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Downton Abbey: Season Two, Episode One

“When I think of my life at Downton, it seems like another world.”

Another world, indeed. Everything has changed since we last saw the Crawley family and their staff. This episode opens in November, 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Two years have passed since Robert’s announcement that beautiful summer day. The fact that everything has exploded, literally, is made clear from the opening scenes. Instead of the peace and beauty of Downton, we are in the noise and horror of the trenches.

Unlike the usual upstairs/downstairs divide, this episode is split along gender lines. The men are all either involved in the war, trying to be or trying to get out of it. The women, on the other hand, are doing what they can to support the war effort. For many of them, however, the war is almost like another charity. They raise money and they arrange flowers, but life is really not all that different from what it was before the war.

Matthew is now a Lieutenant in the British Army and has seen the worst of what is happening. His not being able to talk about his experiences were the norm for many of the young men who came out of the trenches.

Robert is desperately trying to get to France, but without success. We see him in uniform throughout this episode, although even he admits that he is not in the army properly. He is visibly crushed when he learns that his colonelcy is only honorary and feels that he is a fraud because he cannot go to the war proper. William is also trying to get to the front. He feels ashamed that, while all the other young men he knows are going to war, he is still serving at the house. Being given the white feather does not help, but it is interesting to watch the family support him during the event.

We do see a case of a man who arguably deserves the feather. Molesley is visibly shocked when he hears that he may be called up and he compounds the lie to Clarkson. The good doctor, no fool, knows that Molesley is lying, but lets him get away with it. My guess is that he is tired of watching men die and decides to let this one live.

Thomas’ plan to avoid the front has backfired and I get the impression that he has been in France for quite a while. I am not a fan of this man, but I completely understand why he did what he did. Watching your mate take a bullet through the head would be chilling for anyone.

Carson is trying to run the house as though nothing has changed. Of course, this is an impossible task and he is wearing himself ragged. He is a bit put out by Matthew’s news. As always, Mary can do no wrong in his eyes; although, she certainly can in Mrs. Hughes’. During the course of the episode, we see him twice giving information to his employers, although they haven’t asked for it. He tells Robert the truth about why Bates left and he tells Cora about what Sybil is doing. Arguably, neither of these things are any of his business, but he still feels as though it is part of his job to ensure that his employers are not in the dark.

Although she is learning to drive, Edith appears to be a deeply unhappy young woman who derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others. Her blurting out the truth to Mary and her comment about brave men in front of William are unnecessary and nasty. O’Brien is Edith’s counterpart downstairs. Still up to her old tricks, she manipulates Cora and is cruel to Ethel.

Gwen has gone to be a secretary and has been replaced by Ethel. Ethel is very different from the housemaids we have seen in the past. She is mouthy, she is not subservient and she alienates pretty much everyone in the household the first day she is there.

Sybil has decided to become a nurse and do a “real job,” not just play at it. I love the scenes with her in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. For once, Sybil is not m’lady from upstairs; she has come into their world and asked them for help. The women downstairs respond to this and teach her what she needs to know, all the while treating her as one of their own. The final shot of them all around the cake, as Cora and Carson look on, always warms my heart.

Isobel is very involved in running the hospital. It appears as though she and Dr. Clarkson are working very closely together on all of the big decisions. In her own way, Lady Violet is trying to help as well. Of course, lying to Dr. Clarkson to attempt to save Molesley and William is the wrong way to go about it and doesn’t Isobel tell her so.

In spite of the war, romance is everywhere. It becomes clear that Matthew and Mary’s breakup was very difficult for them both. Matthew has not been back to the house since and has gotten himself engaged to Lavinia Swire. Mary is doing what she always does -- putting on a brave face and telling everyone about the new man she’s met. As always, it is Anna who sees through the facade and comforts her friend.

Matthew and Mary’s families are still shipping them and are very upset that he is engaged to someone other than Mary. But, stiff upper lips being what they are, they arrange it (manipulate it?) so that these two are finally in the same room together again. The tension during the concert and dinner is immense. Neither of them can look away from the other, Mary can’t help but touch him and the conversation is filled with subtext.

But, that is nothing to the subtext at the train station. Matthew telling Mary how glad he is that they are friends again and Mary’s chaste kiss goodbye both scream of how much these two still love each other. It makes their farewell all the more poignant. There is a better than even chance that these two will never see each other again; they may very well be saying goodbye forever. As the train pulls away, I always tear up.

Anna and Bates -- finally! The engagement and the kiss are simple and lovely and they are so happy, but it is brief. In comes Vera who is as horrible as we have been led to believe, but she can still manipulate her husband. Similar to his going to jail, Bates once again gives up his freedom for the woman. Only this time, he sacrifices much more; he hurts the two people he cares about the most. Robert is furious, ironically going on about loyalty and friendship. Anna, as always, guesses the truth and pleads with Bates to stay, to no avail. In a direct echo to Mary, we watch Anna as she watches the man she loves leave her.

Although we’ve long suspected the truth, Branson now tells Sybil directly how much he loves her. She is not ready for it, either the sentiment or the implications if she gets involved with a servant in her father’s household. In spite of it all, she doesn’t want him to leave and asks him to be there when she returns.

And, Daisy has now kissed William who jumps to the conclusion that they are a couple. I am pretty sure that’s not what Daisy had in mind.

So, we’ve caught up with everyone’s news; the stories are already moving forward and romance is in the air. A great start to the second season.

Bits and Bobs:

— The Battle of the Somme was horrific. Lasting sixteen days, total losses exceeded 1 million men. The British Army suffered more than 60,000 on the first day alone, still the worst day in history for that army.

— It is impossible to exaggerate how truly awful the trenches were. It is now estimated that more men died of disease, exposure and self-inflicted wounds than died by enemy fire. Many who did survive suffered from PTSD and extreme claustrophobia for the rest of their lives.

— “The Gallipoli business” was one of the great disasters of the First World War. Churchill, at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty, tried to end the war quickly by opening up another front in Turkey. It failed miserably and the British Army lost thousands of men as well as a many of their battleships.

— It is now estimated that 5 million men, nearly 25% of the entire male population of Great Britain, were part of the British Army during the war.

— The Order of the White Feather was an organization founded during the First World War to shame young men into enlisting. It was very unpopular as anyone not in uniform could be given a feather. Many men not in uniform were serving the war effort at home or had been invalided out of the army.

— Matthew in his formal red uniform. I’m just saying.

— There is now electricity throughout the house.

— Lucknow is a city in India that was under English control for many years. The Indians, who were less than pleased at this turn of events, formed a siege of the city that went on for months. As nothing or no one could get in or out, women were forced to do many traditionally male tasks, including loading the guns.

Well Said:

Robert: “I may not be a real soldier, but I think I ought to look like one.”
Carson: “Quite, m’lord.”

Lady Violet: “I hate Greek drama, you know, when everything happens off stage.”

Sybil: “Sometimes, it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.”

O’Brien: “You’ve got a cheek on your first day.”
Ethel: “I don’t see why. I want the best and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
O’Brien: “And, you think we don’t?”
Ethel: “I think it’s hard to change at your age.”
The reactions from the others sitting around the table are hilarious.

Lady Violet: “So, that’s Mary’s replacement. Well, I suppose looks aren’t everything.”
Cora: “I think she seems rather sweet. I’m afraid meeting us all together must be very intimidating.”
Lady Violet: “I do hope so.”

Anna: “Mr. Bates… is this a proposal?”
Bates: “If that’s what you want to call it. And, you might start calling me John.”

Isobel: “There can be no special cases because every man at the front is a special case to someone.”

Carson: “Now, if I was a gentleman, I wouldn’t want to know.”
Mrs. Hughes: “But, you’re not.”
Carson: “Fortunately.”

Matthew: “War has a way of distinguishing between the things that matter and the things that don’t.”

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.

4 comments:

sunbunny said...

I just adore Sybil. She could have easily sat at home, doing nothing and no one would have raised an eyebrow or batted an eyelash. Instead, she chooses leaves her world of privilege people. The Sybil/Branson dynamic is probably my favorite part of this Season.

I feel so bad for Robert! Like Sybil, he wants to be involved, to help. But he can't. :(

Also loving Carson's total denial about the war and the state of the world. For him, so long as there are footmen at Downton and the silver is polished perfectly, nothing is askew. By refusing to allow anything to change at home, he's refusing to admit anything has changed in the world.

Ugh. Ethel is annoying.

Anonymous said...

Re Gallipoli: not just a disaster for the British either. There were so many losses for Australian and New Zealand troops (New Zealand lost a quarter of the troops that landed on the peninsula) that we still mark it today with dawn services and an important national holiday (Anzac Day).

What a terrible war.

Gavrielle

Billie Doux said...

Matthew says at one point that war has a way of distinguishing what matters from what doesn't. But even with everyone either focused on getting to the war or away from the war, Mary's little scandal is still haunting the family.

I felt for Thomas, too, and I can't stand him.

Wonderful review, Chris. I love your added bits of history. It was so long ago; people forget how horrible this particular war was.

Juliette said...

sunbunny, Sybil and Branson are basically the reason I watch this show :) They're so much less annoying than all the other couples...

I like Mary and Matthew, but having finally caught up on season 1 I have to confess, if I were Matthew, I'm not sure I could forgive Mary for turning me down because I (possibly) wasn't rich. They have great chemistry though, and I cry at the scene in the train station too - if only I could forget season 1!

Ethel and Miss O'Brien are both SO annoying - though at least Ethel actually makes me less m,ad at O'Brien for once. I have more sympathy for Thomas, even though he's horrible. He is occasionally capable of kindness - though his cuppa for Matthew was partly motivated by wanting Matthew's help to get out - and he seems to have done a good while at the front and been thoroughly traumatised (and his injury is real, if self-inflicted). Somehow he never seems quite as randomly mean or evil as O'Brien - more ruthlessly, evilly ambitious and lacking relationships outside bad influence O'Brien.