'Downton Abbey': How to Watch the Series and What to Remember Ahead of the Movie

Downton Abbey
Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

ET has put together a guide to all things Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ beloved British upstairs-downstairs drama, which continues with an all-new film in theaters on Friday, Sept. 20. To prepare for the movie -- watch the trailer here -- we take a look back on the most important characters and storylines as well as outline key episodes from the series.

First premiering in the U.S. in 2011 as part of the PBS network’s 40th season of Masterpiece (with introductions by Laura Linney), the show quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Over the course of six seasons, fans got to follow the drama, romance and scandals of the lives living at the Yorkshire country estate in the early 1900s. 

Upstairs was the aristocratic Crawley family led by Robert, Earl of Grantham, who was married to Cora and had three daughters, Sybil, Edith and the often troublesome Mary. They were often joined by the quibbling Dowager Countess of Grantham and cousin Isobel. Meanwhile, the downstairs was full of its own intrigue thanks to an expansive staff run by Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. 

Four years after the series ended in 2015, Fellowes has resurrected Downton Abbey for a whole new chapter. Returning are all the major cast members, including Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Michael Fox (Andy), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Sophie McShera (Daisy), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Douglas Reith (Lord Merton), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley) and Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton). 

They are joined by a few new faces to the franchise, most notably Imelda Staunton -- Carter’s real-life wife who enjoys a welcome onscreen reunion with former Harry Potter co-star, Smith -- and rising scene-stealer Tuppence Middleton, as the Crawleys host an unexpected visit from King George V and Queen Mary.  

Characters and Storylines to Remember

If one thing was true about Downton Abbey, there was never a shortage of storylines thanks to the large ensemble cast that included the Crawley family and their relations upstairs, and all of the staff downstairs. However, when it comes to the movie, there are only a few key characters and long-running storylines worth remembering in detail. So fans can worry less about all of Anna and Bates’ ongoing legal problems and focus more on the show’s many romances and family interactions: 

Lady Mary and the Crawley Family Tree: The family’s ongoing, complicated fight over the lineage and who was the rightful heir to the estate along with the earldom and Lady Grantham’s fortune started in the premiere (see below) when Lord Grantham’s cousin died on the Titanic. It continued throughout the series with Downton finally falling under Mary’s purview after her husband (and Grantham’s distant cousin once removed), Matthew Crawley, died unexpectedly and left everything to their son, George. 

The Dowager Countess of Grantham vs. Everyone: Violet may have a storied past, but she’s perhaps best remembered as a fierce defender of the household, verbally sparring with Matthew’s mother, Isobel, when she and her son first arrived at Downton. Any new face often was met with a tongue lashing of sorts. While the Dowager eventually softened on the new additions to the extended family, she saved her most loving and supportive feelings for Mary, whom Violet encouraged to keep the estate afloat.  

The Late Sybil and Tom Branson’s Loyalty to Downton: While the family has suffered several deaths -- notably Matthew’s demise in season three -- none of them have had a more lasting impact than that of Sybil, the youngest of the Crawley sisters who died after giving birth to her and Tom’s child. Meanwhile, Tom, initially a chauffeur before marrying Sybil, has had to prove his place among the family and at Downton. Over time, he proved his worth and became estate manager under Mary. While he engaged in a few fleeting romances, he never remarried, like Lady Edith or Lady Mary did after their first husbands died. 

Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Thomas Barrow and Managing Downstairs: Who runs the world of Downton Abbey? That’s Mr. Carson, the estate’s longtime butler before stepping down at the end of the series to focus on his health and marriage to Mrs. Hughes, who still works as Downton’s housekeeper. While there have been plenty of staff to cause trouble, none have more than Thomas Barrow, an under-butler and often challenger to Carson’s authority until he was named butler in his stead. Of course, Barrow has his own baggage, which was often associated with him being a gay man in the 1920s before homosexuality was considered legal. 

Downton Abbey

How to Stream and Key Episodes to Watch

Luckily, catching up on the series is easy for anyone with Amazon Prime. All six seasons are streaming on the platform as well as on PBS with access via the PBS Passport. (It's also available to purchase on Apple TV and Google Play.)

While no one would tell a newcomer or diehard fan not to rewatch the entire series, binging all 52 episodes before seeing the movie in theaters may prove too much. In that case, these are nine telling episodes to watch for some added context to the film’s plot, which picks up on the storylines highlighted above:

“Episode One” (Season 1, Episode 1): April 1912. The series kicks off with the arrival of news that threatens the future of Downton Abbey. Lord Grantham's cousin, James Crawley, heir presumptive to the earldom, and his son, Patrick, died in the sinking of the Titanic. Upon hearing the news, Violet utters the first of many quotable lines, “I never cared for James. He was too like his mother, and a nastier woman never drew breath.”

“Episode Three” (Season 2, Episode 3): July 1917. Downton becomes a convalescent home for wounded officers. Acting Sergeant Thomas Barrow is assigned to run the military side of the household.

“Christmas at Downton Abbey” (Season 2, Episode 9): Dec. 1919 to Jan. 1920. The downstairs staff is busy with Christmas preparations. Sybil, now married to Tom and living in Ireland, reveals that she is pregnant. Matthew Crawley proposes to Mary and she accepts.

“Episode Five” (Season 3, Episode 5): May 1920. Edith takes on a job writing a newspaper column, but is met with mixed reactions from her family. Sybil delivers a girl but, during the night, she goes into convulsions and dies.

“Episode Two” (Season 4, Episode 2): March 1922. After Matthew’s unexpected death, Mary was appointed his sole heir, making her in charge of managing the estate. Violet secretly supports Mary and urges her to learn the business from Tom.

“Episode Six” (Season 5, Episode 6): Summer 1924: Edith inherits a publishing company and moves her and her daughter, Marigold, to London. Thomas visits Dr. Clarkson after falling ill, revealing he was attempting to cure his homosexuality. 

“Episode Three” (Season 6, Episode 3): May 1925. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes get married. Tom and his daughter, Sybbie, unexpectedly return from America; he announces he wants to stay in Downton with the family.

“Episode Six” (Season 6, Episode 6): June 1925. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes adjust to married life. Henry tells Mary he’s in love with her. Carson questions Thomas about his meetings with Andy; Thomas becomes distressed over his sexuality.

“The Finale” (Season 6, Episode 7): Sept. 1925 to Jan. 1926. Molesley leaves service to teach in town. Lord Merton and Isobel’s relationship is saved by Violet. Andy and Daisy fall for each other. Bertie and Edith become engaged and later married. Henry and Tom go into business together selling cars. Carson, who becomes ill, tenders his resignation; Thomas returns as butler with Carson retaining an oversight role. Violet accepts that Cora has taken over her prime position within the family.

Fans can also watch this 10-minute recap put together by the series, especially for the film:

What Else to Check Out Ahead of the Movie

People who want to dive even deeper into their fandom have endless options to get their Downton on, thanks to a plethora of special events, podcasts and books. Here are just a few to indulge their inner upstairs or downstairs persona. 

NBC is airing an hour-long special, Return to Downton Abbey: A Grand Event, on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET. Hosted by Derek Hough and filmed at the historic Highclere Castle in England, fans will get an inside look at the film as Hough sits down with the cast to discuss what made the series so appealing to millions and how it segues into theaters. Additionally, various celebrities will share their own Downton stories, detailing their own obsessions with the show.

English author Jessica Fellowes, who is the niece of the creator, has written a number of books considered to be the official companions to the series, including Downton Abbey: A Celebration, The World of Downton Abbey and The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey. Meanwhile, Patmore fans may enjoy The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook - Expanded Edition from Emily Ansara Baines. The cookbook features recipes, like Mary’s Crab Canapés and Christmas Plum Pudding, for any simple or extravagant early 20th century-themed meal. 

Finally, fans who want to experience the world of Downton Abbey firsthand -- but can’t afford an Airbnb overnight stay at Highclere Castle -- can attend the Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, a superbly thorough showcase of sets, props and costumes from the series making extended stops around the country. Check out ET’s exclusive first look at the exhibit, when it first opened in New York City:

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