2011's biggest TV surprise wasn't that Masterpiece produced another excellent miniseries, but that the only thing more voracious than our consumption of Downton Abbey was our desire to dissect the conversational minutia every single scene was rife with.
Set in 1916's England, the two worlds (master and servant) painstakingly brought to life by writer Julian Fellowes have not only fueled the year's most thought-provoking discussions about class, gender and how society rewards both, but also some of the most unexpected laughs. Mostly at the expense of the divine, devilish Dowager Countess.
Now, season two is set to bow in America and star Dan Stevens chatted up ETonline about the show's popularity, what fans can expect from season two and where he'd like Matthew's relationship with Mary to go!
ETonline: Obviously you knew what a good product you had, but were you surprised by the public's reaction to Downton Abbey?
Dan Stevens: Absolutely. It was kind of overwhelming. We weren't setting out to fit into any partuicular canon or genre - it's a costume drama but it's an original piece of storytelling. We don't have to abide by any narrative rules set forth by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens - so it can have a slightly modern feel to it and I think that really appealed to people and got them watching. Obviously Masterpiece is a big fan of costume dramas but even over in England, I was amazed by how well it's gone down. The reception has been phenomenal.
ETonline: Given Matthew's introduction in the first episode, I feel like he went through the biggest arc in the first series. What did you enjoy about his journey?
Stevens: I enjoyed representing the rising middle class, but also coming in and critiquing Downton, in a way. I think there is a character on the show for everybody - the entire spectrum is represented. But Matthew comes in from the outside, so if there's not a single character in the house you feel like you can relate to, along comes Matthew who leads you in there questioning. He learns and evolves and has to fit in - he has no option because he's one of the few characters who doesn't have a place in the system, so it's quite fun to work that out as an actor. You might assume he feels superior or inferior but those rules are mixed up when he's thrown in. In season two, his life is turned upside down even more. The war flips everything on its head again, so he's put through the mill twice.
ETonline: The organic way in which Matthew and Mary's relationship developed was also a lovely surprise - what did you think of the choices they made at the end of season one?
Stevens: Traditionally, a family would line up 3 guys and check them out. From a financial point of view, Matthew made sense for Mary but as soon as you got them in the same room, you could tell it would never happen. It helps that Michelle [Dockery, who plays Mary] is such a fantastic actress. It's very easy to fall in love with her. But at the same time, she's not afraid to play her role and not be liked - that's an important quality in an actress. Michelle plays Mary in such a complex way, that half the audience tells me they want us together and the other half say, "oh god, she's such a bitch!" [laughs] Everyone has a very strong point of view and she inspires that in the audience. I've certainly been approached by a lot of women who think they're a better match for Matthew than Mary [laughs].
ETonline: Where does their relationship go in season two?
Stevens: She hardened him. By the end of season one, he's a harder-hearted man. He comes in open hearted and she kind of smashes that. That said, there is definitely something between them. You can't quite put your finger on why they're attracted to each other and that's one of the things that keeps this will they or wont they thing going - it's not like "they both love chess," you know? [laughs]. With season two, we take a two year time leap into the middle of 1916 and we see Matthew fighting at the front. It's not giving anything away to say he comes back to Downton with a fiancé, who he has picked up on leave - a lovely girl called Levinia and this obviously causes many ripples. It's also a wake up call for Mary because it looks like she's missed the boat. The war shakes everything up for all the characters in their own individual way. As for Matthew and Mary, that's the big thing.
ETonline: That said, I'm sure those feelings haven't dissipated, right?
Stevens: I think the answer is that he has and hasn't moved on. In real life, the war did have a tendency to accelerate certain situations as people didn't know if they'd be alive next Thursday so they would get engaged to these young women they'd meet on leave. There was no time for 3 year romances, these guys wanted to know that at the end of the war, they'd come home and marry their sweetheart. That kind of solace is not really what Mary was offering [laughs]. In Levinia, he's found a really lovely girl - the kind of girl he would have married if he never went to Downton in the first place, and I think it's an attempt to press reboot and get back to the simpler life he wanted to have, even though it'll be at Downton. So now he tries to initiate her into the ways of Downton very much the way Robert did with him in season one. But seeing Mary, the flame is still there - it's not that he drops Levinia for her, it's not nearly as simple as that. As any real romance is, this is a tricky one, that's for sure.
ETonline: The cast is about to head into season three, do you know what the longterm plan is - and when all is said and done, would you like Matthew to take over Downton or go back to his old life?
Stevens: Beyond season three, we don't know. We were all optioned for 3 to begin with but nobody had any idea it would be this successful. As long as the audience sticks with us, I think it could run on for years, but it's not my call. As for your second question, I don't think it's possible for him to go back - the era Downton explores serves to show that it was the dawn of a new age. Starting with the sinking of the Titanic, that was a very good place to mark the start of the modern era. The end of the Edwardian Era with the old world on a precipice. Then plunging that world off the cliff with WWI at the start of season two. Then, season three, as far as I understand, it will be about 1920 & 21, which is piecing things back together - emotionally, socially, back at the house. Season two has a faster pace, we see Matthew at war, I expect season three to scale back a bit, become more about the house again. But now, I don't see Matthew going back to be a lawyer in Manchester - if we run long enough for Robert to choke on a walnut and need Matthew to fill his shoes, I think we could see him taking the house into the modern era.
Downton Abbey premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.