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Downton Abbey: Season Two, Episode Two

“It’s a brave, new world we’re headed for, no doubt about that. We must try to meet it with as much grace as we can muster.”

This episode is set in April 1917, five months after the previous episode. The war is continuing to take its toll and we spend the hour watching how its effect is being felt. Even the very first shot is evidence; instead of a young man delivering telegrams, it is now a man who is too old for the army.

Matthew has, almost miraculously, survived this long. He is home as he has been promoted to Captain and is working with a general. He feels that he belongs back in France and mentions several times how he can’t wait to get back there. The hospital, however, is the first time we see him a bit unnerved. The speech he gives to Robert about a quick death always brings tears to my eyes.

William has finally been called up and is thrilled. Mrs. Patmore, who hears the worst possible news about another young boy she loved, can’t look at him without tearing up. Daisy is concerned because she doesn’t want to be his sweetheart, although she certainly acts like it around him. Lang just looks at him with pity; he understands better than most what William is running towards.

Thomas’ ploy has worked; he’s home and working in the hospital. Watching him make friends with Courtenay makes me almost care about him. Thomas so often displays everything that is horrible about himself, but we see that he has a gentle side and we get a real hint of how hard growing up “different” was for him. Watching Thomas crying at his friend’s death moved me much more than I would have thought possible.

Having already been through one war, I’m not sure what it is about Robert that makes him so want to get more involved in this one. But, there is something about not being wanted by the army that just eats at him. He is losing his self-respect and he is, uncharacteristically, snapping at those around him. What’s interesting is that those around him believe that he is doing everything he should be. It is through his connections that Mrs. Patmore learns the truth, a knowledge that she admits is easier than not knowing. Robert can’t see that this is just as important as dying in a trench.

Carson continues to behave as though the war is not happening and that he should be running the house as it was before the war. Like Robert, he is the only one who believes he should be doing this; both Cora and Mrs. Hughes comment on how things must change. As a result of this blindness, Carson makes the situation much worse than it needs to be. By not being able to see that Lang would be hopeless in the dining room, he upsets the valet almost to a breaking point. Even worse, he makes himself so ill that he is not able to work at all.

O’Brien continues to be an interesting character to watch. On the one hand, she shamelessly manipulates Cora into getting Thomas back at the local hospital. On the other hand, she is simply lovely with Lang. We learn that O’Brien had a favorite brother (a detail I find charming) and that she cared for him while he, too, was suffering from shell shock. Like a sister, she protects Lang from all sorts of troubles. Another often nasty character that has a much softer side.

Sybil is now a full fledged nurse and is loving it. She wants nothing to do with her old life, content to work around the clock at the hospital. It tells us everything we need to know that when Carson collapses, she tells him to call her Nurse Crawley and not m’lady. The conversation she has with Branson also emphasizes how much she has gained by working; not to mention, the look of hope in his eye as Branson listens to Sybil talk.

Edith has finally grown a spine. The thing I like best about her standing up to her mother and grandmother is the look that Mary gives her -- is that a hint of respect? Like her younger sister, Edith is keen to do something, anything and working on the farm seems to suit her. She dresses in trousers; she drinks from a bottle; she eats simple food -- all the while smiling in a way we have never seen. Unfortunately, she takes it too far and loses what is making her happy.

Mary, however, is not doing anything to help the war effort. She is, in fact, becoming more involved with Richard Carlyle. He has a lot of money, but he does not have the social graces the family are used to. He manages to alienate everyone in the household almost unbelievably quickly. His only support comes from Rosamund who looks on marriage as a business arrangement. His proposal to Mary makes me believe that he looks on it the same way.

I love Mary’s relationship with Carson. The two of them have such a father/daughter relationship that feels more real than the relationship she has with Robert. It is difficult to imagine Robert advising his daughter to tell Matthew that she loves him. It is also telling that Mary discusses the advice with Anna and not one of her sisters. Remembering how spoiled she has always been, it is fascinating to watch her change her mind about telling Matthew how she feels because she realizes how much Lavinia loves him. It would be very easy for Mary to make life difficult for Lavinia; instead, she is gentle and caring with her. Our girl is growing up.

Although he is not in this episode, Bates is casting a long shadow. Lang’s failure at dinner is a lovely contrast to Bates. In the first episode when everyone was trying to get rid of Bates, the fact that he couldn’t serve at dinner was one of the excuses given to Robert to get rid of him. Lang is not afforded the same consideration and Carson goes so far as to talk about how much he misses Bates. But, of course it is Anna who misses him the most. She turns down Molesley flat and she has a lovely conversation with Mary about how much she loves Bates and will never find another.

Even Downton Abbey itself is changing; the family has agreed to turn it into a convelescent home in spite of Lady Violet’s objections. As Robert says, it is a brave new world we are watching unfold this season.

Bits and Bobs:

— An ADC is an aide-de-camp. This person an adjunct to a person of high rank; in Matthew’s case, a general. During the First World War, it was a sought after honor. Not to mention, it gets our boy out of the trenches for a while.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a real book, very popular during the beginning of the 20th century. I read it. Unless you like trite little books about a stupid girl who gardens badly, give it a miss.

— Toad of Toad Hall is a character from The Wind in the Willows.

— The DSO is the Distinguished Service Order. It is awarded to officers who showed bravery in actual combat.

— The farm where Edith is working is run by the Drakes. You may remember him as the man who was dying in the hospital during the first episode of the series.

— Shell Shock (now understood to be a form of PTSD) was the reaction of the soldiers to what was happening around them. There were hundreds of thousands of cases both during and after the war. At first, men were sent home (like Lang). It became so common, however, that, unless a man was physically injured, he was sent back to the front. The worst part of it all was that some men who suffered badly were executed as cowards (like Mrs. Patmore’s nephew).

— The Battle of Arras took place between April and May of 1917. The British and the French were trying to end the war by breaking through the German defenses and surrounding them on two sides. When all was said and done, the British had gained a tiny bit of ground, but lost thousands of men. Unfortunately, this was typical of most of the First World War battles.

Well Said:

Mrs. Hughes: “Still, a broken heart can be as painful as a broken limb.”
Anna: “Don’t feel sorry for me, Mrs. Hughes. I’m not. I know what real love is, and there aren’t many who can say that. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Sybil: “What do you think Mary sees in him?”
Rosamund: “Besides the money you mean?”
Sybil: “It must be more than that.”
Rosamund: “For you. Not necessarily for her.”

Cora: “I don’t think you’re a fool. Isn’t that enough?”
Robert: “No. Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.”

Carson: “As if any man in his right mind could prefer Miss Swire to you.”

Lady Violet: “So now I’m an outsider who need not be consulted?”
Cora: “Since you put it like that, yes.”

Matthew: “At the front, the men pray to be spared, of course. But, if that is not to be, they pray for a bullet that kills them cleanly. For too many of them today, that prayer had not been answered.”

William: “But, I believe in this war. I believe in what we’re fighting for and I want to do my bit.”
Lang: “Then God help you.”

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. Thomas is one of those characters who's normally so harsh and unfeeling that any scene of him crying is guaranteed to make me cry (see also: Spike, Eric Northman... maybe Thomas is a vampire?!)

    I can understand Robert's desire to go out and fight - with the majority of the male population of the country out dying in the trenches, being stuck in England could give you some nasty survivor guilt. Some young men born in the 1940s actually felt a slight sense of guilt at not having a world war to fight.

  2. This was such a good episode and I didn't even realize it until I read your review!

    I really like the shell shock/PTSD parts. It's so much more realistic than those heroic war movies were the 'good' guys destroy the 'evil' guys, the end. Wars have consequences, even for survivors. Very apropos for today. Cough, cough, political statement.

    I love seeing O'Brien and Thomas care about people. It's rather rare, but it makes those situations that much more touching.

    I caught the Toad Hall reference! Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland scared the crap out of me as a kid. Yet I always insisted on riding it...

    Juliette - Nice parallels between Spike, Eric, and Thomas! I think the main difference (besides the blonde thing and the blood sucking thing) is that I don't find Thomas at all attractive. Matthew, on the other hand... Okay, so I just realized that I apparently have a thing for blond guys now. Hmm. Never used to.

  3. Yes, I also enjoyed seeing Thomas and O'Brien acting more like human beings. I actually thought they were going to give Thomas a rather poignant romance plot; so sad that they didn't.


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