Downton Abbey S2E1: All's Fair In Love And War, Including Blackmailing Mr. Bates

Allow me to begin this recap with a controversial statement: the two-hour premiere of season two of Downton Abbey was TOO MUCH DOWNTON! I never thought I’d utter such harsh words (how Edith of me!) but when my eyes began crossing and Mr. Moseley and Mr. Lang blended into one Super Footman-Valet Hybrid with the world’s worst comb-over, I knew the show had gone on far too long. But obviously the mega-episode was necessary to get out the eight billion new story lines and introduce us to a slew of new people to loathe. Also, Edith drove a tractor! Television has never felt so right.

At the start of this episode we are thrown into World War 1, effectively giving the viewer a visceral sense of what it must have been like to find oneself trapped in the trenches. It’s bloody, gruesome and worlds away from life at Downton. Perhaps no one knows this better than his Lordship, who seems desperate to legitimize his existence by returning to the horrors of war. The poor guy thinks he’s done this when he’s appointed a Colonel position with the army only to discover his role is simply to chit chat, throw parties and look pretty. Lord Crawley is both horrified and mortified by the mundanity of his assignment, and too up his own ass to realize this is how his poor daughters must feel every day.

Ah, his daughters. Of course the episode belongs to Mary and Matthew’s torrid love affair, which lingers on via stolen glances (or what’s commonly known in present times as “eye-f**king”) despite his engagement to Miss Lavinia Swire, a lovely mouse of lady who inexplicably favors dresses that show off her ankles. Mary puts on a brave face in front of her family when confronted with the news, but immediately breaks down to Anna when alone. I should note that this is the same Mary who, upon returning from months spent in London, greeted her maid/world’s kindest soul Anna simply by instructing her to pick up her suitcase. Ladies, take note — this is what a toxic friendship looks like.

Lavinia also has a mysterious relationship with Mary’s much older newspaper tycoon boyfriend, Sir Richard Carlisle, because OF COURSE SHE DOES. This is Downton Abbey, after all, where everyone is connected and everything is torrid. Sir Richard proposes to Mary halfheartedly at the train station, to which she offers up yet another indecisive response. This time it’s warranted – Sir Richard is about as romantic as a clogged toilet. Mary seeks love advice from Carson — ohhh, Carson! — who encourages her to open up to Matthew about her true feelings for him. But she dawdles and instead sends him back off to war with a meek kiss on the cheek and a tiny stuffed dog for good luck.

[DEAR EVERYONE: Don’t ever give your true love any human being on the planet a tiny stuffed dog as a token of your love and affection. Love, Kate]

Edith is still as smug and catty as ever, joyfully informing Mary of Matthew’s engagement and, later in the episode, getting worked up about a spill on her dress while Carson gets his heart attack on across the dining room table. But for all the loathsome things Edith does — and boy, are there many, many loathsome things — I can’t help but be charmed by her eager obsession with learning to drive. It’s so earnest! So sweet! So almost likable – until she goes and makes out with a married man behind a haystack. Finally Edith has her own Mr. Pamuk moment and oh, I can’t wait to see how Mary uses it against her.

Which brings us to Sybil, the saving grace of the Crawley sisterhood. Sybil, who makes her mother cry with her attempt at baking a cake. Sybil, who ain’t got time for no man when the higher duty of nursing calls. (Though I do love dear Bronson and admire him for his daring declaration of love. I have faith that hormones shall prevail.) Sybil, who turns Downton into a convalescent home in which men can recover from war and Thomas can redeem himself for everything he ever did, ever.

Yes, my heart broke into a billion little biscuit pieces watching a vulnerable Thomas open himself up to his fellow wounded soldier while in the hospital. Underneath that scowl and impeccable helmet hair is a suffering man, and maybe – maybe! – there’s a redeemable person in there. And really, who am I to judge? I sang that “Lighters” song as he lifted his hand from the trench in a (successful) attempt to be shot at. Proof that we’re all a little bit a-holey deep down, right?

All of us, that is, except Mr. Behhhhhts. After a dashing entrance via a smokey train, our sweet Bates returned to his dear Anna and proposed marriage, certain that his wife Vera would consent to a divorce if he offered her his savings. He even tempted Anna with the promise of one day opening a wee inn, which we all know is THE way to a girl’s heart. All we want is to open a B&B in the country! That’s it, mens! Do you not get how easy we ladies are? But all hope evaporated when Vera Bates shows up at Downton and blackmailed her husband into quitting his job by threatening to reveal the details surrounding Mr. Pamuk’s death. At this point, who doesn’t know that Mary was naked and panting while Mr. Pamuk died? But still, Bates takes the bait (you got punned!) and puts the Crawleys’ honor and reputation before his own, leaving Anna alone and weeping next to a pile of fish crates.

And as the major drama developed, little moments — with possibly huge future story lines — unfolded. Daisy kissed William and he made her “his girl” before heading off to war, even though she’s just not that into him. Lady Crawley continues to do O’Brien’s bidding, making her the best-dressed puppet in the entire UK. And O’Brien, though still a manipulative monster, revealed a gentler, sweeter side in this episode. We see her inwardly cringe when discussing the effects of the war on Thomas and she opens up about her family and connects with Mr. Lang about his “shell shock.” Could O’Brien be…flirting? Also, I took this note about O’Brien while watching the episode: “She kinda looks like a hot piece of a** this season. What’s changed?” So there’s that. Also, I am gross.

But most importantly, the Dowager Countess wore a giant headdress crafted solely of a billion raven feathers. That is how it’s done, my friends. That is how it’s done.

[Photo: ITV]

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