Now that’s more like it.
Fittingly, this week’s episode of Downton Abbey, which ends with three unexpected homecomings, also feels like a return to form for the series. After two uneven installments that left me worried about a sophomore slump, tonight’s Downton Abbey is as good as anything from season one. At the same time, though, this episode also feels like a step forward for the series. Downton Abbey has always been melodramatic, but we’ve never seen anything as nakedly sentimental—or as wonderful—as Mary and Matthew’s surprise duet. If wartime at Downton Abbey means less fun and more tear-jerking, that’s a compromise I’m willing to make.
It’s early 1918, six months or so since Downton Abbey opened its doors as a convalescent home. Plans are underway for a concert at the house, with Mary and Edith set to perform as the headline act. (I guess the Cheerful Charlies were unavailable.) Mary is not especially excited about having to play cheerleader, mostly because she’s not in the greatest mood herself. As she explains to her father, Mary is planning on accepting Sir Richard’s proposal. At Grantham’s suggestion, she writes to Matthew to tell him her plans. Though her father and grandmother keep pushing her toward Matthew, Mary has morphed into a hard-eyed pragmatist. She believes Matthew is truly in love with Lavinia, and that Sir Richard is her last, best chance at marriage. (He is certainly a patient fellow, by now having waited a full year for an answer.) Her defeatism makes me sad—I miss the feisty, spirited Mary who used to go on muddy romps through the woods and come back with her hair all mussed—but given what she’s been through, it also makes perfect sense. Mary used to be ruthless, now she’s merely resigned. Sigh.
Mary is duly skeptical of Sybil’s budding relationship with Branson. Interestingly, it’s Violet who first suspects that Sybil might have a secret “beau”—otherwise, how to explain her lack of interest in the opposite sex? Mary is supportive but also bitterly realistic about the likely reaction to Sybil’s romance. “Darling, don’t be such a baby. This isn’t fairy land,” she warns. “What did you think, you’d marry the chauffeur and we’d all come to tea?” Sybil promises not to do anything impulsive, and in turn Mary promises not to snitch on Branson.
For now, it appears unlikely that Sybil will run off and get eloped, but she’s obviously taking Branson’s proposal very seriously. I’ve always found Sybil to be something of a cipher, and I’m still not entirely convinced by her attraction to Branson. While I love the idea of a transgressive love affair—who doesn’t?—I wish there were more chemistry between Jessica Brown Findlay and Allan Leech. Part of the problem is that Fellowes lays on the sociopolitical stuff too heavily. Some good old-fashioned flirting, and maybe not quite so much discussion of the impending proletariat revolution, would help.
Mary’s letter reaches Matthew just as he and William set out on some sort of patrol behind enemy lines—the details are sketchy, but we’re not watching Downton Abbey for military strategy, are we? When William doesn’t show up at Downton as scheduled, Daisy begins to worry. Meanwhile Lord Grantham gets a call from the War Office informing him of Matthew’s disappearance. It’s interesting that the first people to hear the news, Daisy and Lord Grantham, represent opposite ends of the Downton Abbey hierarchy. One of the running themes of the series is the porousness of the upstairs and downstairs worlds—the idea that, while class barriers might be impenetrable, information travels freely through all echelons of the house. And so it does: the news trickles up from Daisy, and down from Lord Grantham, until the entire household is in a state of anxiety over Matthew and William’s whereabouts.
Matthew’s disappearance has at least one happy side effect. Like German and English troops pausing to play soccer on Christmas day, Edith and Mary reach a (possibly temporary) détente, capped off by a very public show of unity at the concert. Accompanied by Edith on the piano, Mary does a fine job singing, despite her obviously frayed nerves. The audience joins in for the chorus—look, there’s Carson singing adorably!—and then—be still my beating heart!—William and Matthew suddenly appear, looking perfectly safe and healthy. As Matthew makes his way down the aisle straight toward Mary, he leads the shocked audience back into song. “If you were the only girl in the world, and I was the only boy.” The significance is lost on no one. If this scene doesn’t bring tears to your eyes—or at least make your heart swell—then I don’t know what. As Bates says to Anna, “Who would have thought an amateur concert could be the summit of all joy?” Indeed.
After their dramatic reunion, Mary and Matthew share one last private moment. Matthew awkwardly acknowledges Mary’s letter, and tries to find some diplomatic things to say about Sir Richard. He also candidly expresses his fears about going back to the front. “Take care of yourself, please,” Mary pleads, giving his wrist a squeeze. “It really can’t be long now.” Of course, what makes the scene so moving is what they’re both not saying. Just what will it take to bring these two together? With four episodes and a Christmas special yet to go, something tells me a whole lot.
The most unexpectedly poignant storyline this week belongs to Molesley who, bored out of his mind down at Matthew’s empty cottage, volunteers his services at Downton. He is giddy with excitement over the possibility of working in a large and prestigious household, beaming when Mrs. Bird imagines the reaction, “There goes Mr. Molesley, valet to the Earl of Grantham.” His inevitable disappointment is timed for maximum effect: Molesley bursts through the door, out of breath, just as the dinner bell rings, only to discover Bates has returned to Downton. Molesley pretends to be relieved, but he’s clearly devastated. Who knew a shoehorn could be so tragic?
Molesley is a such a wonderful character, one who somehow manages to be pathetic and noble at the same time. As paternalistic as Downton Abbey can be, Fellowes is quite perceptive when it comes to the psychology of service. He understands how a servant’s identity is inextricably tied to his or her master—almost like the member of a celebrity entourage—and how, for some of the downstairs staff, a fervent belief in the class system is required to make their work seem worthwhile. If it was your job to help a grown man put his pants on every day, you’d certainly want to believe the man was important, wouldn’t you?
I continue to be confounded by O’Brien, whose motivations are at least as labyrinthine as that pile of curls on top of her head. Last week, she was unexpectedly kind to Lang, the horribly shell-shocked valet, and this week she even scolds her beloved Thomas for calling him a “loonie.” O’Brien’s rare flash of empathy is no doubt inspired by memories of her late brother, who also struggled after returning form the front.
This week, though, O'Brien is back to her spiteful ways. She tries to ingratiate herself to Cora by tattling on Mrs. Patmore, a scheme that backfires when Cora decides that Downton, and not the army, ought to provide the food for the soup kitchen. In this case, O’Brien’s motive is transparent: she’s cozying to Her Ladyship. O’Brien’s purview is incredibly narrow—she tends day and night to Cora's attire—and her relationship with the lady of the house is, far and away, the most important one in her life. Anyone who appears to threaten this relationship will be met with the Awesome Wrath of O’Brien—even Cora herself, as we saw last season. Likewise, O’Brien will stop at nothing to gain Cora’s trust, happily ratting out her fellow servants for their charitable deeds.
Some of O'Brien's nastiness makes sense. But what, exactly, is her beef with Bates? He’s barely back in the door a minute before O’Brien starts dropping loaded hints about his “vulnerability.” Clearly she’s got another plot in the works, but her bottomless hostility to Bates and Anna feels strangely unmotivated, fueled only by her equally mystifying loyalty to Thomas. (Thomas, at least, has a reason for his years-long grudge, having been passed over for the coveted valet position.) Now, don’t get me wrong: there are few things I enjoy quite as much as the sight of Thomas and O’Brien sharing a conspiratorial smoke break in the courtyard. I just don’t entirely understand O’Brien’s unwavering allegiance to Thomas. Perhaps she thinks of him as the son she never had, or maybe—CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT—she has some other connection to Thomas we’ve yet to discover. I’m speculating wildly here, but it would certainly be a fun twist—and also explain a few things—if O’Brien were Thomas’s mother, wouldn’t it?
To the surprise of exactly no one, Ethel finds herself in a great deal of trouble this week, consummating her flirtation with Major Byrant atop a spare mattress in a drab storage room, like a slutty boarding school student. In a bit of depressing social realism, Ethel is immediately dismissed by Mrs. Hughes while Major Bryant—that scoundrel—continues on at Downton like nothing ever happened. Sadly, I doubt that Ethel’s pregnancy is likely to change that.
- What do you think Matthew and William talk about all day long over there on the front? Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that trench.
- Bates is optimistic that he’ll be able to reach a settlement with Vera, which means he almost certainly won’t.
- Violet’s funniest moment this episode was non-verbal: she looks on skeptically as everyone else sings along with Mary.
- Her chimney sweep line was also pretty great.
- I may be in the minority here, but I’m firmly on Team Isobel. I might even start selling t-shirts.
- “I may not be a woman of the world, but I don’t live in a sack!”
- “Watch yourself now, Mr. Bates. Thomas is in charge now and it won't do to get on the wrong side of him.” “Is there a right side?”
- A detail that really rings true to me is how the servants each have their favorite and least favorite family members. Carson’s got a soft spot for Mary, whereas Mrs. Hughes still doesn’t like her. (She says Thomas is “getting grander than Lady Mary, and that’s saying something.”)
- Edith asks Daisy if William is her beau, and she denies it. So sad.