SONIA BRAND-FISHER: Episode two of Masterpiece Classics’ “Downton Abbey” has begun to unearth both tension and hope that we will see unfold in this new season. Cora and Mrs. Crawley have begun shooting daggers from across the rooms that are left to their usage after Downton has gone through its full conversion into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Shadow figures of Mr. Bates tease Anna while she runs errands downtown, only to track him down and renew her own faith in their love. Lady Edith is the toast of Downton for her attention to the wounded soldiers. Engagements and curling irons and scandals and PTSD are thrown around the diegesis like scarves that float in the air and blur together in our memory. Though wonderfully extravagant in its romance and story line, I was overwhelmed by this episode that, for some reason, registered as trying to do too much in the span of fifty-three minutes.
One relationship, however, that seems to be growing in an interesting way is that between Lavinia and Mary. Both women are bound by their own scandals that involve love affairs with gentlemen in their pasts. These scandals have threatened to compromise their chances of marriage, ironically, to the same man: Matthew. Mary and Lavinia are trapped in a strange limbo; being young women primed for marriage who must actively work to conceal their secrets unites them on a level that makes it difficult for them to be true rivals. Mary’s hesitation to sabotage Lavinia speaks to her own fears of being sabotaged herself by Lady Edith in the previous season.
The heartbreaking tension of the forced engagement between Daisy and William couldn’t have sat more awkwardly with the audience if they had tried. Daisy’s ambivalence in her decision truly had us shifting in her seats, but it was William’s pride in his announcement of the engagement to the staff that made me have to look away. With the war on, William is rushing into this marriage so that he can have a wife’s support with him on the battlefield. The role of a wife would drown the youthful Daisy, just as William looks so much younger when he’s in uniform than when in his footman’s livery. This ill-conceived marriage looks as if it will be heading for tragedy, with the blood on Mrs. Patmore’s hands.
Re-affirming the Bates and Anna love story is much appreciated amidst the grimness on Downton’s property. However, the cryptic setting of The Red Lion Inn where Bates is working as a bar tender seems to foreshadow the potential of more broken promises to Anna. Her tentativeness in this scene is the same tentativeness that we saw her with last season, when her feelings for Bates were first surfacing. Anna is holding back, not wanting to get hurt again, as Bates continues to make her more glimmering promises of a future together. There is something about Bates’s face that makes one automatically want to trust him, no matter the consequences, and no matter how long one would have to wait. Anna’s devotion does not have the sickening twinge of naiveté, and her heart can only be broken so many times.
Matthew’s surprise visits are getting a little silly. One moment he’s on the battlefield with not so much as a few bits of Eliza Doolittle dirt-blush and the next minute he’s in his lovely red jacket at Downton Abbey. How is he able to get so much time off? He must be a really bad solider to be able to bop over to Downton whenever he pleases. Having a hard time believing his character this season, but not enough to warrant more than a quick kvetch.
ZOË RICE: Like Sonia, I felt that the second episode of Downton rushed to fit too much into its designated time slot. Any TV program – but especially one that sets up numerous suspenseful plot threads – will jockey with the problem of pacing. Too slow and viewers complain that nothing happens, but too fast and what does happen feels either disingenuous or somewhat unsatisfying, as if we didn’t earn it. For me, the reveal of Lavinia’s deep dark secret fell into the latter category. What’s the rush, Downton? Just when we find out she has a juicy little secret, we get to see its reveal? And further, it turns out its reveal isn’t all that shocking. Okay, one plot point down, about twenty to go.
In the hands of a lesser series, Episode Two might have unfolded like a to-do list: Lang and shell shock, check (and done?). Convalescent home, check. Daisy from sweetheart to fiancee, check, Branson acting out all leftist-like, check. Mr. Bates – divorce is coming after all!, check. Thomas back at Downton and with power to boot, check. Lavinia’s secret’s out, check. And so in this episode, some of the shining moments came during the quieter times. Lady Mary has grown and learned from her past mistakes, we see, and she’s no longer willing to go along with her family if she feels it’s not right. Lady Edith is coming into her own as well, generously helping the wounded soldiers and genuinely caring for them, and it’s nice to see her get some recognition; perhaps her most spiteful days are behind her as well. More overtly, Cousin Isabel and Lady Grantham seem destined for quite a bout of warfare over the dealings of Downton. Toss in some Thomas for seasoning, and it’s possible Downton won’t be such a peaceful place to convalesce after all.
Which brings me to one vital question: The exterior shots of Downton are palatial. Literally. There must be more rooms in that house than on my entire Manhattan block. I find it hard to believe that the family can’t keep their dining and sitting room as well as their bedrooms. Is there really not enough space? And as Sonia remarked, it’s true – for a World War I soldier, Captain Crawley sure gets a lot of time at home. Of course I’ll be glad for it if they can keep some kind of triangle moving forward between Mary, Lavinia, and Matthew (which would be difficult without him there), but the plot line does lose some authenticity for the sake of it.
Finally, with all the rush to swiftly move its various plot points around, the dialogue might be losing some of its subtlety and archness (with the exception of Maggie Smith’s perhaps). “The world was in a dream before the war,” Lord Grantham exclaims. “But now it’s woken up and said goodbye to it. And so must we.” I prefer Downton when it’s less maudlin, more subtle, and as keenly attuned to its characters’ inner lives as their dramatic outer ones.
I’ll hope Episode 3 takes a bit of a breather and turns the spotlight further inward.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I largely agree with Sonia and Zoë, but allow me to spotlight a plot point that really didn’t work for me: Thomas, back to run the house?
Sorry, but the part where Carson and Lord Grantham agree that Cora must not know- how does that make any sense? Is Cora too close to Thomas? No. Would she tolerate a thief in the house? Of course not. And would Lord Grantham, simply to spare his wife from learning something odious about someone she isn’t particularly close to? Obviously not. It really stood out for me.
As for Daisy and William, I hope it doesn’t happen. William can so obviously do better, and I don’t begin to understand what Daisy is waiting for. She was keen on Thomas- not very good judgment, Daisy.
To be frank, I’m willing to suspend disbelief on Matthew, since his scenes with Mary and Lavinia are some of the best drama in the show. Also, I really liked that Lord Grantham line near the end, Zoë. My issue with Lord Grantham is a man who last week desired nothing more than to sacrifice his life for his country is suddenly put off by some noise while he reads the paper? Does not compute.
Bates and Anna together does, and foreshadows a showdown with Bates’ first wife. That should be excellent. Overall, I think they’ll take a more leisurely pace, now that the drama has been properly set. That is the hope, anyway. We don’t watch Downton Abbey to rush through it. We aim to luxuriate in it. I, for one, am happy it was already 1917, and the war is almost over.