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'Downton Abbey' react: All's fair in love and war

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DOWNTON ABBEY EP2
PBS

Downtown Abbey watchers, what do you think is harder for ole Carson to handle: That there is now a Ping-Pong table in Downton’s library or that former footman Thomas is running the joint?

Welcome to Downton during World War I. Last week’s premiere made it pretty clear that season 2 is about how the war effects England and our favorite cloistered Yorkshire estate. (Well, that and Mary circling her beloved Matthew like a shark, but never going in for the kill.) If you had a dollar for every time a character said “change” or “different,” you’d be rich enough to court a Grantham. The Crawleys and their staff are being downsized by the draft. Top dog Lord Grantham feels suddenly useless because he’s too old to fight. His wife, Cora, is suddenly getting out of bed before lunch. Lady Sybil has swapped her harem pants for a nurse’s uniform. Lady Edith is driving a tractor and seducing married farmers. Lady Mary (who is dating a man that is not Matthew) is turning out to be fair and kind. O’Brien, the lady’s maid who once hated Cora so violently that she caused her to miscarry, is now the wind beneath the Countess’ wings. By-the-book butler Carson is fainting during dinner service. The Dowager Countess Violet is secretly looking out for a footman and a butler.  Meanwhile, back at the Somme, heir presumptive Matthew (who is dating a woman that is not Mary) and evil ex-footman Thomas (who actually cries) are drinking tea together in the trenches.

There are apparently only five things you can still count on at Downton. Aunt Rosamund is meddlesome. Daisy is foolish. Mr. Bates and Anna are star-crossed (damn you, Mrs. Bates!). Cousin Isobel is bossy. And chauffeur Branson is trouble.

By the start of episode 2, the Downton mansion (like the real Highclere Castle, where the show is filmed) had been converted into a convalescent home for wounded officers, at Isobel’s suggestion. Officers, mind you, not just any old hurt soldier — the Crawleys are altruistic, not crazy. Take a closer look at the moment when newly minted nurse Sybil pointed out that this policy is unfair. Branson, standing in the background, gave her one of his most adoring looks of the series so far. It said, “Marry me, you socialist heartbreaker.” And, seriously, no woman has ever looked so beautiful in a pinafore and a headscarf.

Remember how Isobel was Violet’s nemesis? Now she’s Cora’s, too. Nothing like a common enemy to unite mother- and daughter-in-law. I still hadn’t forgiven Isobel for blowing the whistle on Violet’s scheme to keep William and Molesly safely at Downton. Then last night, she appointed herself the head of the makeshift medical center and, basically, the house. She made charts and carried around a folder, of course she was the boss. Isobel pushed around Cora. She snapped orders at Sybil and insults at Edith. She bullied the Crawleys into giving up every room except the boudoir and half the library. That’s when O’Brien stepped in: Nobody puts Lady Cora in the boudoir.

Who doesn’t admire the way O’Brien can get Cora to do what she wants by making the countess think its her own idea? Sensing the opportunity to put Isobel in her place and get partner-in-crime Thomas back at the house, O’Brien suggested to Cora that she request for Thomas — who’d trained as a medic — to run the sick bay. In Violet’s words, “If someone is to manage things, let it be our creature.” The look on Isobel’s face when she realized her power had been usurped was nearly as precious as the expression on Carson’s when Thomas entered Downton through the front door rather than the servant’s entrance. Later, Major-Doctor Clarkson appointed both Isobel and Cora (who had newfound confidence) to the empty position above Thomas. And then visitor General Sir “Hero of the Somme” Strutt, proposed that their dinner party have a special toast to Edith’s work with the wounded, not Isobel’s.

The rest of the Crawleys did so little to hide their surprise that Edith did something so remarkable that in the moment you very nearly pitied her (then you remembered that she’s the plain, wicked sister). She had finally discovered she possessed a special talent other than tractor pulling: tending to the house’s wounded. She brought them books, wrote their letters, fetched them from town. In the new world order, she’d make the perfect personal assistant.

General Strutt’s visit was a behind-the-scenes nightmare for Carson. All he wanted was the correct number of valets attending the man during dinner, so he accepted Branson’s offer to help serve. How would he know that the Irishman, who’s heart murmur made him ineligible for the draft and thus unable to cause a stir as a conscientious objector, was planning to pour a mix of ink, oil, cow dung, and sour milk on the high-ranking Brit — even though Branson dropped several hints. Carson did stop the slop assassination, thanks to Anna’s ability to run from one end of Downton to the other in record time. He was less successful, however, at preventing his new hire, the shell-shocked valet Lang, from having a public meltdown just before the General departed.

Lang’s subsequent resignation was a bit of a disappointment. His sewing talents and post-traumatic stress disorder made O’Brien get all mushy — and caused her to open up a little bit about her own life (now we know her favorite brother also suffered from shell shock and was eventually killed). I wouldn’t mind hearing a little more, and I have a feeling her smoke break chats with Thomas, though deliciously malicious, won’t unearth such honesty.

As for the show’s many broken hearts, head housemaid Anna still pined for Mr. Bates, who’d gone home to London with his dirty-playing wife because she threatened to sell Mary’s story — you know, the one where a Turkish diplomat dies in her bed — to the papers.  (On a side note, while it’s fitting that creator Julian Fellowes named Mr. Bates after late Gosford Park star Alan Bates, it’s even more perfect that the valet’s wretched wife then gets the Hitchcock-horror name Mrs. Bates.) After finding out from Mary that Bates has returned to Downton and is working as a barkeep at the Red Lion, Anna goes searching for him. Turns out, his wife had been unfaithful and if he can prove that her infidelity ruined the marriage, he can file for a divorce. Funny how Bates returned and Lang’s departure has freed the valet position at Downton.

Thanks to Cousin Isobel, sweet second footman William headed off to the fight the Germans, but not before he asked Daisy to marry him and she accepted. Well, Mrs. Pattmore accepted, and forced Daisy to play along so William wouldn’t go to the front brokenhearted. If William dies, and Daisy gets a widow’s pension, does pimp Pattmore deserve a percentage? The odds aren’t in William’s favor: At Carson’s request, Lord Grantham asked Matthew to take on William as his soldier servant (which is a real awful-sounding job title). Matthew agreed with the caveat that he can’t promise to keep William safe. Translation: Someone from Downton besides Thomas has to get wounded in this war and William is both a more innocent and more dispensable character, thus he’s likely at least to lose an arm or a leg.

Finally there is Mary, who handled Matthew’s engagement to young Lavinia with grace, if you don’t count the 100 reaction shots where she appeared to be stifling her grief. Determined to win Matthew back for Mary, Rosamund and Violet dug into Lavinia’s past and discovered a rumor that she’d been behind the real-life Marconi scandal of 1912, in which a group of government ministers (including Lavinia’s uncle) were found guilty of insider trading. According to gossips, Lavinia stole data from her uncle’s office and gave it to Sir Richard to print because, as Rosamund surmised, he was her lover. How Rosamund and Violet believed the pair had been having sex is baffling. Lavinia looks about 21 years old. If the scandal happened five years ago, that would have made her a pretty wily 16-year-old and Sir Richard a pedophile.

Nevertheless, Violet and Rosamund tried to convince Mary to tell Matthew that his fiancée is a harlot, but she instead confronts Lavinia with the information. Lavinia confesses she was behind the scandal, but she did it to repay her father’s crippling debt to Sir Richard, not because she was sleeping with him. The new kind and fair Mary, who has her own potentially life-ruining secret, took pity on her rival and kept quiet. Take that, Rosamund.

So now what’s on the Downton menu for next week? More bandaged, eye-patched, and limbless men at the house, I assume. Trouble is brewing between Mrs. Hughes and that mustached officer with his sights on housemaid Ethel. William and Matthew at the front. Lord Grantham will still be moping. Lady Grantham will still be changing. Thomas will still be evil. And the Dowager Countess will still have 10 quotable lines a night. My favorite line from episode 2? On her daughter Rosamund: “She’s never more righteous than when she’s in the wrong.” My favorite character? Labrador Isis, who looked like she so badly wanted to go chasing Ping-Pong balls around the library, but didn’t because of her dedication to Lord Grantham. Who said class loyalty was dead?

Tell me your own thoughts below.

Read more:

Ken Tucker’s review: ‘Downton Abbey’

How has ‘Downton Abbey’ snuck into your real life?