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Downton Abbey Recap: Flu Season

Two weeks ago, when Downton bid good-bye to poor William, this recapper made the mistake of spending her one allowable Four Weddings and a Funeral reference per season on that deathbed marriage combo. How were we to know that four weddings — or at least three sets of wedding preparations and one actual ceremony — plus yet another funeral would present themselves on a silver platter in a single (two hour) episode? All season, we've been desperate for some sort of romantic development from really any of the couples on the show, and then boom, suddenly everyone is making out with everyone else and spreading the Spanish Flu like wildfire. Please don't misunderstand us — though we wish we'd saved the Hugh Grant jokes, this week's Love Jamboree is a welcome change. After last week's burn victim-amnesia fiasco, and after a season of whining and hand-wringing, Downton desperately needed to actually advance the story — any story. And it did. Everything happened this week — even Anna and Bates got some action. (Yes, in all meanings of the word. We're sorry for reminding you. So not the sex scene we wanted.)

To be fair, a totally objective breakdown of this episode would yield just as many absurdities as the Patrick Gordon hour — Matthew's sudden ability to walk, Lord Grantham's affair, multiple bedside vigils. Nothing was even in the neighborhood of subtle. But the show is finally back to the characters we care about — and finally shucking away, one by one, the many annoying personalities who got in their way — and we are entirely indulgent of Edwardian Absurdity when it involves Mary, Matthew, or any combination thereof. It's also a relief to say good-bye to World War I, a historical necessity for Downton but one that undermined its onscreen drama and infected the whole show with a melodramatic tedium. (Waiting for people to die: not so fun.) Some might argue that we've just arrived at the payoff, that the basic structure of television requires six hours of suspense before everyone finally gets their way. That's true, but so is the fact that Downton wasted much of this season on farfetched distractions (Mrs. Bates, Ethel, our Canadian Almasy) and pointlessly furrowed brows. Finally, we're rewarded with some scenes to invest in. This recapper even cheered a few times. It's been a while!

As mentioned above, we have a double-header this week, and there is so much of interest to address that we'll just chuck a couple plot lines to the side. Apologies to Thomas, but we were too busy thinking about his real-life Brooklyn Everyguy alter ego to even pay attention to the black market scheme. And congrats to Daisy for taking cake initiative. Mosley is a lightweight! Okay, see you three next week.

As for Ethel, we feel for her, because her baby is giant and her baby-daddy-in-law is a truly heinous person. Even Carlisle looks slightly taken aback by Mr. Bryant’s behavior during lunch (though he’s back to lecturing about legal ramifications by tea time. A very cold Mary is on his side on this one, which reminds us: These two really could be perfect for each other, in a Matthew-less world.) How Ethel will feed that rapidly growing child without grandparental support is unclear, but it’s a small comfort at least that Mrs. Hughes seems to side with Ethel and her decision to keep the child. Does this mean Ethel will come back to Downton for season three? Is Baby Charlie the new Downtstairs mascot? Will sad old Lord Grantham befriend him and teach him how to hunt and whatnot?

While we are on the subject of Lord Grantham, let’s go ahead and get the Jane affair out of the way now, since it's a dispiriting reminder of last week's All My Children-ish failures. If Downton were at all self-aware, this relationship could almost be a parody of all the many May-December master-servant dalliances that have crossed our various screens over the years. "Don't listen to me. I'm a foolish man who's lost his way and don't quite know how to find it again." Gross, and boilerplate Old White Guy lame. The actress who plays Jane is not helping the situation with her Confused Zombie Maid delivery, and we can all agree that she and Lord Grantham have negative, almost repellent chemistry. That dressing-room kiss is this week's Second Least Appealing Romantic Encounter of the Week. Thankfully, Jane is on her way — though does the bedside scene with Cora mean that she was hip to the affair? How can you even pick up on a connection that doesn't exist? One more note: Please, go back to Lord Grantham's solo breakfast scene and watch Jane's amazing slow creep into the dining room. That is how villains in Saturday Night Live sketches enter a scene. What on Earth? But also so, so amusing.

The week's Least Appealing Romantic Encounter award does in fact go to Anna and Bates, who finally managed to tie the knot and shack up in one of the Downton guest rooms for a night. Out of all the many couples to show naked (or at least, shirtless, which is enough), in bed, together, Julian Fellowes chose these two. Sorry! You can't unsee it! That awkward cuddling and hair-touching is a part of you now. Still, for all our griping, Anna won us back to Team Banna with her insistence on a wedding ("You can't deny me that." Aww.) and her general determination. It works for Joanne Froggatt — especially in contrast with Bates, who becomes more defeated and wooden by the hour. This murder trial is going to be a real snoozefest if he just stands there like Eeyore.

Moving along to the more palatable sexytime situations, we have Sybil and Branson, in a bedroom, alone! Never mind that Sybil is plainly using the poor lovesick chauffeur (yeah, we’ve changed our tune on Branson. Look at that puppy face!) to get the hell out of her rigorous dinner-dressing schedule. “My answer is that I’m ready to travel, and you’re my ticket.” Uh, that is not a rousing declaration of love, at all. And Branson laps it up! He is totally cool with being Sybil’s very short-sighted solution to late-onset teenage angst. Probably because it means that he gets to make out with her right there, in the garage, with full-hand-to-waist contact, and then elope three-ish days later. This is all fine, because it sets up Lady Mary and Edith’s midnight road trip (with Anna) to chase Sybil down. The Edith driving story pays off! Is it too late to make a two-hour spinoff of just this road trip? Downton Crossroads, anyone? Everything about the showdown is awesome, from Sybil’s very real attitude (Jessica Findlay Brown is dropping sass now), to the Edith-Mary alliance, to Mary’s nerves of steel. Who wouldn’t feel for Branson after the brush-off Mary gives him on her way out of the inn? She is all business. She is our hero.

To Findlay Brown’s credit, she maintains Sybil’s newfound zestiness for the entire episode, never backing down in the face of Lord Grantham’s yelling or Elizabeth McGovern’s frozen-glass stare. (It could be a Halloween mask, that stare. It doesn’t move.) The Ireland plan still sounds like a disaster — Sybil will wake up one morning surrounded by tiny babies and cabbage and political manifestos and want to scream — but at least the life is back in Sybil’s eyes. Also, when she’s in devil-may-care mode, the hair department is a little kinder to her braid situation, and she looks really, really pretty. She’ll wear the poverty well.

And so we are left with the Spanish Flu Triangle — plus Carlisle, who continues to orbit around them with a menacing swagger. To the savvy commenters who predicted the flu outbreak, and also noticed that Lavinia was not the sturdiest of women: Congrats, you nailed this one. But before we get to Lavinia’s death, hey! Matthew can walk again! For future reference, the best way to cure a spinal cord injury in 1918 England is to chuck tea trays at people’s heads, and then see whether they catch them. (Science does not totally support this.) We touched on the ridiculousness of this fix earlier, and it is very much a case of Downton just discarding a failed (stupid) plot line as soon as possible. Honestly, who cares. We lived through the burn victim, we can live through some bad science in the name of letting Matthew Crawley walk and have children. The penis is unbroken!

Who, then, is the lucky woman who will get to celebrate this reversal of fortune with New Matthew? For an uncomfortable ten minutes, Lavinia is back to fiancé status, prompting an endearing intervention on the part of the Dowager Countess. When Maggie Smith gets scenes like these, all is right in the world of Downton. We don’t believe for a second that Matthew wasn’t aware of Mary’s feelings — didn’t they just have this conversation in the garden — but Dan Stevens handles the revelation well, looking equal parts confused and indignant. He really is so charming when he’s Principled. He is also charming when he is totally ditching those principles and dancing with Mary and saying all kinds of inappropriate things to her while his mousy wife-to-be is upstairs dying from the Spanish Flu. Ohhh, that dancing scene. We have slogged through countless war stories and Cora-Isobel fights just for this, and it is so worth it. Even the Lavinia interruption is delicious, because girlfriend needs to get a clue, and how better than by seeing your fiancé and your way pretty rival making out in the Great Hall of the House That Will Never Be Yours? (Put that on a map.)

But back to the Spanish Flu. As with William before her, Lavinia’s death was almost pre-ordained — a plot device to be gotten rid of, with the historical excuse sitting in plain sight. What we didn’t see coming — and what was really a clever, infuriating twist on the part of Fellowes — was that she’d wise up Matthew’s true feelings, give him her blessing, and totally screw with his head in the process. How are we back to Season One? Matthew gives another desperate speech to Mary in some outdoor locale (in a graveyard, instead of at a garden party) and hope is lost all over again. Except that while Matthew had legitimate reasons to dump Mary in Season One, he’s just acting like a child here. “I believe she died of a broken heart because of that kiss, and we were the ones who killed her.” No. Stop it. Mourning period or not, this is insufferable! It’s not about you, Matthew, you’re not the one who died! You’re just the one who showed up to a funeral looking like the Blonde Vampire version of Edgar Allen Poe! What did you do to piss off the makeup department and the writers all at once, Dan Stevens? Can a man not have a functioning penis, a healthy complexion, and a sense of dignity all at the same time on this show?

Meanwhile, Michelle Dockery nails the funeral scene, the dancing scene, both death scenes, the Carlisle spy plot, Carson’s abandonment, the Ethel drawing room discussion, and the Sybil elopement, all in the same red evening dress (where is the striped dress from last year? How many times do we have to ask?). But our favorite Lady Mary moment of the night is undoubtedly the look of shocked, adorable joy on her face when watching Matthew stand on his own two feet. Watch it again, it’s wonderful. This show is nothing without Dockery, we tell you. Nothing! Please make her road trip spinoff happen already.

As always, we present you with the best of the Dowager Countess:

  • I’ll stick to the chaise lounge.
  • All this unbridled joy has given me quite an appetite.
  • I watched her the other night, at dinner, when you spoke of your engagement. She looked like Juliet, on awakening in the tomb.
  • Marriage is a long business. There’s no getting out of it for our kind of people.
  • I should steer clear of May. ‘Marry in May, rue the day.’
  • Branson: Your grandmother has as much right to know as anybody else.
    DC: Why don’t I find that reassuring?
  • DC: What does your mother make of this?
    Branson: if you must know, she thinks we’re very foolish.
    DC: Oh, so at least we have something in common.
  • Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.
  • Sybil, dear, this sort of thing is all very well in novels, but in reality, it can prove very uncomfortable. And while I am sure that Branson has many virtues. [Lord Grantham interrupts] No, no, he’s a very good driver.
  • Wasn’t there a masked ball in Paris where cholera broke out? Half the guests were dead before they left the ballroom.

One more insanely long episode! See you next week for Law and Order: Downton Abbey Unit.

Photo: Photographs by Nick Briggs. Tel:/