Downton Discussion: What You Need to Know About Episode 2

The second series of Downton Abbey continues! In the season’s second episode, the main plots revolving around the war didn’t advance very far, but we got lots of smaller character moments to make up for it.

We continue to see how the war is affecting everyday life at Downton, as well as impacting those who live there. Click through for a look at some of the big moments from this week’s episode, and share your thoughts in the comments!

Some of the big takeaways from this episode:

Sympathy for the Devil(s). It’s a bit surprising to actually write this, but well deserved kudos to all involved in writing Downton for managing to make Edith legitimately sympathetic over the course of this season’s first three hours. Other than O’Brien (and more on that later), Edith was one of the most loathsome characters in the first season, and I would have lain generous odds that there would be little chance that that could change. Impossible, actually, might have been a word I would have used. However, that assumption has thus far been proven incorrect. The war seems to have given Edith a purpose and her interactions with the soldiers are surprisingly sweet and understated.

Her comment about the soldiers, that “they aren’t strangers to [her],” is oddly touching – who knew Edith had such kindness in her, after the way she treated everyone last season? Has the war made her self-aware at last? Her constant aura of self pity certainly seems to have vanished as she undertakes menial tasks for no hope of personal gain (she’s not flirting like Ethel), but simply because she wants to help these men. Does she sympathize with the soldiers because they are in pain, because they fought for their country, or because she sees them as kindred spirits? (Edith, in her way, is more than a little broken herself.) It’s hard to tell. But seeing Edith praised by the General at dinner felt satisfying and deserved, rather than irritating, so we’ve clearly come a long way.

Cagematch: Isobel vs. Cora. With the conversion of Downton to a convalescent hospital, Isobel and Cora butt heads frequently about what the new world order in the house will look like. Isobel takes over many of the family rooms to house soldiers, decides what living areas the Crawleys are allowed to section off for personal use, attempts to rearrange the household duties of the Downton servants to suit her desires and just generally tries to boss everyone around.

I mentioned last week that Isobel Crawley was becoming an increasingly insufferable character, well, this week she certainly managed to amp that feeling up to eleven. Her character in the first series seemed someone who was well aware of how to behave in society – in fact she made a point of telling Matthew that she wanted to show the Crawleys that she understood how things should be properly done, precisely because she knew that the family would assume she didn’t. It’s unclear what happened to that previously astute lady – whether she’s simply let a little authority go to her head, whether she’s a bit too eager to show off her medical knowledge, or whether she’s taking advantage of the changing times of war to make a slightly bigger space for herself as a woman now that she’s been given a chance to do so. Whatever the reason, the character is becoming increasingly hard to tolerate, so here’s hoping either for more insight into Isobel’s motivation, or an exceptional verbal smackdown from someone (surely the Dowager will oblige with this at some point.)

From the Shallow End: The scene in which Lord and Lady Grantham look round the much-changed rooms of Downton, look at each other and then walk out to greet the arriving convalescent soldiers was beautifully shot.  In some ways it felt like we were walking out of Downton’s old world and into a new one (illustrated by the fact that we walk out of the house with Robert and Cora, but walk back in with Sybil in her nurse’s habit). Just lovely.

Thomas in Charge. Thomas returns to Downton as the manager of the new military convalescent center. This of course makes him even more stunningly obnoxious, if that’s possible, as he lords his new position over Mr. Carson and everyone else. It feels a bit odd to have him back again after he was thisclose to getting thrown out of the estate for his thieving ways last season, but, honestly Rob James-Collier is too good an actor to let go and it’s too much fun watching Thomas and Carson spar, so I’m mostly okay with it. Thomas and O’Brien’s strange friendship remains intriguing – and will likely to continue to get more so now that she seems to have found something like a conscience. I’d love to know why O’Brien’s so doggedly loyal to Thomas though – it can’t just be because she needs a smoking buddy. Are they secretly related? Are there romantic feelings on her part? Hmmm.

Speaking of: What’s Up with O’Brien? Much like the Edith turn-around, the Downton writers have also done an admirable job of rehabilitating former Queen of Evil O’Brien. Well, not entirely – she’s still a master schemer and her fondness for Thomas does not speak very well of her character, in my opinion, but her reawakened devotion to Lady Grantham is oddly sort of sweet. It’s clear that she feels somehow responsible for Cora and her happiness now after causing her miscarriage and is trying to make up for it in whatever small ways she can. She’s also shockingly (for her, at any rate) kind and understanding toward Mr. Lang. It’s an excellent move to at last give such a previously one-dimensional character more layers - for the first time I'm actually interested in learning more about what makes O'Brien tick, rather than hoping she gets run over by something.

The Confusing Mind of Lady Mary.  Is Mary finally growing up? She voluntarily helps Anna locate Mr. Bates by using her maybe/sort-of fiancée’s influential newspaper connections. She doesn’t rat out Lavinia’s secret past with said fiancée to Matthew, even though doing so would probably give her a shot at getting back the man she loves. Instead, she seems to genuinely wish happiness for Matthew in his new relationship (even if it breaks her heart). In almost every aspect this season, Mary is making difficult choices and facing them like an adult, not the petulant girl who behaved as though everyone should bend to her will from the simple joy of it last season. Yet, it also seems as though Mary’s experiences have also left her quite cynical – every time she talks about the possibility of marrying Sir Richard it seems awkward, and her insistence that she doesn’t care whether he’s a gentlemen or her obvious interest in his wealth and connections is uncomfortable. It appears losing Matthew has indeed taught Mary to be a better person in some ways, but not all. (Would she really be fine with marrying a blackmailer?) And I do wonder when she’s planning on asking her would-be fiancée about the story Lavinia told her.

The Daisy Situation. Mrs. Padmore basically forces Daisy into agreeing to marry William in order to make him feel better before he goes off to fight at the front. The cook even goes so far as to say that Daisy can “take back [her] promise” if she wants to when the war’s over (and presumably break William’s heart in the processes) but insists that she has to say yes. This strange, forced courtship feels exceptionally odd and, frankly, a bit wrong. Why Daisy is not allowed any agency to decide on her own whether or not she wants to marry someone is unclear - and more than a bit troubling - and Mrs. Padmore’s motivations are equally murky. Is it just because she’s fond of William? Is she trying to make up somehow for what happened to her nephew by giving a different boy her idea of something to live for? It will be interesting to see how this story develops – if Daisy will in fact figure out how to articulate the things she wants, or if she will decide that a life with William is something she’s interested in. I just hope we get to see her decide it. (Full disclosure: I think Daisy and William are kind of sweet, and wouldn’t mind seeing them work it out. But only if it’s because Daisy actually wants to. It’s hideously unfair otherwise.)

Anna Finds Bates! Personally, I’ve a bit of confusion about how much time has passed since Bates left Downton Abbey, but the two of them are so sweet together that I can’t be bothered to care that much. It’s lovely to see Anna attempting to take control of her future in some way on her own terms, even if that means ending up someone’s mistress (surely a choice she never would have thought she’d make before now). Though, really, someone needs to learn not to say things concerning how particularly perfectly happy they are at that moment or will be in the future/forever, because that never does anything but invite disaster.  So there’s something to look forward to for next week.

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