Upstairs Downstairs Dish: What You Need to Know About the Series 2 Premiere

The reboot of popular drama Upstairs Downstairs kicked off its second season on Masterpiece Classic with new characters, new relationships and a lot of drama both within Eaton Place and the wider world, as the prospect of war looms for England.  

While I may have had some misgivings following my whirlwind trip through Series 1 last week about how this new season might shake out, this first episode actually shows a lot of promise and I’m intrigued to see where things are going to go next week. Yes, there are some plot holes , several irritating character and one twist I just cannot comprehend, but on the whole, the pacing has improved and the episode feels more balanced storyline-wise. Click through and let’s chat about it.

So, what happened during the Upstairs Downstairs premiere?

A Time Jump and Lots of Changes.  Series 2 opens with Lady Agnes in the hospital, having another baby. This put us somewhere around a year and a half to two year time jump ahead from Series 1 and lots of things have changed, for both good and ill:

  • Lady Maud has died (SNIFF) and her half-sister Blanche has arrived to stay with the family.
  • Persie is still in Germany.
  • Rose is ill with what sounds like tuberculoisis and will be in the hospital for quite some time to come. (This was a plot twist added at the last minute to accommodate the real-life ill health of star Jean Marsh.)
  • Hallam’s previously presumed dead sister Pamela has come to stay at Eaton Place, since the building housing her hospital has been requisitioned by the War department.
  • Ivy the maid has apparently fallen off the face of the earth. I didn’t catch a mention of what happened to her (anyone know?), so perhaps we are to assume she’s just moved on.
  • There’s a new nanny, a new nanny’s maid and a new kitchen maid, none of whom’s names I have managed to learn.  The overly sassy new nanny's maid is sort of irritating, though. And since Harry the Driver has already made eyes at her, I think we can all assume that won't end well.
  • Harry the Driver is still employed, so I suppose we’re meant to assume he’s given up on the whole fascism thing.
  • Johnny the Footman is still employed, so I suppose we’re meant to assume he hasn’t stabbed anyone yet.
  • No sign of Eaton's adopted child Lotte, though. Is she still at boarding school?

The very beginning of this episode does drag a bit as all these changes are explained and we’re introduced to several new faces, but that’s okay. It’s plot exposition, it has to go somewhere – and it’s generally handled much more deftly than in the first episode of Series 1. 

I’m quite distressed about the death of Lady Maud – mostly because I adore Dame Eileen Atkins and think that there was more to do with her relationship with her son after the whole not-actually-dead sibling plot. Oh, well. I know the choice to leave the show was Atkins’ in the first place, but still. Alex Kingston, I love you, but you have some big shoes to fill.

Aunt Blanche Arrives.  Speaking of Kingston, the Doctor Who star joins the cast in this episode as Maud’s younger half-sister, Blanche Mottershead. She’s an archeologist (River Song shout-out, perhaps??), who has a somewhat creepy knowledge of what we’d probably call “new age” health treatments and an obvious desire to have her own way, all the time.. She arrived at Eaton place for her sister’s final illness and apparently has no plans to leave – and doesn’t care much that Hallam doesn’t really want her to stay. It’s a bit early to make a real call on her character – but so far she’s interesting enough. It’s good to have someone around who will push back at Agnes and Hallam – a role that needs to be filled with no Maud or Persie around – but her dismissal of Mr. Amanjit’s feelings about her going through all of Maud’s personal items was distressing.

She does get my vote for Line of the Night with her response to Mr. Amanjit’s random target practice in the backyard: “The spectacle has concluded. And since we are in England, I suggest you make some tea.” Since it appears that Kingston will inherit all of Atkins' fantstic one-liners, I may have to end up liking her no matter what else happens with the Blanche characer.

Johnny the Footman Strikes Again. Letting the clearly imbalanced Johnny rejoin Team Downstairs was never a favorite twist of mine – the character is irritating and I can’t get my head around a family as obsessed with status as the Hollands being okay with letting someone with a criminal record and a drinking problem back on their staff. But, whatever. Anyway, Johnny, my least favorite character, stars in my least favorite subplot of the evening – he doesn’t actually stab or attack anyone in this episode, but he does manage to commit a murder and kill one of my favorite characters, Lady Maud’s awesome monkey Solomon. 

What goes down is this: Lady Agnes’ new daughter has had some breathing problems and the family is concerned that the government isn’t making gas masks for newborns available as part of their whole prepare the neighborhoods for war plan.  Mr. Pritchard, through his contacts, manages to procure one of the creepiest things ever, a supposedly gas-proof baby carriage that looks like nothing so much as a tiny hearse on wheels. Everyone is skeptical of this newfangled contraption, so Johnny the Footman decides to road test  its effectiveness by putting Solomon the monkey inside it and locking the carriage in the garage with the car running.  His experiment kills the poor monkey via carbon monoxide poisoning and Team Downstairs is in a panic when they can’t revive it.  Mr. Amanjit is distraught, which makes me even more upset about this whole situation. Pritchard comes forward to take the blame for the animal’s death – why, why is he so dedicated to helping Johnny the Footman, why - and he ends up having to spend the night in jail as a result.

Mr. Pritchard Gets Some Intriguing Backstory.  Thanks to Pritchard’s time jail, we learn that he was a conscientious objector during World War I, worked with the Quaker ambulance teams and spent some time in jail because of his war protesting ways.  Given that Pritchard is generally the peacemaker in the household, this makes so much sense as a bit of backstory for him, and keeps him, for me, the most interesting member of Team Downstairs. When word gets out that he was pretty much a pacifist during the Great War, the rest of Team Downstairs is appalled and everyone shuns him save Johnny the Footman, who basically owes Pritchard his life at this point anyway, who makes a point to take his side, even when Pritchard tries to tell him not too. As we ramp up the war storyline this season, it will be interesting to see if Pritchard’s background and moral feelings on the issue continue to affect life downstairs. I think this twist makes his character interesting – he’s such a stick in the mud about rules that it’s fascinating to find out which ones he’s willing to break – and would like to see how he fares living in a household with a majority of people who disagree with him, and with an employer who is one of the strongest voices calling for war in the first place.  In short: Pritchard is awesome. And that’s before we even get to him managing Agnes’ perfume collection and regulating the amount of makeup worn by the maids. More Pritchard, less Johnny the Footman!    

Lady Persie and Hallam Make a Huge Mistake. While in Germany for diplomatic meetings with Hitler’s government, Hallam runs into Persie, who has apparently been living in Berlin for two years. What she’s doing there is anyone’s guess – I assume that if she’s using family money to support herself she doesn’t necessarily have to be doing anything, but it sort of seems unfortunate all the same. (I do, however, apparently want to own every one of her dresses ever. Gorgeous!) They chat over drinks and he tells her about Maud’s death and other goings on in London. Hallam walks her home afterward and attempts to convince her to come back to England with him, citing the unstable and potentially dangerous environment in Germany, as well as Agnes’ desire to see her again.  Persie says no, claiming she quite enjoys life in Berlin and then the two of them end up kissing. UGH, WHY. WHYYY. I mean, I actually don’t’ think anyone has a superfluous amount of warm feelings about Hallam and Agnes – he’s become more interesting this season, but as much as I love Keeley Hawes, Agnes is little more than an exceptionally well-dressed Waste of Space – but it’s such an out of character move for him.  Hallam seemed to barely tolerate Persie’s presence in the house last season, and unless he’s got a tremendous caretaker complex going on (or has gotten as tired of Agnes as I have), I just don’t see how we got this character to this place at this moment at all. And here I was worried the worst thing that could happen would be we’d have to go through Persie and Harry the Driver: Round 2. Oh, no, here’s a lower place.

Hallam Gets a General Character Upgrade. Despite the completely out of nowhere Persie/Hallam flirtation that I can’t quite deal with yet, this episode was a complete character upgrade for Hallam. He gets to be competent and smart at work, including completely right about Hitler, steps up and takes care of his both his sister and Mr. Amanjit, and continues to be epic best friends with the Duke of Kent. And while I don’t entirely understand and certainly don’t support whatever this whole Persie thing is, I’m pro anything that gives Hallam more depth. It’s a nice chance to see him do something besides just being generally bland and arguing with Agnes. He’s not my favorite person on this show by far – in fact he probably doesn’t even crack the top five – but I paid attention to his scenes in this episode, which was a nice change. If only they could do the same for Agnes next week…

What did you think, Telly Visions readers? Excited for more Upstairs Downstairs? Confused by all the new characters? Grossed out by The Great Mistake that is a Hallam/Persie anything? Tell me all your thoughts in the comments.

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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