Two years have passed in the chronology of Downton Abbey since we last saw the Granthams. The Great War has started and the entire country is in upheaval. There’s comfort in the familiar, though. The Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) still knows how to phrase a snappy rejoinder, Thomas and Ms. O’Brien are still scheming, and a spot of tea still makes everybody feel better. England is most definitely still England, although there’s no doubt that things will be different once the war is over.
The series returns on a shot of the trenches, as if to remind us how war is the very opposite of Downton. Matthew (Dan Stevens), fighting in the trenches, clothed in military green and smeared with mud, remarks that his life back then “seemed like another world.” That other world is much more organized and well-kept, although they, too, are doing their part to help the war. The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is throwing a concert to raise funds for the hospital. Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) receives bad news at the breakfast table—one of her friends has been killed. She resolves to begin training to be a nurse and you just know that’s a plan that’s going to go over swimmingly. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is learning how to drive. William, the footmen, wants desperately to enlist. Carson is determined to keep up appearances despite the changing climate in the household, which is a very Carson thing to do.
Because a party planned by the upstairs folk is a party that’s organized by the downstairs crew, everything is all a bustle for the evening. There’s a new maid and she just doesn’t understand how things are run in the house. Her name is Ethel and when she talks back to Ms. O’Brien, the rest of the crew freaks out and is like, “Oh no you didn’t!” Rule number one is that you don’t smack talk Ms. O’Brien.
Cousin Isobel arrives to tell everyone that Matthew will be bringing his fiancée and everyone’s all, “OH SHOOT. Mary’s coming in tonight as well.” Thankfully, Matthew is driving and Mary is taking the train, which they all take as a real crisis averted. Mary (Michelle Dockery) steps off the train, a vision in burgundy, and runs into Mr. Bates, who’s returning from his mother’s funeral in London. Later on, Edith, Sybil, and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) are asking Mary about her travels away. Snot-nosed Edith spills the beans about Matthew’s engagement, which I can only imagine is like the modern-day equivalent of finding out on facebook that your ex-boyfriend is getting married. She tells the girls that she’s happy for him, but when they leave, Mary starts to cry into her hands, which seems to be a recurring theme for her. If she did have access to facebook, this is where she’s be flipping through his photo albums and trying to find pictures of the fiancée so she can judge exactly how much prettier she is than the other girl.
As it turns out, when she meets Lavinia Swire later that night, the answer to that question is that she’s a lot prettier. Listen, Lavinia, I’m sure you’re a nice girl, but based on that dress and the fact that you’re not a brunette, this isn’t going to work out. Matthew and Mary act super polite around each other, but there are a lot of meaningful glances across the table, if you know what I’m sayin’. Lavinia’s dad is a solicitor, just like Matthew, and Lady Violet remarks that she’s in good hands if she ever gets in trouble with the law. To make things even more awkward at the dinner table, Cousin Isobel tells Sybil that she has an available nursing course that opens that Friday. That gives Sybil only a matter of days to learn how to make tea and bake a cake, which you’d think wouldn’t be a big deal, except for Sybil, it kind of is.
Let’s discuss what’s going on with Mr. Bates. First, he shows up unexpectedly from London. He finds a dark corner to tell Anna that he’s getting a divorce, which is his backwards way of telling Anna that he wants to marry her and that he’s already talked to Lord Grantham about it. She’s miffed, obviously, but forgives him pretty quickly so that they can make out. Later, when they’re planning their future together, Anna says that this is the happiest she’s ever been. Not much later, the crazy manipulative Mrs. Bates shows up and steals him away and calls him "Bates-y" and I'm not sure which one of those annoys me more. Mrs. Bates threatens to blackmail the family by revealing what really happened between Mary and that Turkish diplomat. Wow, that storyline will not go away. I hope Mary learned her lesson because those are some pretty far-reaching consequences. This time, Mrs. Hughes finds out via eavesdropping and goes on to tell Carson because that is one juicy bit of upstairs gossip. Anyhow, Mrs. Bates and Mr. Bates take a very sudden leave because he’s so stupidly gallant that way. Judging by the way that Anna is staring out of that window, that moment marks the unhappiest that she’s been in her life. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions!
Lady Sybil is taking splendidly to being a nurse, just as we knew she would. She does have a moment with Branson before she leaves. He wants to marry her and promises to devote every waking moment to her happiness. Girl, you better not let that slip away! She says that she’s flattered and he counters that flattery is a word that posh people use before they say no. She doesn’t outright reject him, so I still have hope for those crazy kids. On the other end of the relationship spectrum, Lady Edith has taken a job as a tractor driver for a nice farming couple. She gets awfully friendly with Mr. Drake real fast and by the end of the episode, they’re sucking face in a wide-open barn. Mrs. Drake sees them from afar, on account of it being a wide-open barn and all, and promptly fires Edith to tell them that they’re hiring a man. Edith always did like older men.
As for Mary, she meets Matthew at the train to say goodbye. This time she’s wearing all red and I wonder exactly how many color-coordinated outfits she owns. She hands Matthew a tiny stuffed dog, her good luck charm, and tells Matthew to bring it back to her without a scratch. Back at the Abbey, she has a moment where Edith nearly catches her praying. She denies it, but once Edith leaves, it’s back to, “Are you there, God? It’s me, Mary.”Anything to bring her love back to her.
So Matthew goes back to war and leaves his picture of Lavinia in his bunker, but takes the lucky dog with him. The lawyer’s daughter hasn’t even got a fighting chance. Matthew runs into Thomas, of all people, in the trenches. They’re all, “Dude! What are you doing out here?” all the while people are getting their heads blown off around them. Just when you think the trenches are creepy enough, we visit the trenches at night when they are fifty times creepier. Thomas takes advantage of the dark and literally gets his hand shot off so he can be sent back to the hospital. Part of his reasoning for doing that is so he can escape the horrors of war, but I also believe it is due in part because he really, truly misses smoking in the back alley with Ms. O’Brien.
As the Countess herself says, “The war is reaching its fingers and scattering our chicks.” Here’s the thing about war—it impacts everybody. Ms. Patmore has a nephew that gets shot due to cowardice. I didn’t even know that was a thing! It sounds horrible. William gets called up and Daisy sends him off, even though she doesn’t love him the same way that he loves her. Mr. Lang, the replacement for Mr. Bates, suffers from PTSD to the point where he ruins a dinner party, which is completely unacceptable in this household. Even Lord Grantham feels like he can’t properly serve his country, as he acts as a military masthead stuffed into his old uniform. And Edith gets her dress ruined, all thanks to that nasty war.
Since Matthew’s found a replacement, Mary finds herself a go-to guy in the form of Richard Carlisle. He’s in the newspaper business and I want to go back in time and tell Mary that her future great-grandchildren will be much better provided for if she sticks with the lawyer. She gets some love advice from Carson, who’s recovering from not-a-heart-attack. He wisely urges her to tell Matthew what’s in her heart and that if she loves him, she should let him know. So she sets off to do just that, but gets intercepted by Lavinia Swire herself. It turns out that Lavinia really does love Matthew and for a brief second, I don’t hate Lavinia quite so much. Instead of a confession of love, Mary makes sure that Matthew and his fiancée are coming to dinner. While this sucks, it also shows a great deal of maturity on her part. It’s something that I don’t think the Mary of Season One would have been capable of doing. But then there’s the moment where she’s still considering marrying Richard Carlisle after his horrific proposal and I think to myself, “Ah, there’s the foolhardy Mary I know and love.” Thankfully, Anna’s there to remind Mary that when you love someone, you would do absolutely anything for them and that includes not marrying a skeevy old newspaper man. (Oh, and Lavinia and Richard Carlisle have some sort of history. What’s THAT about?)
Thomas and Sybil, an unlikely team if I ever saw one, join forces to convince the Granthams to use Downton as a convalescent home. (The catalyst was the recovery and shocking subsequent death of a blind patient that they were working with.) The Wonder Twins work their magic and Downton is soon full to the brim with casualties. Now there’s no denying that the war, great and terrible, has influenced every aspect of the Crawley family. Lord Grantham sums it up best when he proclaims that they will meet it with “as much grace as we can muster.” Uh, good luck with that, guys.
Sidebar: There are some of us who haven't watched the rest of the series, so if you do feel so inclined to discuss future events in the comments, please mark it as a spoiler. Thanks!