that Violet is the head bitch in charge. The Dowager Countess is always a step ahead of everyone else. Nothing gets by without her knowledge of it, and she has the final word on every decision that is made in the Downton Abbey village and estate—and with good reason! No matter what the moment is, she’s always got the perfect retort:
-Exhibit A: (on Mr. Pamuk, the Turkish visitor to Downton Abbey, and his sudden death at Downton) “Of course it would happen to a foreigner. It’s typical…No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.”
-Exhibit B: (on Lady Edith lamenting her probable future as a spinster) “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle-class.”
-Exhibit C: (on dealing with the blackmailing Sir Richard Carlisle) “We can’t have him assassinated, I suppose.”
And there you have it—the head bitch in charge.
2) Lady Sybil Crawley/Branson (played by Jessica Brown Findlay)
Between her one-piece silk and tulle genie-like dinner party outfit, her desire to work as a nurse, and running off with the socialist Irish chauffeur, Lady Sybil is always challenging the norm. She is not someone who wants to split her time between social engagements and sitting around an estate all day; instead she would rather have a long, frustrating day in a hospital, probably followed by heading to the pub to grab a pint with her co-workers. She is definitively marching to the beat of her own drum, but what is even greater about Lady Sybil is that she wants everyone else to do the same—there’s no criticism of her sister, Lady Mary, who wants her whole life to revolve around Downton Abbey (more on her shortly), nor of someone like Carson the Butler, who lives and breathes to serve the Crawley family in the most traditional fashion. Lady Sybil is, unashamedly, pro-choice (which may or may not come into conflict with her new Irish Roman Catholic husband, whom she marries at the end of season two. To be determined…).
3) Lady Mary Crawley (played by Michelle Dockery)
Ah, the ever so practical Lady Mary. She is without a doubt the product of her grandmother Violet—everything has to play out in a business-like manner. Lady Mary has no time to worry about others’ feelings, much less others’ problems of the heart—unless of course, they’re her own (oh, to love your third cousin, Matthew Crawley!) But Lady Mary is quite virtuous in her loyalty, to Downton Abbey, to her family, and most importantly, to herself. As Sir Richard Carlisle, a newspaper man, tries to blackmail Mary into marrying him by threatening to release information about her out-of-marriage sexual trysts with the Turkish visitor to Downton, Mr. Pamuk, she ultimately decides that it is better to live with a scandalized name than marry a man that already does and will continue to treat her without dignity and without respect. This is something huge for a woman of that time with her status, given the standards for women in the 1910s (no sex before marriage, especially with a foreigner!) and especially the standards for aristocratic women, who were the celebrities of Britain at the time. When it comes down to it, Lady Mary is a principled woman, and nothing can sway her from the rules of life she has set out for herself.
4) Gwen Dawson (played by Rose Leslie)
Gwen is not the typical dreaming housemaid, who spends her spare moments wondering what a life outside of serving an estate would be like—she makes things happen! It takes real chutzpah and bravery to decide you’re going to secretly hide a typewriter in the estate you’re working in and spend any free time you have learning how to type so that you can ever so slightly move up in the rigid British class system and make a better life for yourself. But Gwen doesn’t care, because she knows if she sets her mind to it, she will get exactly what she dreams of, some life that is more fulfilling than a life of solely serving others. And look!—at the end of the first season this girl of poor country farming origins secures herself (with a bit of help from Lady Sybil) a position as a secretary for the new telephone installation company. It was a shame to see her leave the show after this happened, because her determination was really something inspirational to us all.
5) Mrs. Isobel Crawley (played by Penelope Wilton)
Isobel is probably the most headstrong character on this show. At one time married to a doctor with whom she sometimes worked, she knows she is just as capable as any man and is always out to prove it. At times her very modern views may come into conflict with Violet’s (let’s be real, they always come into conflict) but somebody has to be there to convert Downton Abbey into a very much needed WWI convalescent hospital, or tell Violet that shorter skirts and looser cut dresses are the way of the future for women. That someone is always going to be Isobel.
6) Anna Smith/Bates (played by Joanna Froggatt)
Very much like Lady Mary, whom she attends to as a ladymaid, Anna knows what she thinks is right and what she thinks is wrong, and nothing will cause her to waver. She knows that Mr. Bates is a good man, and refuses to let any naysayers (ahem ahem, O’Brien and Thomas) say any different. Even when Mr. Bates is indicted for the murder of his ex-wife, Anna sees it only as a moment to stick even closer to him, doing everything in her power to clear his name. Yes, it is because she loves him, but I think it is even more because she knows he is an innocent man who is accused of a crime he did not commit—she seeks justice to no end, and for that kind of righteous persistence, she is an obvious female favorite on Downton Abbey.
7) Mrs. Beryl Patamore (played by Lesley Nicol)
Mrs. Patamore is the best cook out there, and she will never let you forget it. She runs that kitchen with an iron fist, and I pity the fool that tries to get in her way. It truly is an amazing feat to cook three square meals daily for a family of five, plus their frequent and occasional guests, plus the entire staff of the Downton Abbey estate, and she knows that there’s no one out there better for the job than her, which is why she leaves Downton Abbey kicking and screaming (metaphorically) when Lord Grantham sends her to a London hospital for eye surgery so that she can regain her sight. Mrs. Patamore is a straight-up lion (she’s got the hair for it, after all)—proceed with caution.
8) Miss Sarah O’Brien (played by Siobhan Finneran)
Also proceed with caution with O’Brien: she is the vengeful type and believe you me, you will feel it if and when you cross her. For every kindness she does not forget it, that goes doubly for anyone that does this ladymaid wrong. She is distrustful and obviously a believer in survival of the fittest, which would explain all the horrible tricks she plays on Mr. Bates. But, she carries with her a dignity and respect that, rather than becoming apparent only at certain times, is with her and on display at all times. There is a never-ending list of awful things one could call O’Brien, but weak is certainly not one of them.
9) Mrs. Elsie Hughes (played by Phyllis Logan)
Yes, Mrs. Hughes is the head housekeeper, and yes, she does a very good job at being housekeeper, but Julian Fellowes has not given his viewers much on Mrs. Hughes to keep us interested—except for the fourth episode of season one, in which a former suitor of Mrs. Hughes’ youth returns to court her and ask her to marry him. As Mrs. Hughes relates the history of herself and this man to Carson the Butler, it becomes clear that her choice between the suitor and continuing to work at Downton was really a question of choosing dependence on another or self-reliance, and Mrs. Hughes, before and then again, could not bring herself to give up her independence. For that, I tip my nonexistent hat to Mrs. Hughes.
10) The Right Honorable Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (played by Elizabeth McGovern)
Last but not least we have Lady Cora, who, like Mrs. Hughes, usually is not the center of attention of any episode. But she is the wife of the Earl of Grantham, and her family’s fortune did save the Downton estate, so she’s got both money and power on her side. More interesting, though, is that her maiden name is Levinson—is she a part of the tribe? A member of the chosen people? If so, there must be some wild backstory in which she had to square off with Violet in order to get her permission to marry her son, Lord Grantham (I would think the Dowager Countess would want pure Anglo-Saxon blood for her son and her grandchildren). Maybe one day Julian Fellowes will make use of the classic flashback but until then, we can only speculate on the strength and willpower of this Jewish-American countess.
Not ranked: Lady Edith Crawley, Daisy Robinson the kitchen maid, the evil ex-wife Vera Bates, Jane and Ethel the housemaids, Mrs. Bird the other cook, Ms. Lavinia Swire the deceased fiancée of Matthew Crawley, Lady Rosamund Painswick the sister of the Earl of Grantham, Lady Rosamund’s ladymaid, the farmer’s wife from that one time Edith drove a tractor, other miscellaneous maids on the estate, women of the village. Some of these ladies don’t have enough of a storyline to ever warrant a power ranking (c’mon, the farmer’s wife from that one time Edith drove a tractor?). But the real difference between them and the Top Ten Ladies of Downton is that they have not quite found their voice, unlike the most powerful females of the show. The most powerful women of Downton Abbey are the ones that have worked out the extent of their agency over their lives in a strict male-dominated British society—and are constantly striving for even greater agency over their lives that they know they deserve.