Downton Abbey Recap: Atonement

In the first, mind-bogglingly dense two-hour episode of Downton Abbey, the Granthams — and the servants who love them — did their best to keep on keeping on, in spite of the war raging just across the Channel. Carson, the Vaudeville star-turned-stuffy butler, spoke for most everyone in the house (Sybil and William excepted) when he insisted that standards be kept high and maids kept out of the dining room. Love triangles were still everyone’s primary concern. But World War I can’t be sidelined forever, and it is the major character in this second episode, as Downton Abbey is turned into a convalescent home for wounded officers. Invalids in uniform are moved into spare bedrooms, the library is turned into a rec room, and every member of the household, upstairs and downstairs, is forced to confront some consequence of the war. It doesn’t make for the most romantic hour of television (almost zero Matthew and Mary alone time! Unacceptable), but then wartime requires sacrifices of us all.

The hospital transformation is great news for two previously loathed characters who get a chance to act like humans — sympathetic humans, even — in this week’s installment. Are you ready to forgive Lady Edith and O’Brien for their first season treachery? O’Brien, granted, has much bigger sins to atone for — Edith wrote a letter, while O’Brien, effectively, killed the Grantham’s unborn son with a bar of soap. But season two O’Brien has discovered a heretofore unknown capacity for guilt (Thomas’s bewilderment in the courtyard reflects our own) and her daily machinations have taken on the air of, dare we say, penance. Consider her dressing room scheme of the week, which is actually executed in the interest of protecting Lady Grantham, rather than tricking Lady Grantham into asking Lord Grantham for something that Thomas and O’Brien want. And she even sticks up for the crazy valet with PTSD! (Let us just note that, given poor Lang’s resemblance to Crispin Glover’s Thin Man from Charlie’s Angels, this is really an act of charity on the part of O’Brien.) Whether O’Briens do-gooding is enough to make up for her truly heinous actions depends in large part on whether you hold O’Brien or Julian Fellowes ultimately responsible for the SoapSlip Affair (Real talk: they were never going to make a show about the infant heir of Downton Abbey) and, more cravenly, how much you want to see Matthew Crawley take over the house. But O’Brien is trying, at least, and we find ourselves unexpectedly open to the effort.

The sour Edith, meanwhile, has made her way out of the farmhouse and into the infirmary. (For the record, since we’ve heard some confusion: yes, that farmer was married, and yes, that blonde woman watching them was his wife. Remember in season one when Lady Edith called Lady Mary a slut?) Apparently philandering and tractor-driving can effect major personality change in mere days, because it’s a weirdly industrious Edith who starts taking book orders and learning patient names. More weirdly, the officers seem to actually appreciate her help. One particularly timid man, who’s lost his hand, has heard enough kind things from the other patients to know that he should ask Edith for help writing a letter to his mother. Is his mother the Turkish ambassador? (Sorry.) Congrats to Laura Carmichael, who must be so relieved to have some bearable dialogue to work with–and who, to her credit, has a gentle, even likable bedside manner. Way better than Sybil’s, it should be noted.

Where then to direct our dissatisfaction, when Downton’s two villains are on their best behavior? Branson’s bumbling revolutionary efforts might be a place to start. The insufferable servant’s table sermonizing (“They won’t hurt [the Romanovs], why would they?” Oops!), the scowling, the barking at Lady Sybil–this is all very unbecoming behavior. But that plan to stop an enlistment parade and publicly throw the middle finger at the British government? As the glassy-eyed Sybil points out: that is really, really dumb. And even dumber is the actual protest that Branson comes incredibly close to executing, which involves an urn of garbage water and one of the desert explorers from The English Patient reincarnated as a visiting general. Come on, Branson. How does a dirty general resolve your (legitimate) Easter Rising anger? And how are you ever going to get your pallid nurse down the aisle after that one? While we’re on the subject, why does it take a full two minutes and a game of Note Telephone for someone to get into the dining room and remove the Soup Urn of Terror? And if Carson thought that Branson was going to assassinate the general, then how did he know to immediately put the lockdown on the Soup Urn of Terror? Most important, was the brief unbuttoned shirt moment during Branson’s medical exam Downton’s first attempt at partial male nudity, and did it make Branson any less irritating?

Joining Branson on the nuisance watchlist is Cousin Isobel, whose hospital-related tyranny is probably half the reason we’re willing to reconsider Edith, and the well-meaning but wildly nosy Mrs. Patmore. Daisy should probably also go on the list, but her brain is no longer of its own volition and does only what Mrs. Patmore tells it to do as the cook lurks in the back corner of literally every scene Daisy and William have together. “Oh, I’m just scrubbing my copper pan here because the light is best by the cupboard, but also, while I’m here, of course Daisy will marry you, William, no problem. This will all turn out great.” This will not turn out great. This has “death at the Somme” written all over it.

The other major downstairs concern is, of course, the stymied marriage plans of Saints Anna and Bates. We all love, or at least respect, Bates, and we are all sad that he’s been reduced to working in a pub and lurking behind trees in the village. (Yes, Bates’ lightning fast getaway from behind that tree is totally implausible–the guy can’t even serve a proper dinner, much less run through the park in record time–but allow Downton its drama. This episode needed more.) Still, after yet another scene of earnest, against-all-odds lovey dovey promises, we wonder how long we can continue to be interested in Starcrossed Banna. Sweetness is hardly an exciting reason to root for a couple. And what’s the end game here–some steamy makeouts between the two most wholesome characters on Downton? Anna can’t even believably sell her offer to take the mistress route, though that seems like a more promising storyline for everyone involved. Anna needs a little edge, and these two need more than stolen moments across a table.

Or maybe they need to learn how to make the best of those stolen table moments, as our preferred Will They or Won’t They Couple do on a weekly basis. Remember that first Mary-Matthew proposal in the dining room last season? Or last week’s unspoken asides during the Carlisle dinner? These are two people who know how to eye-fuck across a place setting, and that Downton seems hellbent on preventing these opportunities is increasingly frustrating. Michelle Dockery’s abilities are wasted this week on a snooze of a Lavinia reveal–she does know Carlisle! They weren’t lovers! Politics!--and though Mary’s stiff-upper-lip struggle yields the best acting on the show, we’d all rather her agony be directed at Matthew. Especially since Lavina, with her tragic (recycled!) green velvet dress and pinched expression, is clearly never going to muster the backbone for a “Step off my man” showdown. Mary herself passes up such an opportunity this week, to the chagrin of Lady Rosamond and Mean Girls enthusiasts everywhere. It’s a smart move, probably, as falsely accusing Lavinia would alienate the hugely self-righteous Matthew, and it also reminds us that Mary is not the cold-hearted brat Edith would have everyone believe, but really–more Lavinia? And more smarmy Carlisle? A disappointed audience cues up the train scene once again.

Some stray observations: Ethel is headed down a bad, officer-related road, and Earl Grantham could do with an anger management class or two. Thomas seems to be the only character without a redemption arc, though frankly, his beef with Mr. Carson is the least of our worries–we have four love stories and a war to deal with here. That, probably, is a complaint that could be applied to the entirety of the episode, which focused too much on side characters and not enough on our most basic concerns: Banna’s happiness, Matthew and Mary’s longing, Sybil’s ability to emote enough to fall for Branson. But it’s a long war, and despite the hospital takeover and the loss of a few footmen, Downton hasn’t truly begun to feel the effects. The battlefield pairing of William and Matthew is more than a little troubling in that context, but at least our preferred heroes will be back in the spotlight. We hope. Everyone say a prayer like Mary, just in case.

And now, your weekly dose of Dowager Countess Wisdom:

  • “I don’t know many people who’d threaten me behind the laurels.”
  • DC: “I’m going up to London to stay with Rosamond for a day or two, I think we’ll have Lavinia up for tea.”
    Mary: “You sound as if you’re going to gobble her up.”
    DC: “If only we could.” [gleeful laughter]
  • On Rosmaond’s new-money husband: “No, he was just cut and polished relatively recently.”
  • DC: “If someone is going to manage things, let it be one of our creatures.”
    Isobel: “Why, are you planning to divide his loyalties?”
    DC: “I wouldn’t say I was planning it.”
  • “Really, Rosamond, there’s no need to be so gleeful. You sound like Robespierre, lopping off the head of Marie Antoinette.” [gleeful laughter]

Downton Abbey Recap: Atonement