Downton Abbey: Season One, Episode Two

“We all have different parts to play, Matthew, and we must all be allowed to play them."

The worst has happened. Because Robert will not break up the estate, the family must now meet and accept the new heir. But, horror of horrors, he is not one of them. Matthew is a middle-class lawyer who has been (oh, dear!) actually practicing law and working for a living. The theme of this hour is about finding one’s place in the world, or accepting the place that fate has given you.

The family is, for the most part, decidedly put out by this turn of events. Robert, who is a lovely man, is going out of his way to make both Isobel and Matthew feel welcome and a part of the community. The women, on the other hand, are not. Cora and Lady Violet are still hoping that they can bring Robert around and persuade him to let Mary have the money.

Matthew does not want this turn of events to take place either. Perfectly content leading his life in Manchester, he is not keen to move to the wilds of Yorkshire and take on the mantle of the landed gentry. He is decidedly uncomfortable with all the trappings that come with the role and is doing everything he possibly can to maintain as much of his old life as possible.

Matthew comes to the village already with a job in hand. For a family who has never worked a day in their life, this comes as a complete shock to the Grantham lot. Even Robert cannot quite believe his ears. But, the line that tells you everything you need to know about this family is Lady Violet’s, “What is a weekend?” When one never works, one never needs a day off.

Like her son, Isobel is not going to sit around and do nothing all day. She immediately becomes involved in the hospital, forcing Dr. Clarkson to perform an operation that he has never done before and, most likely, would not have done if Isobel had not forced his hand. It is interesting to watch this storyline unfold. Lady Violet and Dr. Clarkson (who, of course, is paid by the estate) are content to adhere to the status quo, not trying any new procedures and allowing the women to work the bring-and-buy sales. Isobel, however, pushes the hospital into the modern age and succeeds when a member of the working class begs for her husband’s life to saved. It’s not just because she loves him that this woman wants her husband to survive; if he dies, she and her children will be in very dire straits economically.

Downstairs, the arrival is greeted with excitement and anticipation, but many of them feel as though the new arrivals are not due the respect a titled person would be. Compare the reception that Isobel and Matthew get with what the Duke got in the past episode. Here, Carson and Lady Violet are sniggering behind Isobel’s back and Thomas is trying to show Matthew how to behave at the table. O’Brien spends a great deal of the episode mouthing off about them.

The scene where Cora enters the servants’ hall and scolds O’Brien is interesting to watch. O’Brien is right; Cora does not want Matthew here. The mistake that O’Brien makes, however, is twofold. On the one hand, she is betraying confidences made to her by the woman she serves. On the other hand, Cora needs to maintain a public face around this turn of events and having the servants behave so badly is not helping the situation.

In a mirrored situation, Matthew behaves very badly towards Molesley during the first part of the episode, going as far as to call his occupation “silly.” Matthew instantly realizes that he is been offensive and apologizes, but simply can’t wrap his head around the fact that someone could make a living by dressing a grown man. In a wonderful speech, Robert points out to Matthew that part of the reason for the estate is to provide employment and that, of all people, Matthew should understand and respect that. To his credit, Matthew takes the lesson on board.

In an episode that is all about finding one’s place in life, we learn that Carson was once on the stage as part of a double act called The Cheerful Charlies. Carson is humiliated by this revelation, going so far as to tender his resignation. Robert, however, pays off Grigg and pays Carson the compliment of being interested in his past. As he walks out, Grigg spouts off about how the world is changing and that Robert won’t be able to get away with such tactics for much longer. From the vantage of a century later, we know he’s right. But, for our story, all is right with the world and Carson is still downstairs, albeit a bit more humble.

This may be a period piece, but there was no way we were going to escape the meet-cute. Matthew is fed up and giving his mother quite an earful about how he will marry whom he pleases. In comes Mary, dressed in full riding regalia and behaving impeccably, obviously having overheard the diatribe. Matthew is instantly on the back foot and is speechless during the entire meeting. I got the distinct impression during this scene that he was quite smitten from her from the start, even when she zings him and then walks out the door. He chases after her to apologize; she wants nothing to do with him.

Lady Violet always has a Plan B. If she can’t remove the money from the estate, then it only makes sense that Mary should marry Matthew. Mary is appalled; Matthew only slightly less so. They are very evenly matched. Mary spends a great deal of time insulting Matthew, in the nicest possible way. Matthew, however, knows he’s being insulted and comes back at her. One of the great shots that this show has ever done is at the end of the Perseus story. Lady Violet is shocked at Matthew’s behavior; Robert is smiling. He knows his daughter has met her match.

Bits and Bobs:

— Lloyd George was an MP at the time of this episode, but later became Prime Minister. He is credited for steering Great Britain through the First World War. Universally loathed by the landed class, he introduced increased taxes on the wealthy (especially luxuries and land) to fund welfare programs, one of which would later become the NHS.

— Dropsy is now known as edema. For any of us who have ever watched a medical drama, it is when fluid builds up where it shouldn’t. If the fluid is released, all is well.

— The scene where Mary complains that Matthew can barely hold his knife like a gentleman and then tells her mother that Cora will never understand because she is an American always makes me laugh out loud. When I first moved to London, I had almost a verbatim conversation with the person who would become my best friend. Believe it or not, he was right. Being able to hold a knife correctly is still how people are judged; I learned quickly.

— Sydney Carton is a character in A Tale of Two Cities. One of his strongest character traits is his self-pity.

— Lovely coda at the end as we see the Drakes are at the hospital investiture.

Well Said:

Matthew: “Mother, Lord Grantham has made the unwelcome discovery that his heir is a middle-class lawyer and the son of a middle-class doctor.”
Isobel: “Upper middle-class.”

Matthew: “I have to be myself, Mother. I’ll be no use to anyone if I can’t be myself.”

O’Brien: “He’ll be lucky if he gets a civil word out of me.”
Anna: “We’re all lucky if we get a civil word out of you.”

Isobel: “What should we call each other?”
Lady Violet: “Well, we could always start with Mrs. Crawley and Lady Grantham.”

Robert: “I thought you didn’t like him.”
Lady Violet: “So what? I have plenty of friends I don’t like.”

Grigg: “You think you’re such a big man, don’t you? Just because you’re a lord, you think you can do what you like with me.”
Robert: “I think it because it is true.”

Robert: “My dear fellow, we all have chapters we would rather keep unpublished.”

Clarkson: “Well, if you’re quite certain, m’lord.”
Robert: “What were you going to say?”
Clarkson: “At the risk of being impertinent, on your own head be it.”

Clarkson: “Our little hospital must surely grow and thrive with two such doughty champions united as they are by the strongest ties of all -- family and friendship.”
Neither of the two women can look at the other. The show goes out on a laugh.

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.

3 comments:

a.m. said...

I love the Perseus scene! Not only does Robert realize that his daughter has met her match but I think Lady Mary herself realizes it, even though she'd ever admit it. Lady Violet's shock at discussing nakedness at dinner makes me laugh every time even though I know it's coming!

I also really love seeing Carson's relationship with all of them. The look with Lady Violet is priceless and his indignity about the Charlies is perfect.

sunbunny said...

This show is so great! I loved the whole what's a weekend thing. We don't realize weekends a relatively modern invention.

I liked Robert's whole servants speech. It reminds me of this series of books I love - The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It's set in Botswana, where it is (at least in fiction) considered rude not to hire a maid if you can afford one. Why prevent someone from getting employment if you have enough money? I always thought it was an interesting argument.

Anonymous said...

Sunbunny: I'm not sure that the "what's a weekend" comment means that Violet doesn't know about the whole two days off thing;). I suspect it's more to do with the fact that traditionally the British aristocracy considers the word "weekend" a vulgar modern invention and uses instead the term "Friday to Monday". (You would be invited to spend Friday to Monday at someone's country house, for example.) You can still hear this today amongst the rarefied classes, although it's considered a bit old-fashioned these days.

Gavrielle