Downton Abbey: Season Two, Episode Eight

Mary: “Can you manage without your stick?”
Matthew: “You are my stick.”

This episode opens with Matthew and Lavinia’s wedding three days away. As we know from the last episode that Lavinia wanted the wedding to be in April, we can safely assume that we are in April 1919. Only a couple of months have passed since we were last with the family.

The Spanish Flu has hit Downton and badly. One by one, we see people succumb to the illness and we watch the girls, all of whom are now experienced nurses, try to deal with the onslaught. The illness is also the catalyst that brings many of this season’s stories to a close.

Carson is the first to fall and Thomas, no fool he, sees an opportunity to get back into the household. He leaps in to help and, one thing we can say about him, he does know how to do his job and do it well. Thomas has certainly come full circle. At the end of last season, he was smug and self-satisfied about finally getting away from being a servant. At the end of this season, he is working hard to ensure that he can be a servant again. At least he is not too proud to accept employment when it is given to him.

Cora is very ill and the entire house is worried, but it is O’Brien who is the most upset. She has been fretting about Cora losing the baby since it happened and wants forgiveness before Cora dies. This is now the second time this season that we have seen O’Brien truly regret one of her nasty actions. If only she could learn to think first, then act, she might save herself some of this heartache. Robert, too, is upset but for himself. When he learns how ill Cora is, his first statement is about what a bad day he has had. Really? At least at the end of Cora’s illness, we get a sense that Robert and she are getting back on track.

As I have said before, I am not a fan of the Jane and Robert story and am glad that the man came to his senses before he slept with her. There is something particularly unpleasant about him contemplating adultery when his wife is deathly ill in the next room. I understand that Robert is a lost soul at the moment, still upset about what he perceives as his lack of involvement in the war and now facing the fact that his youngest doesn’t care at all about the things he does. But, shagging one of the maids is not the answer and I, for one, am glad that this story is behind us.

In the same vein, although Mary and Matthew’s dance is lovely and romantic, they are both engaged to other people. For the first time, however, their conversation is not filled with subtext; it is painfully upfront and clear. Each is in love with the other; each is trying to find a way to be together without losing honor; but, in the end, each backs away. Of course, it doesn’t help that Lavinia catches them in a kiss.

Although we got a hint of what Lavinia is made of when she returned to Downton to marry Matthew, it is here that we finally see that this woman is more than a sweet, weak little girl. As she breaks up with Matthew, she couches it in terms of herself, not him. She does not want to be queen of the county; she could have looked after him better if he were still an invalid; she does not want to be second best. It would have been very easy for her to blame him for her heartbreak, but she rises above.

It is, therefore, very sad that she must be the one to die and her death scene always brings me to tears. Unselfish to the end, she tells Matthew that her death will free him and that he must go be happy. But, our boy, being the paragon of honor that he is, does just the opposite. Of course he is going to mourn her; I truly believe that everyone in the family will. Matthew, however, is determined to feel guilty and drive Mary away from himself. And she goes, walking away from him with Richard.

Like several of the plot lines at the end of this season, I think Lavinia’s death was unnecessary and too much. I believe it would have been a stronger story if she had survived and then stuck by her guns and gone back to London. Her death feels like another device to keep Matthew and Mary apart and, frankly, not a very good one.

The Bryants are back in the picture, hoping to adopt Charlie from Ethel. This story is an excellent example of what is truly best for a child. On the one hand, Charlie could have it all, provided by the Bryants’ money. Yet, Mr. Bryant is such a bully. Mrs. Bryant is cowed by him and his first son didn’t turn out to that nice or that honorable a person. On the other hand, he could have a much more difficult life with his mother, but he would be loved. I understand Ethel’s dilemma and I think she makes the right decision at the end.

Sybil and Branson did come home that night, but have still not told Robert and Cora the truth. Knowing Branson as we do, the timing of this seems odd. It’s hard to imagine him being patient for months while Mary and Edith try to dissuade their sister from marrying him. Be that as it may, they finally announce their intentions to everyone. Cora is shocked and Robert is irate, but it is Lady Violet who remains the voice of calm. She doesn’t flutter; she doesn’t scold; she talks to them like the adults Branson, now Tom, and Sybil are.

The duality of Lady Violet is fascinating. On the one hand, she abhors change and it is through her eyes that every new invention is seen, from electricity to the telephone to the gramophone. Yet, she is the one who the most open minded when it comes to her granddaughters. We have seen her forgive Mary the ultimate sin; she bolsters Edith’s confidence; and, she, in her own way, supports Sybil’s decision. Although she doesn’t agree with it and she fears for Sybil’s future, it is she who keeps the argument between Robert and Sybil from going too far and it is she who puts a brave face on it all at the end.

Tom and Sybil are fantastic to watch. Strong personalities, they face each onslaught of insults, pleading, and rage with straight backs and looking at whomever is shouting at them in the eye. In particular, the scene between Robert and Tom always makes me cheer. Tom is, of course, in the right and some part of Robert knows it although he would never admit it. I’m glad that Robert comes to his senses and accepts the inevitable at the end. It makes a strong statement that it is he who holds out his hand to Tom first. Ever gracious, Tom takes it, looking him straight in the eye.

Sybil’s decision affects Anna as well. Taking a page from her book, Anna announces to Bates that they will be married as she is no longer willing to sit back and watch what happens to him. Bates listens to her and we finally get a wedding. It is plain and simple, but it always makes me smile. From the beginning, these two have said much more by the looks they exchange than the words they exchange. The same is true here. The smiles on their faces say it all. They have one night together, but their happiness is short lived. The season ends as Bates is led away in handcuffs for the murder of his wife.

Bits and Bobs:

-- The gramophone was already fairly popular by 1919 and becoming more so every year. The vinyl records played on them were the standard until the introduction of the compact disc in the early ‘80s. Yes, I had shelves full of vinyl in my day and we will skip over the 8-track tape debacle.

-- Touch paper is paper that has been soaked in sodium nitrate and is used as a fuse for fireworks. “To light the blue touch paper” came to mean “to get things started.”

-- The House of Habsburg was one of the one most important royal families in Europe. At one point, either through birth or marriage, they controlled Austria, Germany, the Holy Roman Empire (now Northern Italy), Sicily, Naples, Spain, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and Portugal.

-- The masked ball in Paris where cholera broke out actually happened. In 1832, a deadly outbreak of cholera hit the city and its surroundings. One of the entertainers at a ball was infected and, by the end of the evening, a large number of those in attendance had contracted the illness.

-- Zip! Goes a Million was a 1919 musical that flopped, but according to one source I found it didn’t open until late 1919 and it opened in Massachusetts. Oops. The song playing while Mary and Matthew dance is called “Look for the Silver Lining” that was, indeed, from that show. It was written by Jerome Kern.

-- The Spanish Flu pandemic is now seen as one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. It hit nearly every country on earth and infected approximately 500 million people. Of these, approximately 50 million died -- 3% of the world’s population at that time. Historians now generally agree that it began in Austria during 1918 and was spread by the soldiers returning home at the end of the war.

Well Said:

Matthew: “She’s just sucking up, Mother.”
Lavinia: “Any bride who doesn’t suck up to her husband’s mother is a fool.”

Lady Violet: “Would someone please tell me what is going on? Or, have we all stepped through the looking glass?”
Branson: “Your grandmother has as much right to know as anybody else.”
Lady Violet: “Why don’t I find that reassuring?”

Lady Violet: “I’m afraid it will end in tears.”
Edith: “Maybe. But they won’t be Sybil’s.

Lady Violet: “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle-class.”

Lady Violet: “The aristocracy has not survived by its intransigence. No, no. We must work with what we’ve got to minimize the scandal.”
Robert: “But, what have we got to work with?”
Lady Violet: “Well, you’d be surprised. He’s political, isn’t he? And a writer. Well, I could make something out of that.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

9 comments:

sunbunny said...

The whole Lavinia thing was yet another weak, overly dramatic plot point at the end of this season. Her death felt too forced, like Fellowes was trying to clean everything up too quickly and too neatly. If he'd wanted her gone, she should have stayed away when Matthew had his spinal injury.

Spanish Flu seems absolutely terrifying! It's crazy that it was that contagious and hit that fast. And we thought we had it bad with Swine Flu a few years ago... I love your historical tidbits. It's like every review comes with a little history lesson. :)

So was Poe's Masque of the Red Death inspired by the Paris incident?

celticmarc said...

Practice your french here :

http://www.lapresse.ca/arts/television/201301/03/01-4608148-le-retour-americain-de-downton-abbey-mine-par-la-divulgation-de-secrets.php?utm_categorieinterne=trafficdrivers&utm_contenuinterne=cyberpresse_B9_arts_244_accueil_POS1

ChrisB said...

sunbunny -- a story I had forgotten, so I looked it up. It certainly sounds remarkably similar. I am going to read it again soon.

Marc -- very interesting article and very, very true. Thanks for posting it.

celticmarc said...

My pleasure !

God save the Queen !

(and we're out of cheeeeese ! We have to go to the mooooon !)

Juliette said...

Interesting article, thanks for posting. I've been thinking for years that rolling shows out slowly across the world just doesn't work any more - hopefully more and more shows will air within a day or two, like The Vampire Diaries currently does (not that some of us don't get impatient anyway...). Basically, if you're on Twitter, you have to try to catch these things as they air, one way or another.

sunbunny said...

Just found this online, very funny:

http://www.vulture.com/2012/02/print-out-vultures-downton-abbey-paper-dolls.html

ChrisB said...

The paper dolls are hilarious! Great find, sunbunny!

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, celticmarc. The spoiler thing has become such a problem here in New Zealand that TV channels, worried about losing all their ratings as people download to avoid being spoiled, have started showing things as close as possible to the US airdate. We saw Homeland less than 24 hours after it aired in the US this season, which was fantastic! In the olden days, we would wait months for something to arrive and frequently years.

Now with Downton, it's on the other foot! Longing to discuss this year's Christmas special, but I will keep my mouth resolutely zipped.

Gavrielle

ChrisB said...

Just finished re-reading Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." The story, I am nearly certain, was inspired by the Paris event. One way or the other, I had forgotten how creepy a story it is. Poe could sure craft a good tale!