Last week’s season premiere of Downton Abbey was all about the dissonance between the home front and the real front and how the two worlds could be so closely connected while operating on an entirely separate set of stakes and rules. Over in the Somme, a poor straw man soldier gave Thomas a speech about death, right before getting hit by sniper fire straight through the Brodie helmet. Back in less-fatal Downtonland, the Dowager countess aggressively rearranged flowers and Lady Edith had a lackluster, bloodless affair with a married farmer. Only a few characters were able to mentally bridge the gap between the gunfire and the big house — Sybil with her care for the wounded, and veterans Thomas and Matthew (though both were so shell shocked they could not speak of what they endured). If season one of Downton was about the tensions between upstairs and downstairs, this season’s beginning hinted at an arc pitting two other classes against one another — army uniforms versus corsets, bayonets versus feather dusters, and never the twain shall meet.
But meet they do. Suddenly the front has arrived right smack in the middle of Downton’s sitting room. Wherever shall they have high tea? The war can’t stay in France forever, and this episode is about our main players all confronting that reality. Some, like Cora, need to be told softly that the dream is over, and cuddled ever so gently as the bubble bursts. For others, like Lang, that harsh news leads to full psychological meltdown. Once Downton opens its doors as a convalescent home, muddling the way the household has run for generations, everything else begins to fog up and melt down. Servants flirt with officers and curl their hair, while Sybil and Edith have become loyal footwomen to the sick. Branson stages a ink-and-oil rebellion, while Lord Grantham struggles to find a quiet place in his own manse to read the newspaper. The scars of battle are front and center in daily life, and there is not a single person in the house who does not walk wounded through its halls.
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One such wounded soul is Lady Mary, who has become the undoubted emotional core of the series. For the first time, Mary admits out loud to her grandmother that losing Matthew was a heartbreak. That she says this while planning to stay mum about Lavinia’s spy games and sacrifice her own prospects with Matthew yet again shows just how far writer Julian Fellowes and Michelle Dockery have managed to take her character since the beginning of the show. Mary’s war wound is her newfound empathy; something has blown a hole open in her heart. She hears the Dowager and Rosamund’s meddling (speaking of: the apple did not fall far from the tree where Rosamund is concerned. Together mother and daughter make a formidable coven), but cannot follow through with the reputation hit-job she might have found compelling just a year or two before. It’s as if Mary sees how much destruction she has already caused in others’ lives (not to forget: she sabotaged her sister’s chance at marriage and refused Matthew when the entail was unclear), and now — with more pressing concerns in the world — just wants to do her small part to correct it. Sybil may be the nurse, but as Mary says, “We can’t leave all the moral high ground to Sybil. She might get lonely there.”
As Mary steps aside, the role of resident troublemaker is quickly snagged by other players from both above and below ground. On the main floor, Lady Crawley’s power-grabby ways have made life unbearable, especially for poor Cora, who is just trying to find a place to sit, bless her heart. Lady Dictator Isabel has taken the liberties of drawing up “a chart” for how the servants should service her precious hospital — and if there is one quick way to rankle everyone in the Downton universe, it is to usurp the basic organization of the help. If you leapfrog over Carson and Hughes, it’s equivalent to smacking the lady of the house with a wet towel, and you will get a talking to. Fortunately, O’Brien is Cora’s unlikely savior in the battle, explaining to Thomas that she has her reasons for wanting to protect her ladyship (the reason being that she feels like a child murderer, but that’s her little secret). So she schemes the already cocky Corporal Barrow into a role as house manager, bumping up his title to Sergeant (ahem, acting sergeant), and making him almost as smug as Lady Crawley. Apparently, it is impossible to run the Downton Center For Ping Pong and Healing without bearing a priggish grin of accomplishment.
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Below deck, the antagonist is no longer smarmy Thomas or sneaky O’Brien, or even entitled Ethel, who is preoccupied this episode with wooing a wounded officer with a slimy mustache and the eyes of a man who will bolt the moment his stitches are out. Instead, the cause is taken up by Branson, that Sybil-loving, Union Jack-hating, son of the revolution. After explaining to his nurse crush that British soldiers murdered his cousin back in Ireland, his burning hatred of the upper crust makes a bit more sense. He spouts the glories of Lenin and, after he is rejected for service and therefore unable to make a big scene about not going to war, decides to serve a visiting General a toxic concoction of kitchen dregs. Thanks to a dropped note and a clever Anna, the staff rallies to prevent Branson’s treason, a thing I’d happily watch if only to see Carson finally bring the pain to one of his own.
Meanwhile, in the land of love, most of the action is also happening downstairs. Ms. Patmore proves to be a better yente than she is a cook, pushing Daisy headfirst into an engagement with William that seems destined to end in disaster. When your only hope for redeeming yourself in a love affair is if your fiance dies in a dirty trench somewhere, things have started off on the wrong foot. As for the Bates/Anna saga, Anna found her limpy paramour serving ale at a local pub, thanks to the wily ways of Sir Richard Carlisle and his crack news team (spoiler alert: methinks Carlisle being a media man will complicate Mary’s dirty past soon enough). Anna is so desperate at this point for a little action that she offers to be Bates’ piece on the side. As thrilling as it is to see Anna offer herself up for societal shame in exchange for one-on-one Mr. Bates time, even Bates knows this is beneath her. A man can’t defile Anna Smith and live with himself.
Well, my dears, let’s raise a glass to another episode down, another million tiny dramas squeezed into a scant hour. And hell, let’s also raise a glass to Lady Edith and her health. She could use it.
In past lives, Rachel Syme has been Books Editor of NPR, Culture Editor of The Daily Beast, Entertainment Editor for the New York Post and a senior editor at Radar. She is currently at work on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years for Random House. You can find her on Twitter at @rachsyme.