You may recall that, in the season one finale of Downton Abbey, before war had even been declared, Thomas called William “Mr. Cannon Fodder.” It was an unkind thing to say, to be sure, but it’s not like we weren’t all thinking the same thing. We've all watched enough war movies to know that William was doomed from the get-go: Killing off Matthew would be suicidal, killing off Thomas would be boring, and killing off Branson would be a great idea if only it weren’t for that damned heart murmur. Yet despite its inevitability, William’s demise is still surprisingly poignant.
The episode opens in the trenches of Amiens, France in the summer of 1918, scarcely three months before the end of the war (too bad for William, eh?). We catch a glimpse of Matthew in “Captain Crawley” mode for a few minutes, giving his troops a stirring pep talk as they prepare to go over the trenches. In the ensuing chaos, both William and Matthew are injured by an exploding shell. Back at Downton Abbey, both Daisy and Mary experience eerie premonitions; Mary even drops her tea cup dramatically. It’s all spectacularly hokey, an indication of the melodramatic but oddly affecting installment of Downton that is to come.
In the middle of the night, Molesley—no doubt thrilled to be able to be the messenger at such a pivotal moment—arrives at Downton with a telegram informing the Crawleys that Matthew has been injured. In a breech of decorum that seems unlikely even under the dramatic circumstances, the downstairs staff congregate at Grantham’s bedroom door, hoping to hear some news. “Buh whuh ‘bow Willyem? Iz he awright?” Daisy wonders.
Alas, no. William has sustained an ill-defined lung injury that will surely kill him but will conveniently take at least a few days to do so. With the obvious disclaimer that I know nothing whatsoever about medicine, this seems like a slapdash bit of writing on Julian Fellowes’ part; why not just kill off poor old William with an infection or some other unexpected complication rather than this mysterious lung ailment? But I digress.
One of the oft-repeated clichés of this season is that the war has “changed everything,” but as we see tonight, this is far from true. William is sent to die at a hospital for enlisted man all the way in Leeds, unlike Matthew who, as an officer, gets to recuperate at the hospital in town. Violet pleads to Dr. Clarkson on William’s behalf—“I’m no Jacobin revolutionary,” she assures him—but when that fails, she decides to take matters into her own hands. In the night’s only moment of levity, Violet calls up a well-connected friend named “Shrimpy” on the house phone. “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?” she wonders. (Quick, someone get this woman a Jitterbug. ) William eventually arrives at Downton and is set up in one of home’s many plush state rooms.
Why sharp-tongued Violet has such a soft spot for sweet, dopey William, I don’t really know, and yet I find her attachment to him entirely convincing. She even pressures the local vicar into marrying William and Daisy. Her entreaty, both bullying and generous at the same time, is indicative of Downton Abbey’s conflicted feelings about the class system. We’re all horrified that, even in his dying days, William is barred from staying at a hospital for officers, but we also love seeing Violet throw her weight around on his behalf.
Daisy’s not exactly comfortable with the marriage, either. She resists as long as she can, but eventually caves to pressure from Mrs. Patmore. Carson gives her away, and, with the entire indoor staff looking on, she marries William just hours before he dies. It’s hard to say what’s the most poignant aspect of it all: William’s concern for Daisy’s future welfare, his belief in her love, or the guilt she feels over misleading a dying man. There are lots of lovely heart-rending visual details, too, like Daisy’s frilly blouse, her wavy up-do, and the flowers draped around William’s bed. Daisy might feel guilty for leading William “up the garden path,” but she’s by his side in the end. We all knew he was doomed, but it’s surprisingly sad to see him go.
Things are only marginally better for Matthew. After an examination that lasts approximately 45 seconds, Dr. Clarkson declares that Matthew will probably never walk again. Then he pulls Grantham aside and, in a line of dialogue that I never, ever expected to hear on Downton Abbey, says, “The sexual reflex is controlled in the lower level of the spine. Once the latter is cut off, so is the former.” It’s an incredibly clumsy moment, like the late-Edwardian equivalent of sex-ed class.
Lavinia eventually arrives from London, and Matthew shares the grim prognosis with her. Wide-eyed virginal type that she is, Lavinia hasn’t even considered the state of Matthew’s penis. “There’s something else that may not have occurred to you,” he says ominously. “We can never be properly married.” Matthew doesn’t want to see her tied down to life as a nun, and he urges her to return to London and forget about him. (Downton’s all over the map when it comes to female sexuality isn’t it? Anna offers her body to Bates, but he turns her down, while Lavinia offers to give up any chance of a sex life for Matthew, and he also turns her down. Make of this what you will.) Distraught, Lavinia turns to Mary for comfort. Despite her night of passion with Mr. Pamuk, Mary is equally shocked to learn about Matthew’s problems. One thing I’ve always liked about Downton Abbey is the rather contemporary way it handles sexuality, but even still, all this penis talk seems a bit much. Would two upper-crusty English women in 1918 have spoken so freely about a gentleman’s wang? I honestly have no idea.
Adding to the tragedy of this episode is Mary’s unwavering devotion to Matthew. She’s there the moment he arrives at Downton, bathing him and even holding his head as he throws up into a chamber pot. The once-sunny Matthew is now in a very dark place indeed. “I was just thinking it seemed like such a short time since I turned you down,” he says to Mary. “Now look at me—impotent, crippled, stinking of sick. What a reversal. You have to admit it’s quite funny.” Mary is deeply upset by Matthew’s condition, and her sadness, for once, seems entirely selfless. I’d just like to take a moment to praise the fantastic Michelle Dockery, whose eyebrows rival Claire Danes’s chin in the contest for Most Expressive Facial Feature in a Drama or Miniseries. Tonight, as she burst into tears walking away from Matthew’s hospital bed, Ms. Dockery earned her Emmy. Now that Lavinia appears to be on her way out, I’m wondering whether Mary will eventually wind up with sad, impotent Matthew. Who could have predicted that Downton Abbey would turn into Ethan Frome?
Mary’s other romantic prospect is hardly any brighter. After Mrs. Bates shows up at Downton, once again threatening to sell her story to the papers, Mary turns to Sir Richard for help. It’s humiliating for Mary, but Sir Richard can barely contain his glee. “We come to the marriage on slightly more equal terms. That pleases me,” he says, twirling his metaphorical mustache. Mary even offers to pay Sir Richard back for buying Mrs. Bates’ story, but he declines. “As my future wife, you’re entitled to be in my debt.” While their relationship has always been transactional, this represents a new low; Mary has, in effect, agreed to become Sir Richard’s indentured servant. And he’s not messing around: As soon as Mrs. Bates signs her contract, Sir Richard runs an engagement announcement in one of his papers. It’s his semi-sadistic way of goading Mary into action. Call me naïve, but it hardly seems worth it for Mary. Scandal is temporary; a cruel husband is forever.
Meanwhile, a rift appears to be developing between Thomas and O’Brien, a.k.a. the Axis of Evil, as they’re both overcome by sudden bouts of conscience. Thomas shocks everyone with his class-fueled sympathy for William, angrily declaring, “I’m a working-class lad, and so is he. I get fed up seeing how our lot always gets shafted.” Could it be that Thomas’ nastiness is politically motivated? For her part, O’Brien feels guilty about writing to Mrs. Bates at a time when there’s so much other drama underway at the house. While it’s good to see a more human dimension to these characters, what I object to is the constant back and forth. One week, O’Brien is scheming against Bates for no reason; the next, she’s racked with guilt. I could understand an evil relapse or two, if only her resentment of Bates made any sense to begin with.
There’s been a lot of discussion of the pacing problems and enormous leaps forward this season, but for me, the biggest issue is one of narrative momentum. Instead of moving the storylines forward, Fellowes just keeps reversing direction. It’s what I’m going to call the “…Just Kidding!” problem. The most glaring example of this is the increasingly tedious Anna-Bates plot. In just four episodes, we’ve seen the exact same pattern play out twice: Bates thinks his wife has finally agreed to a divorce, only—just kidding!—she returns with further demands. It’s never really clear what motivates Mrs. Bates, other than sheer malevolence, and it’s also never really clear why Bates is so confident that the problem has been eliminated in the first place. I can't imagine what other tricks Fellowes could have up his sleeve at this point, but something tells me Anna and Bates' garden isn't going to be rosy for long.
- Check out O’Brien’s nightie. Sexy sexy!
- Related: It turns out Siobhan Finneran, the actress who plays O’Brien, is actually a total babe. See for yourself.
- Violet is back in spectacular form this week: ““How many Marquises of Flincher are there?”
- Branson really is proving to be a creep, isn’t he? Tonight he draws a really unforunate parallel between the assassination of the Tsar and his own relationship with Sybil, saying “I never thought they’d do it. But sometimes the future needs terrible sacrifices.” Quite the romantic, that one.
- I thought I’d share a few nuggets of trivia I discovered while in a Downton Abbey Internet wormhole this week: 1) Parts of Eyes Wide Shut were filmed at Highclere Castle 2) British “glamour model” Jordan, a.k.a. Katie Price, got married there in 2005, arriving via a pumpkin-shaped carriage and wearing an enormous pink gown. (I apologize to our English readers, for whom this information is probably very old news.)
- Strange that only Edith and Violet were the only members of the family at William and Daisy’s wedding.
- I can’t bring myself to care much about the Ethel subplot, but I do wonder how her baby already got so damn big already.