As critics of Downton Abbey have pointed out, it’s possible to read the entire first season of the show as an elaborate, if extremely entertaining, defense of the British class system. Sure, we all think it’s insane that Mary can’t inherit the estate because she’s a woman, but, by rooting for Mary to win Matthew’s heart and solidify her role as the queen of Downton, we’re also rooting, however indirectly, for the preservation of the aristocracy.
Things are a little different now, as we are reminded at every available opportunity. The war has led to a temporary disruption of the class system—not that it’s vanished, exactly, only that its maintenance has taken a back seat to that of the country. (Seems like a wise decision.) But, as we see in tonight’s episode, it turns out that these two goals often directly contradict each other.
Lord Grantham has reluctantly allowed Downton Abbey be used as a convalescent home, and as the episode begins, the Crawley family and their staff are furiously preparing for an influx of recuperating soldiers. As we learn in the brisk opening minutes, the new Downton is hardly going to be an egalitarian free-for all: the house will only welcome officers, not enlisted men, meaning the family will be spared the horror of ceding a few square feet of their palatial home to anyone who doesn’t speak the Queen’s English. Sybil and Isobel object to this condition. but there's little room for discussion. As Violet puts it, “What these men will need is rest and relaxation. Will that be achieved by mixing ranks and putting everyone on edge?”
But given the way Grantham and Cora behave, you’d think their house was being over-run by a mob of toothless ragpickers from Whitechapel. Like a grumpy old man irritated by some pesky neighborhood kids, Grantham's toffee-nose gets bent out of shape when a ping-pong ball lands on his side of the library, and he goes apoplectic when Dr. Crawford refuses to let Evelyn Napier convalesce at Downton. I for one am happy to see Grantham acting dickish; one of my minor qualms with the first season of Downton was Grantham’s unceasing kindness. For such a staunch defender of the class system, he held some incongruously progressive and tolerant ideas. Frankly, this less flattering version of Grantham is probably more realistic.
Cora, meanwhile, engages in a ridiculously petty turf war with Isobel. Desperate to maintain her control over the house, Cora foolishly campaigns to have Thomas—now known as “Acting Sargeant Barrow”—installed as the manager of the hospital. The idea, as Violet puts it, is that “if someone’s to manage things, let it be our creature.” Cora is driven so mad by the prospect of Isobel’s encroachment that she promotes her most untrustworthy servant to a position of power. Well done, Cora!
I suppose we should cut her a tiny bit of slack: for reasons that remain obscure, Grantham still hasn’t bothered to tell Cora about Thomas’s thieving past. It’s an omission that makes no sense, especially given Grantham’s insistence on decorum and propriety. But hey—Downton Abbey without Thomas is like Othello without Iago, and it’s quite good fun to see him waltzing in Downton’s front door. My real problem with this storyline is the needlessly convoluted hierarchy—Dr. Crawford will oversee Thomas, who’ll run the day-to-day operations, with Cora and Isobel both acting as his superior. For a turf war, the lines are awfully blurry.
Speaking of class strife, Branson’s turning into quite the Bolshevik, isn’t he? In expository dialogue that’s about as graceful as an Evander Holyfield waltz, Branson explains the situation in Russia to his fellow downtrodden: “Kerensky’s been made prime minister, but he won’t go far enough for me. Lenin denounces the bourgeoisie along with the Tsar. He wants a people’s revolution, and that’s what I’m waiting for.” Everyone gives him a look like, “Uh, Branson you’re freaking me out,” but he’s confident the Tsar and his family will be just fine. “This is a new dawn, a new age of government. No one wants to start it with the murder of a bunch of young girls.” Of course, this is ironic given what actually happened to the Romanovs, and so Branson’s naïveté seems like a warning about the danger of too-swift social changes. (Mr. Fellowes, we hear you loud and clear.)
Luckily for Tsar Grantham, Branson’s not quite as bloodthirsty as Lenin and his cohorts. When he hears that a prominent general will be dining at Downton, he hatches a sinister plot. We don’t know what it will involve, but the ominous music and Branson’s vague-yet-threatening statements about not knowing what the future will bring make us fear the worst. Happily, Branson's arsenal is limited to a tureen filled with oil, ink, cow manure, and sour milk (otherwise known as “lunch” to the servants downstairs), so there's no damage done. Somewhat implausibly, Branson escapes with only a slap on the wrist from Carson, who decides it’s better not to tell Grantham or to get the police involved.
So, Branson’s here to stay, and Sybil for one doesn’t mind. She may have rebuffed his earlier advances, but I’m guessing it’s just a matter of time before that brogue—and those fiery lectures about British wrongdoing—eventually win her over. While I’m all for a taboo romance, the Sybil-Branson relationship still feels rather schematic to me. Both characters are less than fully-realized characters, especially Branson, who has few discernable traits outside of his political beliefs.
Now, onto the other romances, a.k.a. the real reason we’re all watching Downton Abbey. This episode casts the spotlight on Lavinia, the little blonde piece/scheming harlot standing between Mary and a lifetime of happiness. Rosamund and Violet sniff around, trying to find some scandal in Lavinia’s past, and it turns out there is one—seemingly mild-mannered Lavinia stole evidence tying her uncle to the 1912 Marconi scandal, and sold it to Sir Richard. (Here’s where Michelle Dockery gets the thankless task of delivering another batch of clunky expository dialogue: “She’s decided that you were behind the Marconi Share scandal, in 1912. The chancellor and other ministers were involved.”) Rosamund and Violet assume she and Sir Richard must have been lovers, but Lavinia tells Mary her true motive—saving her father from financial ruin.
Rosamund and Violet pressure Mary to tell Matthew, but Mary is annoyingly determined to maintain the high road this season. She graciously compliments Matthew’s choice in fiancé, but also manages to flirt subtly: “She’s a charming person. We’re very much alike so naturally I think she’s perfect.” Mary’s not quite the ruthless man-eater she once was, but it’s good to see she hasn’t totally given up the fighting spirit.
Downton Abbey has invited numerous comparisons to the work of Jane Austen, and the Lavinia-Sir Richard storyline strikes me as particularly Austen-esque—the scurrilous gossip, the implausible coincidences, the misunderstood secrets, the snobbish older women determined to meddle with other people’s romances. In other words, there’s a lot of juicy potential here. It’s too bad, then, that the suspicions about Lavinia are cleared up so quickly. Why not drag them out for longer, making it more impossible for Mary to resist telling Matthew and also keeping us in suspense about Lavinia? It would also have the added benefit of making Lavinia less mind-numbingly boring.
Now is the time that we have to talk about Anna and Bates. That sound you hear is me sighing wearily. By my calculation, Bates has been away for almost a year now, and Anna hasn’t moved on. While I can’t blame her for that—it’s not like she’s meeting tons of eligible bachelors at Downton—I do wonder why she isn’t, you know, a little pissed at Bates. Think about it: he walked out on her without so much as a word of explanation and, as far as we know, hasn’t been in touch since then. And let’s not forget that went back to Vera because he wanted to save the Crawleys from embarrassment. In other words, the dude’s priorities are seriously out of whack.
I really fell for Annabates (Banna?) last season, but Fellowes has given them nothing to do so far this season other than suffer in silence. In the latest wrinkle, Anna (with a little help from Sir Richard) tracks Bates to a nearby pub. Vera’s been cheating on him, so he can sue for divorce, but something tells me another complication will rear its ugly head pretty soon. Anna’s so desperate she tells Bates she’d be happy to be his mistress. “That is not the right path for you,” he tells her (Anna, I didn’t know you had it in you!). He’s probably right, but good lord, Bates, it’s time to get it together.
Last but not least, inevitable cannon-fodder William proposes to Daisy just before heading off to the front, where he’s going to serve as Matthew’s right-hand man. The ever-present Mrs. Patmore stands a few inches away, bullying Daisy into an acceptance. It’s maybe the most awkward proposal of all time. To be brutally honest, I don’t really get why Daisy is so reluctant to marry William. He’s sweet, he’s cute enough, and he adores her. All in all, he’s a pretty decent prospect for a scullery maid. It’s also unclear what’s driving Mrs. Patmore to meddle—concern for William, a desire to see Daisy married off, or perhaps some other, unspoken experience? It remains to be seen.
- Ethel is headed for TROUBLE.
- “We can’t leave all the moral high ground to Sybil, she might get lonely there.” Nice one, Mary.
- What’s the deal with Elizabeth McGovern’s drowsy speech pattern and over-pronounced Rs? She’s always going on about the “serrrrvants.”
- Speaking of which, did you know she used to be engaged to Sean Penn? Me neither.
- I loved the terrific tracking shot of Lord and Lady Grantham as they officially opened up the doors of Downton Abbey, the convalescent home. It’s a shot we’ve seen many times throughout the series, usually when the Crawleys are welcoming an important dinner guest or the like, only now they’re welcoming a tide of officers, nurses and medics. One thing this show always does quite well is portraying the endless hustle and bustle that goes into maintaining the house.
- Other great Violet lines: “Don’t look at me, I’m very good at mixing.” “She knows some of these feeble-minded idiots on the liberal bench.”
- Edith is once again the afterthought this week. We’re witness to one brief interaction with a wounded soldier asking for help writing a letter home, and the next thing we know she’s the officers’ favorite. I’m all for a little growth where Edith is concerned, but Fellowes is doing too much telling and not enough showing.
- Carson and Mrs. Hughes have a great rapport, don’t they? I loved seeing them commiserate over glasses of sherry.
- Violet has some fun at the expense of her nouveau riche in-laws: “There’s no always about the Painswicks, my dear. They were invented from scratch by my son-in-law’s grandfather.” (Awww, snap!)
- Just how old is Lavinia supposed to be? She looks all of 16, but if she was selling evidence to Sir Richard back in 1912, surely she has to be in her 20s.
- One of my favorite things to do is imitate Daisy. “Whyee do you think ‘e’s coomin ‘eer?” I promise, it's fun.