Downton Abbey: Season Two, Episode Seven

Richard: “When a war is over, the first emotion is relief; the second disappointment.”
Robert: “How sad. But, how true.”

The title card tells us that we are now into 1919. As the episode progresses and everyone starts talking about April or May for the wedding, it becomes clear that this episode takes place in the earlier part of that year. The war has been over for a few months, but not long enough for people to settle into the new peacetime. As a result, this episode is mainly about the people we know adjusting to post-armistice life, or at least trying to.

Cora and Robert are still at odds. We all hate it when Mommy and Daddy fight and this is how the tension between the two of them makes me feel. Cora is missing running the hospital (look at how wistful she is when she tells Robert that the last of the beds have gone) and is still determined to separate Mary and Matthew. Robert feels as though the past four years have been a waste of his time and he wants to feel valued and useful again. Unlike Cora, Robert genuinely looks on Matthew as one of his children now and cannot understand why Cora wants to get rid of him so badly.

Ironically, Cora is now working with Isobel and leaving Robert mourning for the past. As a result, Robert begins a flirtation with Jane. I am never in favor of adultery, and Robert’s brush with it never feels quite right. For a man who is so filled with honor and truth, to do something that dishonorable and deceitful doesn’t fit. I understand that the story is meant to emphasize how far apart Cora and Robert have drifted, but like the Patrick story in the previous episode, I think it is a step too far.

The girls are really struggling as well to find their way in the new world. Mary, as the only one of the three who didn’t find a useful occupation during the war, couches her change in terms of a new haircut and the new fashions. Her sisters, however, are looking for something a great deal more. Edith and Sybil just want something to do, something meaningful and useful to fill their day.

Not surprisingly, it is Sybil who most longs for change. She finds it with Branson, literally calling him her ticket out. I find it sad that such a strong, bright young woman would feel the need to use a man to satisfy such fundamental longings in herself, but such were the times. Luckily for Sybil, I believe that she and Branson truly love each other. Being the softie romantic that I am, I love the scene in the garage where she finally accepts him and I think their kiss is the hottest one to date.

Although there is something vaguely romantic about running away to elope, Mary is right and I’m glad that Sybil listens to her and goes home. Although Mary is determined to try to talk Sybil out of this crazy act, I’ve always loved the end of the scene at the pub. Mary, trying to be thoughtful, manages to insult the man who may very well soon be her brother-in-law. Branson stands tall and defends himself. One can see a new respect for the man in her eyes as Mary walks away.

Unlike her fiancĂ©, whom Mary does not respect in the slightest. Richard continues to make all the wrong decisions. He believes that because he is willing to spy and to do whatever it takes to make money, everyone else in the world is the same. He is unable to see that the staff at Downton are not driven by money; they are driven by loyalty to the people they serve. His approaching Anna to spy on Mary is breathtakingly poor judgment. As a result, he loses Carson as his butler. Carson’s refusing to go to Haxby must have been an enormous decision for him to make, but he is not the type of man to overlook Richard’s obvious flaws. Even worse, for the first time since the war, we see the old Mary -- spoiled and nasty. It is easy to understand where those emotions are coming from; she is feeling the trap in which she has placed herself and, like the wounded animal in that trap, is lashing out at those closest to her.

The biggest change of all, of course, is that Matthew is able to walk and, one assumes, sire children. Once again, I found this twist in the tale to be a step too far. Fellowes should have made a choice; either Matthew escapes the war unscathed or he doesn’t. This halfway measure feels forced. It also feels as though Fellowes is taking away any doubt that may remain about how this part of the story is going to turn out.

But, not yet. Matthew has reaffirmed that he is going to marry Lavinia. Matthew’s overdeveloped sense of honor is at play again, never more clearly than in his conversation with Lady Violet. Unlike Cora, Lady Violet wants the younger generation to be happy and to marry the people they love, an extremely romantic view from a woman of her generation. Matthew, however, feels that now it is his turn to stand by Lavinia. Unlike the Richard triangle, however, the Lavinia/Matthew/Mary triangle feels real. Lavinia is a very sweet girl and obviously loves Matthew very much. If Mary were not around, I get the sense that the other two would be very happy together.

Downstairs, life goes on as it did during the war as they are all working just as hard then as now. Of them all, only Thomas is out of a job and, as usual, is looking for the easy way. There is something karmic about a man who spends his life lying and tricking those around him being so badly taken in. Like the scene earlier this season where he cries, however, watching Thomas’ frustration and anger at the end of the episode is oddly moving.

Bates did not kill Vera; however, it is also becoming increasingly clear that Vera has tried to stage her suicide to make it appear that he did. Anna and Bates cannot seem to get one moment when things are looking good for them. As Bates points out, he now has his money back and he is a widower. They should be able to marry whenever they want. Unfortunately, his ex-wife is still casting a very long shadow over these two.

Ethel continues to try to find a way to support her son and goes so far as to barge into the dining room to confront Charlie’s grandparents. As we watch the scene unfold, it is clear that everyone around the table believes Ethel’s story and is a bit put off by the fact that Major Bryant would have shirked his responsibilities to such a degree. Genetics being what they are, Mr. Bryant is a thoroughly unpleasant man who is rude and abrasive from the moment he drives up to the house. Mrs. Bryant, beaten down by years with such a man, apologizes for him but believes Ethel. Watch her face when Cora tells her that Ethel was a housemaid. I get the distinct impression that she was not the first servant to have been ruined by the Major.

Bits and Bobs:

— Theda Bara, otherwise known as the Vamp, was a silent film actress and one of the earliest cinema sex symbols.

— Melanie Reid is a weekly columnist for the Sunday Times Magazine who fell from her horse several years ago, breaking her neck and her back. In her column, she writes movingly about her struggles to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Immediately after this episode aired in the UK, she wrote a column about the choice that Fellowes had made to allow Matthew to walk again. It made me cry at the time, and it made me cry again as I just reread it.

— Unlike last season where we saw the three girls in a different dress in every scene, they are all wearing the same dress night after night in this episode. A subtle, but interesting, commentary on the shortages after the war.

— Gretna Green is a small village, immediately over the Scottish border from England. It became famous during the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a place where young couples could go to marry. In England, both parties to the marriage had to be twenty-one to marry without parental consent; in Scotland, the age was fourteen. Fellowes is playing a bit fast and loose with the facts in this episode. First of all, both Sybil and Branson are over the age of twenty-one. Secondly, at the time of this episode, one of the two parties had to have lived in Scotland for twenty-one days before the couple was allowed to marry.

— Times have certainly changed. I don’t know many couples, running away to get married today, who would sleep fully clothed and separately.

Well Said:

Lady Violet: “All this unbridled joy has given me quite an appetite.”

Sybil: “My answer is... that I’m ready to travel and you are my ticket to get away from this house, away from this life.

Mary: “Aren’t all of us stuck with the choices we make?”

Lady Violet: “Marriage is a long business. There’s no getting out of it for our kind of people. Now, you may live forty, fifty years with one of these two women. Just make sure you have selected the right one.”

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.

8 comments:

sunbunny said...

The last parts of season two have me so conflicted. On the one hand, I love this show, but on the other, the restraint and subtlety that the writers used to show seems to be a thing of the past. From Matthew's miraculous ability to walk again to faux-amnesiac Patrick the last part of this season went off the rails just a little.

Cheers to Thomas getting his comeuppance in such a complete and embarrassing way. I also liked Robert's foray into adultery. It's definitely out of character, but I don't feel like it's much of a stretch. He and his wife have been growing apart, they've all just come through the war, and Robert is most likely still dealing with feelings of insufficiency after being declared too old for the front. I'll allow the man a mini midlife crisis. Had Fellowes run with the story point, I would have to add this to my season two list of craziness, but as it is I think it was just enough.

Juliette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josie Kafka said...

Is this the episode in which Matthew says that Lavinia will have to "feed him"? That always made me laugh--had he been eating with this toes before the injury?

Juliette said...

omments bar (previous comment removed for spoilery-ness!

Bates didn't do it - except me and Dad are totally convinced he's guilty as sin. In my case, I'm afraid I find Anna and Bates deathly dull and this conviction livens them up!

My Mum has been in a wheelchair for a decade. I try to ignore the whole Matthew business. He doesn't even end up with a limp - I blame Bates again. I also hate all the 'it's terrible to be a nursemaid' rhetoric, which may be historically accurate and is a serious issue that would be something you'd think about if marrying someone you know to have a serious disability - but depressing to hear them go on about it all the frigging time.

But yay for Sybil and Branson! I'm so in love with Branson I even ignore the fact he comes attached to my other least favourite subject, Irish politics (Mum is also from Northern Ireland).

Juliette said...

Argh, this is what I get for commenting at 1.30am! Ignore the random typo at the top there :)

ChrisB said...

This part of the second series fell off a bit, I'm afraid. The Patrick story, Matthew's recovery and Robert's fling with Jane just feel all wrong to me. It seems as though Fellowes was struggling to come up with conflicts that are as compelling as the war. Not an easy task, granted, but not one in which he succeeded.

And, Juliette, I agree with you completely about the nursemaid issue. Of course it is something that would have to be considered, but enough is enough. Unfortunately, I don't think we've seen the last of this theme.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, ChrisB and Juliette, that this is not the best time for the series. The wheelchair stuff is lurid, unbelievable melodrama, and IMO Robert has never been as dislikeable as he is toying with Jane's affections. What possible good outcome could there be from that for her? What with that and the whining about having lunch alone in the previous episode, he really was horrible.

You're right, Chris, that few about to be married couples today would behave like this, but to be honest I question whether they would have then either.

Gavrielle

ChrisB said...

A reader emailed to let me a fabulous tidbit. Phyllis Logan (who plays Mrs. Hughes) is married to Kevin McNally (who plays Mr. Bryant). Gives all their scene together an even better feel!