Say what you will about Downton Abbey creator and lead writer Julian Fellowes, he doesn’t waste time. Not only did this first episode plunge us right in the war by sending us straight to the front lines, it checked in on every single character and introduced storylines for all of them, two years after we last saw them. It was more than a bit dizzying by the end, but when you’ve got a cast this size and you’re having them face one of the biggest events of the 20th Century, then it’s perhaps to be expected that the pacing is breakneck at times. The themes were not the most original in the world – love and honor – but Downton Abbey is all about taking well-worn tropes and settings and making them fun and fresh again.
The big news is that Matthew Crawley is engaged to the simpering Lavinia Swire (like “Betty Draper,” a name that could only have come from a certain period of time; it instantly places you there). The family puts a brave face on for the soldier briefly returning home with his new fiancee, but they’re all deeply disappointed. No one wants this marriage and everyone is forced to act thrilled by the prospect of it. Mary, ever aware of both her social obligations as well as the fact that all eyes are on her, is as gracious as she could hope to be, but she’s dying inside. We’ll give Michelle Dockery a lot of credit. It’s a bit hard to sympathize with Mary all that much in this situation (since it’s entirely the creation of her own shortsightedness), but her scenes were heartbreaking, especially the one at the train station when she all but begged him to come back to her. Matthew, sadly, seems a bit unaware of the depth of Mary’s feelings, which surprises us a bit. Looks are probably deceiving here, but he seems to have gotten over quite well and also seems devoted to the new girl in his life. But come on, who really believes that?Mary, for her part, has turned to the crude and ungentlemanly Sir Richard Carlyle. Hey Mare, he’s sleazy and he doesn’t know which tweeds to wear, but you could do a lot worse than that, girl. Of course, the fact that she’s turning to someone like Carlyle gives us some inkling of how bad her marriage prospects are among her own kind.
Romance is in the air all over Downton Abbey, both upstairs and down. Mr. Bates returns from his mother’s funeral with big plans and a proposal for Anna. You can bet whenever characters on this show start making long-term plans that life (and the writers) will have other ideas. Enter the supremely eeeeeeeevil Mrs. Bates. She’s pretty much a stock soap opera character (the scheming ex or soon-to-be-ex wife character probably reached its zenith with the introduction of Alexis Colby Carrington on Dynasty) and if we were applying real world (or even literary) standards to her, we’d wind up with migraines from so much eye-rolling, but she was fun and delicious, even if her character motivations don’t make a lot of sense. He was willing to set her up with money and he clearly detests her, so what is she getting out of this blackmail situation? Is this another instance – like most of O’Brien’s shenanigans last year – of a character being evil simply because the show needs another evil character? Either way, a roadblock needed to be put in front of Anna and Bates’ happiness and the cackling Mrs. Bates will do nicely, we suppose. Anna had no trouble handling O’Brien and in that case, she was hampered by job expectations. No such rules will be holding her back should she ever get the chance to take out her frustrations on Mrs. Bates, and we do so dearly hope that happens before this is all over. Anna’s as sweet as can be, but our favorite thing about her is that she takes no shit.
Also downstairs, Daisy is now William’s girl, much against her will. Okay, she seemed pretty smitten with him by the end of the last series, so we’re a bit surprised to see her admitting to Mrs. Patmore that the sweet footman just doesn’t crank her engine. It seems fair to say that not every character who goes to the front line will return, so there’s quite a bit of tension and sadness when you see someone like William so eager to go off to war.
Not surprisingly, the feelings of the male characters were given a lot of spotlight this episode; more so than normal. With the war on, it would be a mistake not to check in on all the men to see where they stand. William is dying to go; Molesly is dying to get out of it; Lord Grantham is (somewhat vainly and foolishly) trying to grab some glory for himself; Thomas will do just about anything to get off the front lines; Lang, the new footman with shellshock, is dealing with the aftermath, and as such, serves as a reminder of what these men could become – in the best case scenario.
And it’s that last character, Lang, who may have provided the biggest shock of the episode: O’Brien is capable of flirting. Because yes, the romance theme was so thick it even extended to the ladies maid with the knitting for hair. This is welcome in a lot of ways. O’Brien’s a ton of fun as a villain, but they never gave her any reason to be so, leaving her as one of the show’s flattest characters even though it’s also one of the show’s finest performances. Seeing a softer side of O’Brien is interesting, especially since (and this is a quite brilliant acting choice) her softer side is virtually indistinguishable from her harder side. She delivers her lines in the exact same slightly defensive posture that defines all her interactions. With O’Brien, you have to get past all the walls she puts up and actually listen to what she’s saying to get an idea of her.
In even more romance news, Sibyl and Edith prove that the Crawley girls go weak in the knees for rough trade. Edith snogged the farmer whom Isobel saved from dropsy last season and we just want to slap the poor, confused girl. What could she possibly have been thinking? Something like that could get out so easily and if Mary ever got a hold of the news, Edith will have to lift her skirts and kiss her ass goodbye.
Sibyl, bless her, is still the smartest of the three. She’s got a gorgeous man pledging his love to her (however inappropriate it may be) and she all but shrugs it off with, “Better things to do. Sorry.” Obviously, the potential romance with Branson hasn’t ended, but it’s to her great credit that, unlike Mary, who talks a good game but is mostly spoiled and shallow, she’s actually getting on with her life and seeking a role for herself.
In other estate news, Cora is still all too eager to do O’Brien’s bidding for her. We’re not at all sure why she was so keen on getting Thomas a position at the hospital, since we’re not sure she’s ever even acknowledged the footman before. Was she so eager to do it just because O’Brien wanted it? The relationship between the two of them has some creepy undertones, especially in light of O’Brien’s way with a bar of soap. We liked seeing Thomas looking a hot mess on the front lines. If ever a character needed to be punished a little on camera, it was him. But because he’s Thomas, and thus wily in a superhuman sort of way, he manages to pretty much come out on top. The question of whether or not he’s gay (as opposed to just being a user) seems to have been fully answered with his rather short romance with a gorgeous soldier boy. We suspect this incident will have long-term repercussions for Thomas and since he’s got a history of making himself more important in the scheme of things than he actually is, we suspect these repercussions will be felt by a great deal of the characters down the line.
As with all of these Downton Abbey posts, we ask that you refrain from any spoilers in the comments section if you’ve seen this season. That includes vague comments like “If you think things are bad for X and Y now, wait till you see what happens!” Just talk about this episode or any episodes that preceded it, thank you.
[Photo Credit: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE]