Ever since the cliffhanger World War I announcement at the end of last season, we the audience have been playing the most morbid (and obligatory) of Downton parlor games: Which character will die? The smart money was on William, sweet, sympathetic, and disposable — and not fifteen minutes into this week’s episode, our best guesses are confirmed. Fatally wounded in a shell attack, William is brought back to Downton to die, and the whole house pitches in to stage a wedding-slash-funeral in his final hours. It’s not particularly surprising, nor is it subtle. (Those garlands on the bed? Overkill.) But the collective upstairs-downstairs grieving taps into what’s best about Downton — the triumph of emotion over propriety — and it makes for one of the more moving non-Matthew-and-Mary scenes this season. Pair that with Matthew’s paralysis, Mary’s determined bedside vigil, and the Ethel-baby situation, and you have the darkest Downton episode yet. That would be true of any episode in which Matthew Crawley is declared impotent, but still. The lips are no longer stiff at Downton Abbey; it’s Tears and Feelings Central.
We’re willing to defend the climactic wedding scene for two reasons: First, Daisy’s reluctance helps keep of some of the schmaltziness in check, and also acknowledges that yes, this deathbed-marriage plot is incredibly manipulative and messed up. No one feels great about these developments. Second, and more important, we’re powerless against an ensemble Downton scene in which even the Dowager Countess starts sniffling. Maggie Smith does the heavy lifting for this entire plot line, actually — managing the doctor, bullying the vicar, cracking the necessary mid-ceremony joke so that we don’t end up in All My Children territory. She played the same role at last week’s concert (we are still waiting for a GIF of that eye-roll), and the wedding plays like a callback to that scene, making it more palatable by association. Also, we’re not monsters. Inevitability aside, poor William! He saved Matthew’s life, and he gets five or so hours with his beloved bride (who looks very cute with the flower in her hair). We’ll even indulge Anna’s (and Carson’s!) crying on this one. It looked real.
Not all of the weeping and wailing was so successful this week, however, so let’s go ahead and break down the more ridiculous moments of sentimentality: Daisy and Mary’s ESP experiences when their boyfriends are wounded; Anna and Bates’s trip to the church; Anna and Bates’s insistence on uttering phrases like “everything is rosy in our garden” after their pure and perfect love has cleared yet another annoying hurdle. We’re going to have to discuss Vera and Richard Carlisle at some point, but we frankly have nothing more to say about Anna and Bates. They love each other — great! We are so glad that true love can exist in this cruel, duty-bound world. But get that sexless, grating, “you should have had a church wedding” posturing out of the way of the real drama. Too boring! Just give them a Yorkshire parish spinoff on HGTV or something. (Edith can narrate!)
As for Vera and her attempt to expose the Crawleys, it’s fitting that such an underdeveloped character is disposed of so easily. (“Disposed of.” Obviously, she’s going to be back for Bates, but as mentioned above, we’re done talking about that for the moment.) Richard Carlisle, though — there is something terrifying and terrifyingly appealing going on here. We’re reluctant to say this after hammering Branson so hard, but Carlisle is making the “Powerful Bully” attitude work for him a bit. He fixes the Pamuk situation so easily! And with such decisiveness! He even manages to avoid slut-shaming his future bride about her stolen virtue. (The “equal footing” comment is a little icky, yeah, but even there it’s mostly business, rather than moral judgment. Does Carlisle even have morals? Discuss.) No one is suggesting that Mary actually go through with the wedding, of course, and it’s probably unwise to even suggest that we’d be okay with more Carlisle screen time. But we might be. Edwardian swagger right there.
We’ll cut Branson a little slack, too, just because he and Sybil seem to be the only two people on the show with any chance of getting it on, ever. We have actual hand-to-waist contact, everyone! For at least one-and-a-half seconds! Sound the alarm! Jessica Brown Findlay responds to the touching with three separate blinks, which on the Sybil-O-Meter equals “Serious Physical Attraction, with Make-Out Imminent.” If this means being spared more Banna nuzzling, then we’re fine with it. Branson’s politics are obviously still a mess (dude, just stop bringing the Romanovs into your romantic life) and the relationship still feels like a college mistake. Sybil will wake up one morning next to those crazy eyes and long for her biscuit jar, we’re sure. Still, someone, sometime has to procreate.
Which brings us to Matthew. What a nightmare. Not only is the heir to Downton now paralyzed and impotent, but he’s also somehow fallen into the hands of the Twilight makeup department. Vampire pallor: not a great look for Dan Stevens. Nor is the inevitable but still irritating self-pity that descends over Matthew when he learns about his non-functioning manhood. (Cool it with the dramatic hermit talk, son.) Poor Lavinia gets dumped as soon as she arrives, and even Mary gets told off between the lines, because Matthew seems to think it is his responsibility to make sure that every woman on this show gets laid at least once in her life. Except: Mary already has! Oh God, is that how this is going to work out?! Mary and Matthew can get married because she’s already slept with someone else, and therefore doesn’t mind a platonic marriage? Also, did they really just permanently break Matthew Crawley’s penis? What about the heir? What about the sex? How is Downton supposed to be a high-class soap opera without the promise of (proper) sex?
This is the point in the recap where we write a weekly love letter to Michelle Dockery, who manages to stay grounded in the midst of all this biology and melodrama and breaks our heart with nearly every facial expression. That tiny eyebrow quiver as she tells Matthew that he won’t be able to walk anymore? And then the face-crumple as she walks away? The stunned wide-eye as she takes in the fact that Matthew will never be able to have children. (Mary was maybe doing the “wait, but I’ve already had sex” math in her head, too.) Give this woman a million awards and all the roles currently being written for Keira Knightley. She’s amazing.
Quickly, we’ll address the Ethel situation in the form of a question, which is: How long has it been since the concert? That is a very big baby! At least six months old, right? Paging the Continuity Director, who can also hopefully explain why O’Brien keeps swinging from hateful schemer to repentant servant every 30 minutes. She hates Bates? She loves Cora? Pick a side. We have bigger issues to worry about. Such as: Lord Grantham’s apparent interest in the new, widowed maid, and Matthew Crawley’s non-functioning penis. Yes, we’re going to be stuck on that one until they fix it. (How does one even fix it, in 1917 England? They’ll have to, right?)
While you ponder that troubling science, here is your weekly Dowager Countess roundup:
- “It always happens. When you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink.”
- The entire scene on the telephone. All of it. (Also, shout-out to Laura Carmichael for keeping a straight face while standing next to that.)
- “Finally, I would point out your living is in Lord Grantham’s gift, your house is on Lord Grantham’s land, and the very flowers in your church are from Lord Grantham’s garden. I hope it is not vulgar in me to suggest that you find some way to overcome your scruples.”
- [crying, at the wedding] “I have a cold.”
See you next week, when we hopefully learn everything there is to know about early-twentieth-century Viagra.