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Downton Abbey: Season Two, Episode Five

Matthew: “Am I ready?”
William: “Only you can answer that, sir.”

This timeframe for this episode is easy to place. The title card tells us that we are at the Battle of Amiens that began on August 8, 1918. We are, therefore, in late summer or roughly six months since Bates came back to the house.

The opening scene at the battle is hard to watch. The men, preparing to “go over the top,” are filthy, exhausted and terrified. We see them smoke a last cigarette, read a letter from home and try to put a brave face on the fact that they are about to run into machine gun fire. Even Matthew is terrified, but he is wonderful with his men before he must send many of them to their death. For Matthew and William, their luck has finally run out. Like Mary and Daisy, watching these two lying motionless in the mud always makes me shiver. The good news is that they are both alive, but very badly wounded. Taking care of them becomes the focal point of much of this episode.

Matthew is in a very bad way. His spinal cord has been broken which means that he will never walk again nor will he be able to achieve an erection. While losing the ability to walk and have sex would be devastating enough, it is important to remember that Matthew is the heir. Part of his duty is to provide another heir and to keep the family going. This now appears to be out of the question. Matthew is filled with self-pity, although it is easy to understand why. Calling himself “an impotent cripple stinking of sick,” he can’t seem to stop crying. His tears when he sees his mother get me every time; we all want our mother when we are sick and sad.

Because of his injury, Matthew breaks up with Lavinia believing that he cannot saddle the girl with an invalid for the rest of her life. The conversation he has with her is astonishing. When he breaks the news to her that they would never be able to have sex, he does not couch it in terms of her never having children. Instead, he tells her that she is entitled to have a full sex life and that she should want to have one. Amazing insight from a man of that time.

William’s injury is a wonderful example of both upstairs and downstairs coming together to care for one of their own. Even Thomas, who has never been anything but simply horrible to him, feels sympathy for him and manages to express it. For a woman who, in the past, would probably have barely noticed a footman, Lady Violet obviously has a very soft spot for William. She tried to save him from going to the war at all; she pulls every string she can think of to get him back to Downton when he is wounded; and, she bullies the vicar into marrying him and Daisy. Edith, who continues to astonish me at how she is growing, nurses him throughout.

Led by Mrs. Patmore, everyone seems to be conspiring to get William married before he dies. Poor Daisy is once again caught up in something that she can’t seem to find her way out of and she goes along with it. The wedding is such a contrast. The room is beautifully decorated; Robert gives Daisy a bouquet of flowers; Carson “walks her down the aisle.” Yet, Daisy is so obviously struggling with the decision that she can’t even manage a smile. The filming of this scene is superb. One by one, the camera pans to everyone in the room and there is not a dry eye. I have watched this wedding so many times; it brings me to tears every time. And, they continue to fall when William dies. Downton has not escaped the war unscathed.

Even though two of our own are wounded, the world continues to spin. Branson and Sybil are stuck in the same place they have been since she went to nursing school. He keeps pushing her; she keeps pushing back. I do believe that Sybil is now in love with him; she does, after all, almost kiss him. But, the thought of what loving him means scares her and she uses the end of the war as an excuse to put off making the decision.

Bates and Anna are still waiting to get married, but things have moved on. Bates has his decree nisi, which means that he is almost divorced but he is still waiting for the decree absolute. Just as we see them kneel in a church and fill our minds with that wonderful image, Vera comes back with a vengeance. She has the money and she obviously hates Bates, yet she is still bitter. Bates has already gone to prison to spare her and has given her all of his money. What else does this woman really want? Vera has met her match in Richard who manipulates her brilliantly. But, something tells me that we should take her threats against Bates seriously.

Mary is a much different person than when we met her last season. From someone who was spoiled and childish in her world view, Mary has become someone who can not only empathize with others, she can take responsibility for her actions and do what it takes to make things right. Heartbroken by what has happened to Matthew, she rises above to deal with the horror of what has happened. She sits with him; she tends to him when he is sick; she does whatever it takes to keep his spirits up; and, she takes care of Lavinia. It is obvious to all of us, including her father, how much Mary loves Matthew. The look Robert gives her before she goes to meet Matthew at the hospital for the first time is sad. He understands, but can’t think of what of what to say to his daughter. Isobel sees the change as well and, I believe, understands its genesis.

Additionally, Mary realizes that she is the one who must help Anna and Bates get rid of Vera. We have seen Mary’s courage in telling the truth before, but never to this degree. Admitting such a scandal not only to the man who has proposed, but to a newspaper editor at that, is extraordinary. Richard, ever a man with an eye to the main chance, sees Mary’s story as an opportunity to force the issue of the engagement. We can almost watch the light in Mary’s eye die as she realizes the price she is going to have to pay to keep the story quiet.

Ethel was much more pregnant at the end of the last episode than I had thought. Six months later and her baby appears to already be a few months old. While I am not a huge fan of Ethel’s, I do pity the situation in which she has found herself. So, it would seem, does Mrs. Hughes who was the one who threw her out of the house in the first place and is still highly disapproving of the situation. But, it is Mrs. Hughes who tries to get Major Bryant to face up to his child and she is obviously furious with him when he refuses (the cad).

The war continues to change the status quo. Imagine a married woman looking for work, unheard of four years ago. But now Jane, a widow with a young son, must find work to support herself and her child. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are so unsure about what to do that Carson takes it to Robert. Interestingly, Robert sees hiring Jane not as an opportunity to have a good worker, but as an opportunity to help a fallen soldier. It is still the man that truly matters.

Bits and Bobs:

— The Battle of Amiens was the turning point of the war. Allied forces (which included British, Canadian and Australian soldiers) advanced seven miles in one day -- one of the greatest advances of the entire conflict. It was also one of the first times that tanks were used on the battlefield. Because of their effectiveness, many historians now credit this battle with the end of trench warfare.

— It was often said during the First World War that the army who sent enough men to the front would win. Because of the armored aspect of this battle, that perception changed as did morale on both sides. The Allies began to believe that they would win; the Germans began to desert in droves.

— Some things never change. Why is it that bad news, really bad news, always comes in the middle of the night?

— Wonderful callback to the first episode when the little dog falls out of Matthew’s clothes at the hospital.

— Branson telling Sybil about the Tzar is a good example of how slowly news filtered out during the war. This episode takes place in August; the Tzar and his family were killed in July.

— Sylvia Pankhurst was an amazing woman. Opposed to the war, she did a lot to support the women who had been left behind. She set up “restaurants” where the poor women of London could come to eat; she established a toy factory to provide employment for women; and, she badgered Parliament to provide a pension for the war widows.

— The Court Circular is the official record of the Royal Family's engagements for the day. It is issued by Buckingham Palace and is still published daily in The Times and The Telegraph.

Well Said:

Lady Violet: “It always happens. When you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink.”

Bates: “You should have had a church wedding.”
Anna: “Don’t be silly.”
Bates: “No, I mean it. You in a white dress; me looking like a fool.”
Anna: “I’d rather have the right man than the right wedding.”

Lady Violet, shouting into the telephone,”Well, how many Marquesses of Flintshire are there?” Waving the earpiece frustratingly at Edith, “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”

Branson: “You’re good at hiding your feelings, aren’t you. All of you. Much better than we are.”
Sybil: “Perhaps. But, we do have feelings and don’t make the mistake of thinking we don’t.”

Isobel: “You’ve become quite a nurse since I last saw you.”
Mary: “Oh no, it’s nothing. Sybil’s the nurse in this family.”
Isobel: “It’s the very opposite of nothing.”

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.


  1. I love your reviews! They're so detailed, it's like rewatching the episode with running commentary. :)

    I don't know how I feel about the whole Daisy/William wedding. I think it's very sweet of everyone to come together to help him achieve his dream, but I can't help feeling that Daisy is being pushed into doing something against her will and morals. I think it was the right thing for her to do, but I'm not sure everyone should have been pressuring her so much.

    We really get to see how much Mary has grown in this episode. I love her dedication to Matthew. It's ever so romantic.

  2. I love your reviews, too! I especially enjoy the little history lessons that place the events in perspective.

    This was such a full and moving episode, it is hard to pick one moment that stands out...for me, it is when Matthew and his mother see each other; William and his father; and Daisy, so sad and beautiful, doing the right thing despite her conscience, caught up in a wave of other people's wishes. Even Mary became sympathetic to me. Her distress and helplessness in the face of Matthew's suffering was painful to watch. She really has behaved admirably as far as Matthew and Lavinia go.

    It really is amazing writing...I love these characters!

  3. Make that "me, three" -- I'm very much enjoying these reviews, and I made notes while watching the show so that I could post comments as they go up.

    That whole thing with Daisy and William made me so uncomfortable. It felt horribly unfair to Daisy -- what if William had survived? And yet, if I had been Daisy, I hope I would have been sensitive and caring enough to do what she did to make his final hours mean something. It's complex situations like this one that make DA so interesting to watch.


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