The war came to Downton.
Oh, sure; the war came to Downton back when Lord Grantham first announced the beginning of it at their garden party. The war came to Downton when the Crawley daughters all felt the call of responsibility and left behind (mostly) the trappings of the idle rich. The war came to Downton when class roles were upended and a middle class doctor’s wife and former disgraced footman found themselves wielding power in a large estate. But really, the war finally came to Downton, when two of its favored sons (upstairs and down) came home on stretchers, broken and bleeding. And as is so often the case with war, when the men come home in pieces, women who may not even have known they had the strength suddenly find themselves doing things they never thought possible, from cutting off blood-soaked clothes to marrying someone just to give them a more humane sendoff.
Mary’s role as Strong Woman in the Face of War was an obvious and fairly expected one. She’s been a brat and a bitch throughout most of the story, and her not-so-hidden love for Matthew is one of the few things that humanizes her, so a chance to fuss over him and be strong for him is also a chance to rehabilitate her character just a little bit. It’s to the credit of the writing that they managed to walk a tightrope here, allowing Mary to look strong (and deeply sad) while not making it look too much like she was horning in on Lavinia’s territory. Lavinia, for her part, is handling things equally as well as Mary (although, somewhat pointedly, you never see Lavinia tending to Matthew’s needs; just talking to him). And now Lavinia has been sent away by Matthew, in a noble attempt to spare her from a sexless, childless life with him. That’s one way to get her out of the story. We wonder how far Mary’s attraction will extend now that her paramour has been pretty much neutered in the war.
But maybe we shouldn’t be jumping the gun here, because Mary, whether she wants to or not, is proceeding with the engagement to the slimy Sir Richard. This is SO not a good idea, for so many obvious reasons. We admit to a little amazement with the plotting: somehow Bates’ issues with his ex-wife are forcing Lady Mary to marry someone she doesn’t want to. It’s implausible as hell, but it works. Once again, the story winds up pushing characters in odd directions, away from the things they truly want. One minute, she’s holding Matthew’s hand while he throws up and the next she’s begging Sir Richard for help and weakly submitting herself to the inevitability of marriage to him. But we all know the truth, don’t we? After all, Mary’ll never have a tea-cup-shattering psychic moment whenever Sir Richard’s in danger, will she?
And what of Daisy, who swears she doesn’t love William, but has an identical psychic moment when she senses he’s in trouble? And yes, the psychic moments take the prize for the lamest thing about the episode, but they did accomplish one thing: they effectively answered the question of whether or not these two ladies really love the men in their lives the way we think they do. There was never much of a question with Mary, but Daisy’s been pretty adamant about her mere fondness for William. We wanted to slap her through most of this episode but truthfully, Mrs. Patmore, and to a lesser extent, Mrs. Hughes, were making us a little uncomfortable with their emotional blackmail. “He’s DYING!!!! You won’t marry a dying man?” Sure, Daisy seemed a little cold about it, but think about her background. How good can Daisy possibly be at adult relationships? How well-developed is her empathy when she’s been scrubbing pots all day since she was a child? This is all too much for her. We couldn’t blame her for her reluctance, but we were happy to see her go through with it. There wasn’t a dry eye in our living room during that wedding scene, we’ll tell you that.
And while both Mary and Daisy got character-defining moments this episode, it was the Dowager Countess who truly had her best moment ever here. Sure, it continues the heavily-hammered theme of benevolent aristocracy. “It’s not right.” says Daisy, to the news that William won’t be allowed to come to the village hospital because he’s not an officer. “No it bloody well isn’t, says Thomas, to the surprise of everyone. “I’m a working class lad and so is he. And I get fed up seeing how our lot always gets shafted.” The show rarely is so overt about the class inequities in this world, but don’t be fooled. When a lower class person on Downton Abbey starts making noise about class issues, that’s either a way of making the lower class person look uppity and unhinged (Branson) or it’s an opportunity to make the aristocracy look even more benevolent. In this case, the writing manages to position the aristocracy as the answer to class inequalities. After all, it wasn’t Dr. Clarkson who brought William back to Downton. No, in cases like this, it’s the middle class who are the problem, according to Violet. “You give them a little bit of power and it goes to their heads like strong drink!” As an aside: it must be pointed out how ABSOLUTELY INSANE it is that Dr. Clarkson went straight to Lord Grantham to fill him in on Matthew’s sexual prospects, before talking about it to Matthew himself. That’s one doctor who knows exactly on which side his bread is buttered.
No, power is to be wielded by those who were born to wield it, according to Downton Abbey. And so Violet wields her considerable power in the village, allowing her a defining moment of glory when she openly threatened the vicar, with the vinegar-dripping lines, ”Your living is in Lord Grantham’s gift. Your house is on Lord Grantham’s land. And the very flowers in your church are from Lord Grantham’s garden. I hope it is not vulgar of me to suggest that you find some way to over come your scruples.” A cheer-worthy bit of bitchery, but the end result once again is that the aristocracy comes through for the lower classes in ways middle class doctors and vicars can’t (or won’t). “Sometimes, you must let the blow fall by degrees to give him time to find the strength to face it.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s also a highly condescending one, as she effectively removes any agency from William’s father (who looked and sounded EXACTLY like William), deciding on her own how he will grieve.
Also, because it needs to be acknowledged, the scene with Violet on the telephone was a master class of comedic acting. Watch it again and marvel at the noises that come out of her mouth. Watch it a third time just to see Laura Carmichael (Edith) struggle mightily not to burst out laughing. She almost doesn’t make it.
But at least Violet – and Edith, for that matter – showed some humanity this episode. Lord Grantham could barely be bothered to look up from his newspaper when Carson asked him permission to attend William’s wedding. You’re so fucking bored and your wife isn’t paying any attention to you. Boo hoo. You can’t spent ten minutes attending the wedding of your dying footman IN YOUR OWN HOUSE? Asshole. And we see you looking at that housemaid, mister. What is it with the second housemaid at Downton? First Gwen, then Ethel, and now we’ve got some widow batting her eyes at the Lord of the Manor. You can bet she’ll be out of there before long, if Mrs. Hughes notices anything untoward. Second housemaid at Downton is like being the drummer in Spinal Tap. You don’t last long. Next season, the new second housemaid will walk in to Downton Abbey and promptly burst into flames.
We’re a bit surprised to see Mrs. Hughes helping Ethel so much. It was clear she couldn’t stand her when she was working there, but her plight is so dire it must be stirring the old heartstrings more than the housekeeper is willing to admit. And are there any servants left at Downton who haven’t stolen food? Major Bryant is a major douchebag, but we knew that already. Still, we’re almost envious of people who can exist in a social situation and say things like “I don’t like to be rude, but I really must be left to my own devices. Now, I’ll say goodbye.” So obnoxious that you want to never stop punching him? Of course. But don’t you wish you could get away with a line like that?
As for Bates and Anna… we can’t with these two. That “Let’s pray” scene in the church was nauseating, but the “So everything in our garden is rosy again?” line had us howling. Girl, how can you possibly be so stupid as to believe that? And what the hell is the deal with Vera Bates anyway? Carlisle asked her why she hated the Crawleys so much that she was willing to “bring down” the family with a scandal and she answered with “My husband works for them and we don’t get along.” Uh… okay? That still doesn’t make much sense. Even if the scandal got out, what possible harm could it do to her husband? And besides, it’s still just a rumor. There’s no evidence that Pamuk died in Mary’s bed and all the family would have to say in response to the story (if they even responded to it at all) is that it’s not true. It’s a pretty weak threat, all things considered. We’re tired of Vera and we’re hoping O’Brien follows through on her threat against her. We’d LOVE to see those two bitches going at it hammer and tongs.
Also, it is never not hilarious to see what O’Brien wears to bed.
In the end, Daisy seemed to feel a little love toward William, staying the night with him as he died. Maybe she wasn’t in love with him, but she did a kind thing for him as he lay dying, and that’s certainly love enough. But will love ever find the upper classes or are they doomed to follow through on their worst-laid plans? Will Mary actually marry the horrible Sir Richard? Will Lavinia be a good girl and stay away now that she’s been ordered to? Will Mary and Matthew find love despite his unworkable penis? Will we ever stop worrying about the line of heirs to the Earl of Grantham? Stay tuned.
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]