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Downton Abbey Recap: Waiting for the Worst

When Downton Abbey opened its doors as a convalescent home for wounded officers, World War I took its place center stage in the theatrics of Season Two. It was only a matter of time, then, until some of our local Downton heroes were swept up in the fray. The worst almost happens this week, and to the worst imaginable duo--the dashing Matthew Crawley and his guileless servant William, who are reported missing in action. While the house and the Matthew-worshipping audience prepare for the worst, the anxiety seeps through to every major plotline: Anna and Bates, who reunite in circumstances far too easy for the fix to be permanent; Sybil and Branson, whose forbidden love seems less like love and more like bullying; Thomas and O’Brien, who are back to their nefarious plotting. And don’t forget poor, predictably pregnant Ethel.)Bad, bad news is coming to the residents of Downton Abbey, and not even Matthew and William’s joyous mid-concert return can fully reassure us. Masterpiece is about to get real.

Before it does, though, let’s address the most positive development on this week episode: Ding, Dong, Cousin Isobel is gone, kicked to the curb (of France) by a pleasingly firm Cora, who is having none of her imperious “I’m a trained doctor-type” nonsense. Was Cousin Isobel this insufferable in Season One? She and the Dowager Countess had a few dust-ups, sure, but DC needed a little competition, if only to elevate her game. We’re dealing with a new, unforgivably shrill Isobel in this episode, and the overnight transformation doesn’t help her case. As in, Cora is totally within her rights, no one is on Isobel’s side, and thank God we don’t have to watch anymore of this nagging. Why even bother with a Cora-Isobel feud? It’s a one-sided fight, and it distracts from more pressing and believable issues--Thomas’s hospital machinations, Sybil and Edith’s turf war in the infirmary. And surely Elizabeth McGovern deserves much better material to work with. (See: her charming turn in the makeshift soup kitchen. That face she makes at Daisy! More of that!)

While we’re dealing with the Departed Nuisance List, let’s go ahead and address sad Ethel, who gets fired for sleeping with an officer and promptly turns up at the back door to announce her pregnancy. We will say this for Ethel: she should have known better. She was hugely annoying. She made us want to befriend O’Brien, braid the scary woman’s hair, and tell her all our secrets. But when Lady Mary chose to take a lover (and the guy died in her bed), the entire house save Edith rallied around her to prevent any social fallout. Certain overly noble characters are still sacrificing their life’s happiness to protect her. Ethel, meanwhile, ends up ruined, rejected and begging for help from the system she dared to question. Downton Abbey is obviously not the place to go for progressive social or gender politics, but the show is at least mildly interested in breaking down the upstairs-downstairs barriers, or forcing the landed gentry out of its chilly rituals. Maids become secretaries, valets become friends. (Chauffeurs become boyfriends? More on that in a minute.) Ethel’s situation seems more than a little harsh in this context, as if she’s taking the fall for a house full of impropriety.

But to the larger issues at hand: Bates has returned, thanks to one quick apology from Lord Grantham and the convenient revelation that Mrs. Bates has been making some extramarital friends. Both he and Anna seem convinced that this evidence can resolve the ex-wife situation, which, good grief, how delusional can two painfully nice people be? We half expected Maria Doyle Kennedy to storm the courtyard halfway through that last snuggle session, just to reward them for their optimism. Instead, when she didn’t show, we spent most of the scene trying to calculate exactly how many more separations can fit into four episodes, and how diminished the return will be with each twist. Bates and Anna are the moral center of the show, loyal and good, and testing them with cartoon evil misses the point of why their story worked in the first place. Their relationship’s appeal was its steadiness--a quiet love affair that balanced all the dead diplomats and torrid courtships upstairs. That’s lost now (or it will be, once Vera inevitably shows up to sabotage their reunion), and the characters suffer for it. They aren’t built for high drama.

Nor is Sybil, whose blank facial expressions (that scene in the garden with the voiceover? Yikes) become more troubling with every episode. If ever there were a time to emote, it would be when your chauffeur non-boyfriend is lecturing you about your life choices in the garage. That jab about Sybil’s work? His total contempt for her entire existence, basically? Irish radical or not, Branson needs to fall back. And Sybil, for her part, needs to stop confusing self-righteous soapboxing for noble protest (did anyone even tell her about the Soup Urn of Terror? What a jackass.). She’s clearly attracted to Branson’s swagger anyway--she gets unexpectedly fiery with Mary when confronted about the situation--and we know from her dinnertime whining that she’s tired of the Downton life. Still, is moving to a different island with a creepily controlling nutjob the best escape route? We can no longer support this dalliance.

Thankfully, the haughty Lady Mary is back to form this week and available to talk some sense into Sybil. It turns out we’d missed Mean Girl Mary, who has no time for stupid concerts and tosses off lines like “That is why one talks to chauffeurs, isn’t it? To plan journeys by road?” with a pleasing snottiness. Sniping at Edith? Check. Sneering at the servants? Check. She even talks back to the Dowager Countess, who has the audacity to bring up the Matthew situation. (“That’s done now, Granny.” Oh, sure.) Michelle Dockery is a pro at playing the Ice Queen, and we’re delighted to watch her steamroll through Downton again, her pride in tact. But she’s even better at showing the cracks in Mary’s composure, packing boatloads of emotion into a single side smile or eye twitch. (Michelle Dockery should open an acting school devoted exclusively to the Art of Eye-Widening, because she works that move like no one else on television, and it’s heartbreaking.) Dan Stevens briefly tries to steal the concert away from her with his “If You Were the Only Girl” solo, but it’s a futile effort: Dockery straight nails the scene, a mix of relief and longing and barely-keeping-it-together-ness that inspired similar emotions in this recapper. We could watch Mary gaze at him for hours. Maybe we did? She’s so insanely good! And she is so not going to marry Richard Carlisle, whatever she tells Matthew.

Checking in quickly with the B-plots: Daisy and William are still a cause for concern (war sure has made William confident, huh?), and O’Brien has run out of the magic potion that made her forgivable in last week’s episode. Or maybe Thomas has re-poisoned her? Whatever they’re planning, we want no part of, unless it’s another veterans’ Soup Kitchen, because how adorable was that? Well done, Cooks Patmore and Bird! If Matthew never speaks of Lavinia’s “charms” again, we’ll be the better for it (it’s gross just to type, really). And a slow clap to Dame Maggie Smith for her horrified reaction shot when the whole room began singing with Mary and Edith. The Dowager Countess’s best line was a GIF this week. Still, here are the rest, just for reference:

  • I’m a woman, Mary. I can be contrary as I choose.
  • Really, it’s like a living in a second rate hotel, where the guests keep arriving and no one seems to leave.
  • DC: Well, I need more than that to make me anxious.
    Lord Grantham: I’m glad you would be anxious.
    DC: Of course I would be. We’re used to Matthew now. God knows who the next heir will be. Probably a chimney sweep from Surrey Hill.