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Downton Abbey Premiere Recap: Love During Wartime

The magic of Downton Abbey's first season — besides the house, and the Edwardian chic, and of course Dame Maggie Smith's acid one-liners — was that unlike most other costume dramas, you watched an episode without any clue about what might happen. With Austen or Merchant Ivory drama, we've usually already read the book, and if not, we assume that duty and love will prevail (and then everyone will dress for dinner.) But on Downton, there were actual surprises — delicious, soapy, "Turkish diplomat dying in someone's bed" surprises. Sometimes a war even pops up to ruin a garden party. If you have "somehow" already seen Downton's second season, which originally aired in the UK last fall, you will be aware that this second season stays very committed to high drama: if you, the responsible television viewer, are starting fresh with PBS, you will perhaps have read that things get a little nuts this season. Vulture will be recapping the show along with the Masterpiece schedule, and so we won't spoil the twists ahead of time, except to say, get ready, because so much crazy stuff is about to go down, you won't even remember that time Lady Edith called Lady Mary a slut in the hallway.

"So much crazy stuff" is also an apt description of the season's first episode, which, at a running length of two hours, offers an overwhelming amount of exposition and romantic developments to cry over. Julian Fellowes: wasting no time in screwing up everyone's love life. Amy Heckerling thanks you, Sir Julian! And the rest of us are sitting over here in agony, wondering why in God's name Matthew couldn't use his two years in the trenches to realize that he really loves Lady Mary and should just get over himself already, because there's a freaking war going on. But we're ahead of ourselves; we'll get to the heartbreak soon enough. First, a quick roll call of all the major character developments, because there are so very many.

When we last left Downton, Lord Grantham was announcing the start of World War I to the guests assembled at his garden party; season two begins in 1916, at The Somme, where a very grimy Matthew Crawley is trying to navigate his way through an onslaught of enemy fire. Since it is the first minute of the second season, and losing Matthew Crawley at this point would be a bummer from a plot perspective, he does, in fact, make it into the bunker, where he announces that he's up for a few days leave. Where will he go? Oh, you can probably guess. [Roll titles.]

The scene at Downton is majorly hectic, as Cousin Isobel has apparently convinced the Granthams to host a charity concert to raise money for the local hospital. Everyone is helping, and they all have very useful personal information to share while hanging banners or moving chairs or staging an attack on truly hideous floral arrangements. (Never change, Dowager Countess.) In brief, we learn that Anna and Bates are still in love, but Bates is MIA because his mother died. Ethel, a salty new maid, has been pulled in to replace Gwen, who went to be a secretary; Thomas peaced out to join the military health corps (and avoid theft charges). O'Brien is still around, smoking and looking mean, as are Carson, Mrs. Hughes, William, Daisy, Mrs. Padmore, and Branson the chauffeur, who has the unenviable task of having to teach Lady Edith to drive, and therefore having to be inside a car with Lady Edith.

Upstairs, Lord Grantham is bummed that he can't really be in the army, so he's dressing like it, instead. Cora, for her part, is supporting the troops by getting out of bed for breakfast. Sibyl has apparently been getting a lot of bad news from the front, and wants to do something more, so she asks Isobel about training to be a nurse; the increasingly pushy Isobel agrees to help her and suggests that she start by learning some basic kitchen skills. Edith is still at home and is still hateful; it's not immediately clear where Mary is, but this becomes less worrying when the Dowager Countess shows up to help with the fundraiser and starts doubting Cora's ability with the flowers. ("Cora's flowers always look more suited to a first Communion in Southern Italy." To be fair, the sea green hydrangea situation going on in the library is actually very ugly.)

And with that, we are eight minutes into the season. Good lord. As mentioned before, so much happens in this episode that it seems fairly impossible, or at least wildly masochistic, to try to rehash it in chronological order. So we'll divide it up like the Granthams before us, breaking down the Downstairs drama and the Upstairs drama separately (though the stories often meet during the dressing hour. It's not a perfect system, but then, neither was the whole landed gentry/life of service thing. We will do our best.)

Downstairs, the major concern is the love affair between saintly Anna and still-married Bates. Bates returns from London to announce that his mother has left him a decent chunk of money--enough, he thinks, to finally convince his missing wife to consent to a divorce. He tells Anna as much, which is fairly unromantic as far as proposals go, but she doesn't care, because she is bright-eyed and pure of heart, and so she says yes. Great! Cue Bates' wife, who shows up almost immediately to ruin everyone's plan. Not only is Vera Bates a spoil sport, but as played by Maria Doyle Kennedy, she is almost laughably evil: the wild horse-y eye-rolls, the maniacal laugh, that frumpy hat? Okay, crazy cartoon lady. The walking plot device wants Bates and his money back, and so she blackmails him with the worst-kept secret in 1910s London: Lady Mary's pre-marital dalliance with the devastatingly handsome (and now unfortunately dead) Mr. Pamuk. Not only would the scandal disgrace the Granthams, but Anna, too--Vera knows that she helped carry the body--and so Bates agrees to leave Downton, in order to protect his lady love. He of course plays the hero, refusing to tell Anna just why he's ditching her, and she of course suspects that he's being noble, and everyone cries in the courtyard. Then Bates disappears for the rest of the episode, which is maybe more distressing than the fact that he and Anna have to deal with a psycho who looks like the evil twin of Kathy Bates' Titanic character.

The other major downstairs drama involves William, who, having never seen a television show, is blithely unaware that the sweet, dopey guy is always the one who gets killed off during sweeps, and so he's very anxious to join up with the army. William! No. You have had "death at Verdun" written across your forehead since the Archduke got assassinated back in season one. Mrs. Patmore at least seems aware of this fact, and harangues him about his misguided sense of duty, but William's having none of it. Things get worse when some old-school Code PINK types bust up the charity concert and hand him a white "coward" feather. Clueless Daisy tries to cheer him up by kissing him in the kitchen, but when William finally does get called up, he thinks she actually "fancies" him, and so he saunters into the kitchen in uniform asking for a picture to take with him. William with Swagger is hugely entertaining ("Pinch me, I'm your dream come true"), but Daisy immediately freaks out, telling Mrs. Patmore she didn't mean it like that, and she definitely doesn't want to be his sweetheart. Oh Daisy, too late, says Mrs. Patmore and everyone who has ever been in junior high.

The rest of our friends in the servants quarters are busy trying to keep Downton running despite the reduced staff.  Carson, in particular, is super uptight and keeps bitching about not having enough footmen to serve a proper dinner. He gets so wound up that he has a panic attack mid-service--he's fine!--but he lands in bed for the duration of the episode. Mrs. Hughes, awesomely, spends her time telling Carson to chill out and eavesdropping on the conversation between Bates and Vera, then spreading the gossip far and wide so that everyone knows wonderful Bates is. Ethel, the new maid, is a pill, inspiring O'Brien to haze her by sending her unannounced into the drawing room after dinner. (Frankly, Ethel deserves it.) O'Brien also helps engineer Thomas's return to Downton, as a staffer at the hospital, but Thomas has to pull an Owen Meany to land the reassignment. Meanwhile, Lang, the new valet to Lord Grantham, has a major PTSD breakdown and gives O'Brien the opportunity to actually have a heart, when she confronts him about his shellshock. Is it possible that O'Brien will not be the most hateful Downton Abbey employee in season two? Only Ethel can know for sure!

Upstairs, the war is ruining everyone's good time, but to the credit of the Granthams, they are all eager to actually do something to help, rather than just canceling their hunting season. Lord Grantham is delighted to be offered a position in the army, then devastated when he learns it's only an honorary title; he tells anyone who will listen (William, Cora, even Matthew) that he feels like a fool sitting around at Downton. Cousin Isobel remains hugely committed to (and slightly obnoxious about) her work at the local hospital, but as mentioned before, she's now joined by Thomas and new nurse Sybil.

That's right: new nurse Sybil! The youngest Grantham has ditched her harem pants and is now the village Clara Barton. To become a nurse, Sybil naturally had to go to training school, which sets up two of the most delightful scenes from this episode: Sybil, learning how to make tea ("Everyone knows how to fill a kettle"), and Sybil, getting dropped off at school by Branson, who totally confesses that he's in love with her! He plays it with equal parts agony and authority, which is a pretty genius strategy: how could a politically-conscious third daughter resist an over-confident Irish radical who also wants to make out with her? Change the social order by marrying me. Too smart. Sybil says no for the moment, but she promises not to give him away, and then she stares at him like she just realized that he's a boy and she's a girl and this is a thing that could happen. (Really, Sybil, how did you not see that one coming? Has Mary taught you nothing?)

Speaking of Lady Mary, it is time to address the hellscape that is her current love life. It pains us to even type the words, but we understand how storytelling works, sort of, and so it had to be expected: Matthew is engaged. To someone else. Fine, now you know. The woman in question is named Lavinia Swire, and she is, in the words of Carson, "not to be found in Burke's Peerage, or even Burke's Landed Gentry." Edith, ever the shrew, drops the fiance bomb on an unsuspecting Lady Mary, but Mary plays it cool, announcing instead that she also has a new romantic interest: Sir Richard Carlisle, a newspaper magnate. And here are our ill-advised parallel love stories for the season: Matthew and his mousey Lavinia vs. Mary and the vulgar Carlisle. Both parties are invited to Downton, so that Mary and Matthew can peacock around announcing how happy they are for the other couple. Soon we learn that Lavinia and Carlisle actually know each other already, and have reason to be bickering in the garden. (Did they have an affair? Please say they had an affair. And are still in love. And are going to run off together and not bother us with this competing engagement nonsense anymore.)

The situation looks bleak, especially for Mary, who is quite obviously still in love with Matthew and admits as much in private to Anna and Carson. (Carson, adorably, tells her that no man would ever reasonably choose Miss Swire over Lady Mary.) But since it is wartime, and because beneath that icy exterior Lady Mary has feelings to rival Adele's, she can't totally suppress her desperation, and so we are treated to two heartbreaking encounters between Mary and Matthew. The second, in which Mary prepares to confess her feelings for Matthew, only to meet a weepy Lavinia and chicken out, is a triumph of sad-eye-acting.  But we'd like to focus on the goodbye at the train station, which channels Brief Encounter and is a reliable litmus test of whether or not you have a functioning heart. (If you are crying: yes. If you are dry-eyed: no.) Mary hands Matthew her good luck charm--a stuffed donkey, it looks like--and tells him, while barely keeping it together, that he "must promise to bring it back without a scratch." Matthew tears up, and tells Mary how glad he is that they've made peace. He asks her to take care of his mother and Lavinia should the worst happen.  At this point even the steely Mary starts to crack, and there's legitimate terror in her eyes as she kisses him goodbye. Michelle Dockery kills this scene, cloche hat and all, and it would almost be painful to watch, if it weren't so excruciatingly wonderful. (Watch it again! It's so great.) But can we stand a whole season of train station goodbyes? Can the human heart bear so much longing? We sincerely hope it doesn't have to.

The B-side upstairs drama involves Lady Edith getting it on with a married farmer, and then being dumped by a married farmer, which, congrats to her, we guess. (Congrats also to Lady Mary for getting to say the line, “She’s found her metier; farm laboring.”) Isobel and the Dowager Countess have a standoff over military deferrals, and nobody comes out a winner--especially not Molesley, who begs Dr. Clarkson to spare him from service, even after the Dowager Countess’s shady letter-writing campaign has been revealed. Meanwhile, Lord Grantham goes ballistic at Bates for quitting without an explanation, then is chastened when Carson informs him that Bates was falling on his sword for the family. (Mrs. Hughes’s eavesdropping at work!) Carson refuses to explain why exactly the family would be shamed, but Lord Grantham is that much closer to learning about the time that a Turkish guy died while taking his daughter’s virginity. That should go well.

Two more plot-relevant details: Carlisle does, in fact, propose to Mary, in a depressing reprisal of train station goodbyes, and Mary announces to Anna that she plans to accept him. On the home front, Sybil and Isobel join forces to demand that Downton be turned into a convalescent home for the duration of the war. More gossipmongers and wounded soldiers, coming soon to a landed estate near you!

Finally, a round-up of all the relevant Dowager Countess quotables from this episode, because we understand why you actually watch Downton Abbey:

  • ”War makes early risers of us all.”
  • ”Anna, help me do battle with this monstrosity. It looks like a creature from the Lost World."
  • ”Oh, that's a relief. I hate Greek drama, when everything happens off stage."
  • Dowager Countess: "So, that's Mary's replacement. Well, I suppose looks aren't everything."
    Cora: "I'm afraid meeting us all together must be very intimidating."
    Dowager Countess: "I do hope so."
  • in response to the news that Lavinia’s father is a lawyer, like Matthew: “My my, you're very well placed if you ever in trouble with the law."
  • "Remember your great aunt Roberta.  She loaded the guns at Lucknow."
  • ”Edith! You are a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall.”
  • "I am not a romantic, but even I will concede that the heart does not exist solely for the purpose of pumping blood."

See you next week, when hopefully Julian Fellowes will indulge at least a small amount of Greek drama.