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The 14 Best Downton Abbey Episodes, Ranked

Downton Abbey has captured the imaginations of millions of viewers around the world

The 14 Best Downton Abbey Episodes, Ranked
Mary Crawley - PBS

Adored by fans for its characters and emotional stories, “Downton Abbey” still remains one of the most beloved TV franchises of all time.

From the tales of the wealthy Crawley family to those of their downstairs staff, viewers can’t get enough of creator Julian Fellowes’ world of glamour and impactful drama. But what are the ingredients that make for a great installment of the drama? Well, that’s the puzzle that this list is here to solve. 

Here, we’ll look at the most memorable episodes within the TV series’ six-season run. From the stories that made us want to throw a party in their honor to the ones that had us hurling a cup of tea at the television screen, we cover all the bases. So make sure to put on your favorite extravagant hat and gloves because we’re about to dive deep into the rich lore of the “Downton Abbey” saga.

14. Violet’s spicy Russian past (Season 5, Episode 6)

Violet's spicy Russian past
PBS/YouTube

While Season 5 of “Downton Abbey” leaned more on the predictable side, Episode 6 kicked the story further into high gear. It features wild moments, like Lady Mary sporting a new flashy haircut, a miscommunication about a birth control device, and Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) discovering her missing lover was mu*rdered. Needless to say, this chapter of the “Downton” story is downright unhinged in some truly juicy ways.

Despite all of this chaos, there are charming nuggets at the center of this episode, which all relate to Lady Violet. From a tender moment between Violet and her mysterious past lover, Prince Igor Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija), to some hilarious interactions with the new maid, Gladys Denker (Sue Johnston), Violet is on fire every second she’s on screen. Sure, several other episodes feature a similar amount of Violet excellence. But there’s something special about seeing Maggie Smith play a perfect balance of severe and sassy in this episode that is genuine “Downton” magic — though, amazingly, not the strongest overall episode compared to the rest of the season.

13. Is that Paul Giamatti?! (Season 4, Episode 9)

PBS/YouTube

In regards to the show’s collection of Christmas specials (which some consider legitimate season finales), Season 4’s is easily the most fun. With the focus mainly being on Lady Rose meeting the royal family at Buckingham Palace, along with Lady Cora Crawley’s (Elizabeth McGovern) American family visiting, this episode loves to examine the beauty and the silliness of high society. Yet the reason this special lands on the list (aside from Rose’s stunning outfits throughout it) is the guest stars who play quite a role in its plot. This includes Paul Giamatti as Cora’s brother, Harold Levinson, and Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson.

Together, this dynamic duo leaves a delightful impression on the episode. From Martha’s quick remarks to Harold awkwardly trying to fit in with the rest of the upper-crust community, MacLaine and Giamatti are excellent additions to the cast. Now yes, this episode certainly does have its wackier moments that make it a tad too ridiculous at times (keeping it lower on our list), especially when it comes to Daisy’s subplot and Lady Mary’s rival suitors. Still, with the guest appearances and the fantastic chemistry building up between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, it’s easy to forgive this one’s flaws for its overall entertainment value.

12. Bates and Anna’s emotional test (Season 2, Episode 1)

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Season 2 of “Downton Abbey” begins with quite a literal bang, as we see how much World War I has transformed the series’ nature. From the image of lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) smoking outback to Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) taking on any painful task to escape the battlefield, this episode does a great job of setting the tone for the season to come. One that not only tests the strength of many of the show’s most beloved characters but is filled with even more drama than the prior installment.

Though the element that makes this episode one of the best (other than the Dowager, Lady Violet Crawley, battling a floral “creature from the lost world”) is seeing how series creator Julian Fellowes isn’t afraid of bringing characters together and tearing them apart just as quickly. Starting with the romantic perfection of valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and housemaid Anna Smith’s (Joanne Froggatt) proposal to the unfortunate circumstances that separate them, Fellowes turns the dramatic dial up to an 11 with this chapter in the “Downton” tale. It proves that this sweet show can go to some genuinely intense places, but Season 2 would have even more memorable moments to offer. 

11. Lady Sybil’s pants and the fair (Season 1, Episode 4)

Lady Sybil's pants and the fair (Season 1, Episode 4)
PBS Youutbe

Despite being remembered more for its fashionable moments, this Season 1 episode has quite a few fascinating narrative factors. First and foremost, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) is at the episode’s center. She’s dealing with the aftermath of Mr. Pamuk’s d*eath while also coming to terms with the fact that Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) has become fully committed to becoming the family heir — making her feel ultimately rejected by her father. This plot, along with Lady Sybil Crawley’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) awareness of women’s rights, and Mrs. Hughes’ decision to not get back with her old flame, adds to the episode’s central themes regarding the battles women of the era faced. 

Sure, maybe this episode doesn’t have as much bite as many of the Dowager’s most delicious bits of sass. But it is a fabulous example of how good Julian Fellowes and the rest of the “Downton” creative team are organically developing the characters while not shying away from real-world events. Plus, how can anyone forget Sybil showing off her iconic blue pants? That scene alone makes this episode worthy of being on the list.

10. Lady Rose’s wedding drama (Season 5, Episode 8)

10. Lady Rose's wedding drama (Season 5, Episode 8)
PBS Youtube

In “Downton Abbey,” fairy tale happiness is often given after a ton of drama. Take, for instance, this Season 5 episode, where several of the franchise’s most adored characters, including Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and our beloved Anna Smith, are dealt some genuinely ridiculous curveballs. From Lady Rose having to deal with a photo-driven scandal before her wedding to Anna being arrested for possible mu*rder, this installment certainly knows how to deliver on the theatrics that fans of the show find delightfully juicy.

Despite all of the ridiculous antics within the various plots, this episode brilliantly mixes intensity with heartfelt narrative rewards. There’s, of course, the well-done conclusion to Lady Rose’s wedding arc, but there’s also the tear-filled sequence of Lord Grantham, aka Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), giving the precious Mrs. Beryl Patmore (Lesley Nicol) a special memorial for her departed nephew. These moments ultimately feel earned by the time viewers get to them and symbolize how great “Downton” can be when it honors the characters who deserve to be recognized for their goodness.

9. The flu and an arrest (Season 2, Episode 8)

9. The flu and an arrest (Season 2, Episode 8)
PBS/YouTube

The eighth episode of Season 2 certainly doesn’t pull any punches. From Lady Sybil announcing her romantic future with chauffeur-turned-journalist Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to multiple characters getting the Spanish flu, this chapter in the “Downton” legacy feels like a rollercoaster that gets more outlandish with each turn. Don’t forget Lord Grantham having an affair with housemaid Jane Moorsum (Clare Calbraith) and Matthew’s fiancee, Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle), dying near the episode’s conclusion.

Still, there’s one genuinely jaw-dropping aspect that got this episode onto the list: Mr. Bates getting arrested for the mur*der of his estranged wife. With the marriage between Bates and Anna only happening a few moments prior, this final sequence continues to leave viewers in absolute shock. It brilliantly juxtaposes the fairy tale happiness of these two beloved characters with a terrifying outcome. This turn of events likely led audiences to understand the dark places this usually comforting series would go in later seasons.

8. A bloody evening (Season 6, Episode 5)

8. A bloody evening (Season 6, Episode 5)
PBS/Youtube

For the most part, “Downton Abbey” is a sweet little show that rarely shows a drop of blood. Yes, Season 2 showcased the bloodshed of war, but by most accounts, a visit to the world of the Crawleys isn’t considered violent. Then, Season 6 brought on one of the crazier series of events, all of which leads poor Lord Grantham’s ulcer to explode mid-meal. Is it a “Downton” scene that will live in infamy? Absolutely. But that, along with this episode’s other fascinating features, is what makes it an essential part of the “Downton” experience.

From Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) and Denker facing off against each other to Lady Mary and Branson taking charge of the community around them, this episode is all about the comforts of life changing in an instant. Of course, that is an over-arcing theme that the show often explores. Still, this episode is one of the better installments to dive deep into the matter, particularly on a human level as the ending shows Mary and Edith contemplating their father’s (and their own) mortality.

7. Edith vs. the altar (Season 3, Episode 3)

7.  Edith vs. the altar (Season 3, Episode 3)
PBS/Youtube

If there ever was a “Downton Abbey” character that deserved a happy ending, it’s Lady Edith. Known for being the middle Crawley sister, she had her fair share of awful situations thrown her way throughout the series. Still, no episode was more devastating for fans to watch than the one centered around her ill-fated wedding to Sir Anthony Strallen (Robert Bathurst). The episode starts off promisingly enough, with scenes of Edith proclaiming her excitement that her family is finally focusing on her. But as things progress, it becomes clear that Sir Anthony’s once positive outlook on their May-December romance has quickly faded, resulting in one of the most jaw-dropping chains of events in the entire show.

From the skilled direction by Andy Goddard to the top-notch performances by the entire cast, every member of the “Downton” team is at their A-game in this episode. But the aspect that shines the most is how this plot line sets Edith up for her eventual dramatic journey. She is the sister who feels the most like a Charlotte Brontë heroine, and this moment is just the beginning of her downright painful (yet eventually rewarding) arc.

6. All the war drama (Season 2, Episode 5)

6. All the war drama (Season 2, Episode 5)
PBS/Youtube

As the effects of World War I become part of the Crawley family’s lives, the story goes full speed ahead during the fifth chapter of Season 2. Not only do we get to witness the sad but beautiful reunion between Lady Mary and Matthew, but this is the episode where a much injured William Mason asks Daisy to marry him, a question that changes the course of Daisy’s simple life. Sure, this part of “Downton Abbey” might not have as many glamorous sequences or dining moments that have become staples of the franchise, but that doesn’t matter here. What does matter, though, are the heartfelt emotions on display. 

Between Dan Steven’s brilliant take as a war-torn Matthew to Michelle Dockery finally letting Mary wear her heart on her sleeve, this episode is full of all the raw emotions fans love to witness from the show’s talented cast. But the star at its center is Thomas Howes’ earnest portrayal of William. From the beginning, William has been a character whose heart is as big as the house he worked in, and Howes does a fantastic job of making audiences love this underdog even more. Ultimately, while this episode is emotionally brutal, performances like these make it a worthwhile entry in the series. 

5. To Sybil, with love (Season 3, Episode 5)

5. To Sybil, with love (Season 3, Episode 5)
PBS/Youtube

If you were to ask a “Downton Abbey” fan which episode upset them the most, this Season 3 entry would likely be their answer. Including such intense sequences like the birth of Sybil’s daughter to the untimely deat*h of the fan-favorite Crawley sister, it’s incredible how much of an emotional gut-punch Julian Fellowes and the rest of the “Downton” team can deliver in the span of 49 minutes. But what really sells this one (aside from the impact Sybil’s deat*h has on the rest of the series) is the outstanding performances throughout it.

First, Jessica Brown Findlay delivers a chilling send-off to Sybil, proving why she remains one of the show’s most significant elements to this day. Obviously, the rest of the “Downton” household all bring a haunting quality to their scenes, yet the true gem is Allen Leech as Tom Branson. From his tragic glances at his departed wife juxtaposed with his new role as a father, Leech handles this intricate chapter in Branson’s story with grace. Ultimately, this episode is a complicated watch, but it should be admired for the brilliant examples of acting it contains.

4. The last Christmas special/finale (Season 6, Episode 9)

4. The last Christmas special/finale (Season 6, Episode 9)
PBS/Youtube

With a show as long as “Downton Abbey,” it was always hard to imagine what the series finale would be like. Would it contain all the nail-biting theatrics other season finales supplied? Or tie everything in a 1920’s style bow? The answer was something more like the latter. Edith finally gets to walk down the aisle successfully, Anna and Bates have a baby, and the beloved assistant cook, Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), gets set up with Andrew Parker (Michael Fox) for some reason? Regardless, hooray for all of these resolutions for our precious characters. 

Simply put, this conclusion to the “Downton Abbey” story (or, at least until the movies came out) is adorably satisfactory. It contains a few tears and tiny nibbles of intensity, but it mostly succeeds at being a comforting blanket of entertainment. It was rewarding to those who stuck around with this show for the long haul and came to love this odd bunch ever since the first time the opening theme played.

3. Matthew’s snowy proposal (Season 2, Episode 9)

3. Matthew's snowy proposal (Season 2, Episode 9)
PBS/Youtube

If a newcomer wants to understand why so many people love “Downton Abbey,” this Christmas special from Season 2 is a great place to start. Filled with yuletide vibes, this episode features all of the usual Crawley family hijinks: Auntie Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) brings her sassy maid to her brother Robert’s large estate, Violet covers up the family’s absence from Sybil’s Dublin wedding, and everyone gets involved in Bates’ life altering trial. But the true juicy center of this installment revolves around Lady Mary and the love triangle she finds herself in.

Beginning with her complex engagement with the powerful but terrible Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) to her intense break-up with the disgusting newspaper magnate, this Christmas special tests Mary’s romantic patience in many ways. Thankfully, she (and the audience) are rewarded with easily one of the most remarkable pieces of lovey-dovey content “Downton” has ever created: Matthew’s snowy proposal. From the performances of its leading players to the beautiful cinematography by Nigel Willoughby, this scene is the perfect culmination of Mary and Matthew’s bumpy road to fairy tale bliss. Of course, their relationship doesn’t go how many fans wanted it to after this season, yet it’s hard to ignore the romantic perfection of this season finale.

2. The Mr. Pamuk drama (Season 1, Episode 3)

2. The Mr. Pamuk drama (Season 1, Episode 3)
PBS/Youtube

Remembered by many as the first bit of juicy “Downton” drama, Episode 3 of Season 1 is equal parts steamy and downright creepy. Not only is the infamous Mr. Pamuk (Theo James) the perfect combination of mysterious and handsome, but he also exquisitely embodies the sort of man that young girls (such as Lady Mary) would become fascinated with at a glance. Though as fans know, Mr. Pamuk ends up being more trouble than he’s worth. A fact the audience realizes as soon as he forces Mr. Barrow to show him where the eldest Crawley sister’s bedroom is located. 

Of course, there are more elements than just the central Mr. Pamuk scandal that make this episode a treat. We get to see Mr. Bates try to use a straightening boot, while also witnessing downstairs discourse over a typewriter. But let’s face it, this entry is all about setting the stage for what will be Lady Mary’s chaotic love life and the reputation she’ll gain within society. Mr. Pamuk was only the beginning of the wild, romantic road this “Downton” protagonist would eventually take.

1. The one with the bar of soap (Season 1, Episode 7)

The one with the bar of soap (Season 1, Episode 7)
PBS/YouTube

Throughout TV history, there have been some iconic antagonists, some of which just happen to come from the world of “Downton Abbey.” One such example is Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid who would do anything to keep her job, including sabotaging the pregnancy of her own boss, Lady Cora. With brilliant cinematography by David Katznelson, this episode not only cements Miss O’Brien as one of the most hated characters in the entire series, but also makes the sight of a bar of soap absolutely bone-chilling.

The reason why this episode is the series’ best all relates to the pay-offs it delivers. Obviously, Miss O’Brien has been a troublemaker from the start, but we also witness Mary discovering Edith’s vengefulness, Mr. Carson admitting his support towards Matthew, Anna unearthing the truth behind the allegations against Mr. Bates, and the list goes on and on. Ultimately, this episode proved why this show was so addicting to watch and foreshadowed how well it would deliver on its dramatic promises.

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