Click through for a look at some of the big moments from this episode, a few nitpicks and some speculation about the back half of the season. Feel free to chime in with any thoughts, observations, and things I might have left out in the comments!
Julian Fellowes managed to cram a ridiculous amount of events into this episode! We get love, war, death, weddings, children, scheming, blackmail and more, all in the space of an hour. Whew. So, we’ve a lot to talk about.
Wherein Matthew is Relentlessly Noble and Mary Grows Up. Matthew is injured by an explosion during a battle, is paralyzed and basically it's looking likely that he won’t ever walk again or have children. Matthew, being British, responds to this by immediately entering Extreme Stoic Mode and pushing everyone away and telling fiancée Lavinia that he has to end their engagement for her own good. Dan Stevens get to do some seriously excellent acting for perhaps the first time since this series started, and I continue to realize that Lavinia is not the horrible character I want her to be. She’s extremely sympathetic here, and she’s right, and it’s easy to believe that she does really love Matthew and would stay with him no matter what. Meanwhile, Mary is busy becoming a kind of incredible person in the wake of Matthew’s injury. While we get several brief glimpses of her falling apart bit by bit internally - the shot of her walking away from Matthew’s beside after the paralysis diagnosis was just devastating – but she holds it together in front of Matthew, in front of her father, in front of her sister, and in front of Lavinia. She’s helpful and supportive and just generally awesome, and it’s hard to believe this is Ms. Self-Absorption from Series 1. (Okay, I can hear someone out there making the argument that she wouldn’t – and hasn’t been – doing this if it weren’t Matthew, and I imagine that’s true, but I’m willing to take my character development where I can get it.)
Vera Bates is So Awful! (Plus, Your Weekly Anna and Bates Enthusiasm!) So, O’Brien is absolutely not the most evil character in the Downton universe by a good country mile. Obviously, this character only exists to serve as a roadblock to Anna and Bates’ happiness, but honestly, she has not one redeeming quality about her in ANY way. She seems to exist just to basically sweep around like Cruella De Ville, cackle ominously, and threaten everyone. How in the world did charming, sweet, loyal Bates ever end up with a woman like this in the first place? How? Anna and Bates were completely adorable in their trip to church together, but I do hope that random throwaway comment that Anna “should have had a church wedding” doesn’t mean that they’ve gone and tied the knot off-screen, because I will cry.
Well Played, Sir Richard. Credit where it’s due: watching Richard Carlisle completely set up, silence the threat of, and gloat over Vera Bates was fantastic. And while I liked some aspects of his conversation with Mary -I think it would actually be important for their relationship to be on a bit more equal footing if it’s to be successful – his veiled threats and scornful tone toward her while she’s basically humbling herself in front of him and asking or help are troublesome, to say the least. Additionally, Richard’s sudden decision to run an engagement announcement after waiting what appears to be almost two years (ugh the wonky timeline!) to do so seems even more calculating than it might otherwise appear, and it’s clear that making their engagement official is the real price of his managing to silence Vera.
Welcome to the First Time I Have *Ever* Liked Thomas. When Thomas was arguing in favor of William being allowed to come to the hospital at Downton, insisting that they’re both working-class lads and that he thinks it’s unfair that he’s being kept out because it’s supposed to be officers only. I don’t quite to know what to do with that feeling, it seems as though up is down. (And let me just insert here yet again how impressed I am with the rehabilitation of O’Brien’s character this season as well, for the most part. Well done, show! They’re both awful, but not completely irredeemable and that’s coming such a long way.)
The Ethel Situation, or, My Ongoing Problems with the Time Jumping. It’s odd, the second series of Downton primarily drew criticism among UK viewers for some of its super-soapy plot twists, but the only thing that’s bothering me consistently this season is the pacing, in large part due to the continuing, rarely explained time jumping. While it makes sense for some situations – and Ethel’s pregnancy is one of them, actually, we don’t necessarily need to see her struggle through nine months of trying to hide her condition and deal with the immediate survival problems. For that storyline it is more interesting for things to move forward more quickly. But the problem comes in when other storylines also forced to jump forward, and we miss out on some of the smaller details and character moments that would be nice – and sometimes necessary – to see. (Plots that are worst impacted: I’m thinking specifically of Sybil and Branson’s relationship, and Mary and Sir Richard’s apparent endless yet-still unannounced engagement as pertains to this particular episode, but there are probably others I’m missing.)
Anyway, back to Ethel - who now has a baby that she can barely support, whose father refuses to answer her letters or acknowledge the existence of their child. It’s a sad sort of comedown for the character who was so insistent that she was going to live a different kind of life and who wouldn’t end up on the paths so common to women of her time period. It’s the first time I’ve ever actually felt any sympathy for Ethel, whose life has turned out so differently than she’d dreamed of and who now is dependent on the kindness of a woman that she wasn’t exactly always even polite to in the past. Also, Major Bryant is a total jerk. Would there not have been any sort of systems in place to at least get him to do his duty by the child? (My knowledge of this era of history is woefully skimpy, so perhaps there wasn’t? Anyone reading an expert on this time period that could fill us in?)
Branson Was Less Creepy This Week, But Still Too Creepy For My Liking. Branson was less of an overt jerk this week, but his treatment of Sybil still annoys. It was a relief to see Sybil be a bit more proactive about responding to some of Branson’s ridiculous pronouncements, and I certainly hope that’s a trend that continues. If this storyline/relationship is going to work, they definitely need to be on a bit more equal footing, and that starts with Sybil consistently telling Branson to stop belittling everything she thinks and feels simply because she’s gentry. So, go Sybil! And Branson needs to stop making weird analogies where he sort of compares their making a hard choice to be in a relationship to the choice made by those that assassinated the Czar and his family in Russia. Because that is creepy and weird.
William and Daisy and My Buckets of Tears. Well, that was depressing. William proves that he is basically an incredible person by jumping in front of Matthew to shield him from an explosion and save his life. While Matthew sustains a grave injury, William is mortally wounded. And Daisy, who agreed to get engaged to William under pressure from Mrs. Padmore in the first place, is faced with an extremely difficult choice about whether she can live up to her promise during the worst possible circumstances. Though Daisy does seem torn about what to do for much of the episode, she decides to put aside her moral concerns to make William happy in his last moments and marries him in a bedside wedding that leaves even Carson in tears. So don’t feel bad if you cried too. Carson crying is enough to make anyone a mess. My personal interpretation here – or rather the one that makes me feel best anyway – is that Daisy finally realized that she really cared for William (why else would she get the “goose stepped on her grave” feeling when he was shot?) and simply took quite a while to realize it or, rather, to realize that her naïve view of what love is supposed to be like was untrue. It seems, to me, that Daisy does a terrible amount of growing up in the scenes surrounding their wedding, and I’d like to hope (possibly because I’m such a softie) that there was at least some genuine feeling there at the end, as evidenced by her insistence to Mrs. Padmore that she wouldn’t leave his bedside.
Absence Apparently Does Make the Heart Grow Fonder. As much as I was relieved to take a little bit of a break from Isobel after her relentless power tripping battles with Cora, I was surprised by how emotionally affecting her brief appearance at Matthew’s bedside turned out to be. It’s a lot to do with some great, understated acting from both Dan Stevens and Penelope Wilton – when Matthew’s face just collapsed at the sight of his mother, my heart just hurt. It was very sweet and realistic and you end up wanting to hug both of them. And maybe do a little more crying.
Why I Love the Dowager Countess. Though the scene in which the Dowager attempts to use that new-fangled telephone devices to hilarious results was absolutely marvelous, but it was not even her finest moment of the episode. It was pretty hard not to cheer for her when she was fighting so hard for the Mason family, and informing the vicar about precisely why he would be marrying William and Daisy and why she would be attending their wedding. I adore her.
But, just for the record, if we could have an entire spinoff series called The Dowager Countess Calls People, I would be first in line to watch that every day forever. Just in case you’re listening, Julian Fellowes.