If you haven’t heard, World War I is really hot right now. In a full-page editorial in the Sunday New York Times, British novelist William Boyd (who also wrote and directed a movie called The Trench, so we can consider him an expert) notes the sudden WWI boom in pop culture, from Downton Abbey to War Horse to Tom Stoppard’s upcoming adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. Television and movies are newly dedicated to telling the stories of the Somme. Or in other words, things are getting loud on the Western Front.
Boyd’s main point is that WWI, while often overshadowed by the bigger, badder (as in twice as many dead) WWII, is the war that left the deepest scar on the British people. There was just so much death, he says, and gory death at that. In a single day of the Battle of the Somme, 60,000 British soldiers bit the dust — butchered in brutal ways by technology that they didn’t yet know how to combat. Tanks and howitzers and grenades and tear gas — these were not weapons that teenage boys from Yorkshire were prepared to survive. WWI wasn’t the largest war England ever fought in, but it was certainly the dirtiest.
Depressing, right? Fortunately, Julian Fellowes has found a way to force-feed us a cup of WWI history by sweetening it with sparkly Edwardian frocks and delicious infighting. Downton Abbey is not so much a history lesson as it is a (defiantly melodramatic) character study set in a historically significant time. Just as Mad Men oozes the swank vibe of the sixties without bashing viewers over the head with date markers, Downton Abbey attempts to be the kind of series in which we care more about the featured players than the events surrounding them. We are supposed to want to follow Matthew and Mary to outer space, if need be.
Though Fellowes and his cast halfway succeed at this — there are far more lingering shots of Bates and Anna (Banana?) then there ever are of soldiers at the front — the war cannot be denied and the show has been a bit clumsy about smashing all that reality into its impeccably tidy fantasy world. Clunky lines like “war makes early risers of us all” and “the world was in a dream before the war but now it’s woken up” were given the heavy responsibility of moving the plot forward and reminding us that yes, we are at war, and yes, people are getting blown up, and yes, the most important thing is probably not what happens to the entail. Even moving the wounded into Downton’s parlour couldn’t make the fighting seem tangible.
But now we get episode 3, the season’s most sobering installment, and so its most elegant in its handling of the war. This is a return to form for the show; the plot zooms along and everyone seems to grasp the gravity of the situation. And better yet, we get the broad, sweeping war drama without sacrificing the thing that Downton does best; stolen glances and petty asides.
Gravitas lands with a thud when Matthew and William, who have been buddied up in the field, go missing after heading out on patrol. The news makes its way like acid through the house, first to Lord Grantham and Lady Edith, who shines in her rare role as daddy’s hand to hold, and then to the staff, who worry on Daisy’s behalf about the safety of her fiance (meanwhile, Daisy can’t even bring herself to call William her “beau” in public. Her buyer’s remorse is heavier than a stack of firewood.) Mary is the last to find out, giving Michelle Dockery yet another stand-out scene for silent reaction. Mary has had to endure so much bad news when it comes to Matthew — he is engaged, he is in love with someone else, he might be dead — and each new piece of information fractures her heart just a bit more. She has become so numb to the bad news, it seems, that she is ready to accept the dreary security of a marriage with Sir Richard Carlisle, although even dear papa can see that a loveless union is a flawed plan.
With her own bloodless love life settled, Mary turns the little energy she has left into micromanaging Sybil’s affections. Until this episode, I found the Branson/Sybil plot tedious — why would she fall for a revolutionary imp with so little to offer? — but Sybil’s insistence on her right to co-mingle with the help leads us to believe that the romance will go somewhere. The plotline has all the classic Downton signs of swelling into a larger thing: 1) A panoramic shot of Sybil mulling over Branson’s sweet nothings with Downton in the foreground? Check. 2) A deep rebellious streak that cannot be tamed? Check. 3) The Dowager Countess piping in where she is not wanted, only to further fuel the flames of rebellion? Check! Sybil and Branson win the It’s Only A Matter of Time Award this week.
Sybil’s almost-love story is a good distraction, but the news of Matthew/William’s disappearance casts a dark shadow over the rest of the episode, and the entire house is on edge and ready to explode. There is no room for frivolity. Ethel, caught canoodling with her officer (Ms. Hughes understood, she wasn’t born in a sack, you know) has to pack her bags and get out, illegitimate pregnancy or not. Isobel, wrestling with Cora for power over the household, realizes she is fighting a losing battle and decides to ship herself to France. The look that Cora gives when she tells Isobel that leaving is her best option is so callous, I almost thought it came from O’Brien.
Speaking of Cora’s severe lady’s maid, she is back on team terror with Thomas, trying to start little fires all over the house. She squeals on Patmore and Ms. Bird’s underground soup kitchen effort (bravo to Cora for allowing it to continue), and taunts Daisy with the idea that William is, in fact, face down in a ditch somewhere. She also assures Thomas that their campaign against Bates is heating up again, as he is “more vulnerable” this time around. I swear, if that woman does anything to break up Banana after all the effort that has gone into getting them back under one roof, I’ve got a slippery piece of soap for her.
And as for Banana, Bates’ prodigal return was refreshingly anticlimactic in an episode devoted to understated drama. The scene between Bates and Grantham in the pub may be Hugh Bonneville’s finest — his monologue about losing Matthew (“I tell myself it’s too early to despair, but be honest, Bates, I don’t think I can bear it”) was heartbreaking to watch. The strong father figure of the house has finally crumbled, and he needs a friend to get him “through the veil of shadow.” He’s not as solid as we thought.
Bates returning as Grantham’s emotional rock feels correct; a valet in wartime should be more than just a cufflinks man. But it was no less agonizing to see Mosley’s dreams of becoming that cufflinks man crushed to pieces. Mosley is more of a type on this show than a fully-realized character, but he is an important type — the kind of man who believes that service really matters. He sees the glory in a shoehorn. Where Ethel waxes about getting out of the big house, he dreams of getting in. His inability to do so shows that wartime is not only hard on the soldiers, but for the men back home who feel impotent and ineffectual without a way to contribute.
All this despair culminates in one of the truly great payoffs of the series so far, the concert reunion of Mary and Matthew. Some of Downton’s other crescendos have felt unearned (ahem, Anna’s “I’ve never been happier scene,” I’m looking at you), but Mary and Matthew singing a somber duet in front of a crowd deserved every tear it wrung from my face. I can only hope the Crawley Sisters’ act will be more uplifting should they ever make it to vaudeville.
AND NOW, FOR SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS:
- Is it just me, or is Ms. Hughes finally getting her share of good lines? From her catty dismissal of Ethel to her tattling on Thomas “He’s getting grander than Lady Mary, and that’s saying something,” I’m starting to really like all the drama she’s getting into.
- Mrs. Patmore claims to have known William was still alive because she “felt it in her waters.” I’m not sure I want to know where Mrs. Patmore’s waters are.
- I’m starting the campaign now for a spinoff starring Mosley and Ms. Bird. We will call it Crawley House, and it will be the two of them running a soup kitchen for hilarious transients.
- No Lavinia this episode. Did you miss her? Me neither.
- And now, your roundup of the best Dowager one liners:
— “I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.”
— “It’s like living in a second rate hotel where the guests keep arriving and no one seems to leave.”
— “God knows who the next heir will be. Probably a chimney sweep.”
In past lives, Rachel Syme has been Books Editor of NPR and Culture Editor of The Daily Beast. She is currently at work on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years. You can find her on Twitter at @rachsyme.