Amiens, France, 1918. The Hundred Days Offensive — the Allied push that won the First World War — is about to begin. There are rats in the trenches. The men have colds. William, ever the loyal batman (a.k.a. “soldier servant”), is getting Matthew dressed to lead the troops once more unto the breach. The latter is looking a bit peaky. The former is acting like his usual slightly dopey-yet-reassuringly pleasant self. The whistles blow, the men charge, the mud flies, the guns blast, and a few heads explode. Then William has the lack of foresight to say “I won’t be sorry when this one’s over,” therefore guaranteeing that a mortar shell will explode near the pair, hurling them into a ditch where Matthew lands spine first on a broken cannon wheel and William falls (lungs crushed by the blast) on top of him.
Thus, the fighting ended — if not for all of Europe, but at least for the crowd at Downton — in a tearful episode that brought out the best in everyone. The Dowager Countess and Edith proved they were as good as gold when it came to helping out their own. Mary showed she could nurse a man as easily as she could give one a groping-induced myocardial infarction. Daisy put aside her scruples to make William happy in his final moments. O’Brien voiced regret for scheming against Bates when the house was in such turmoil. Thomas expressed a modicum of pity for his fallen rival footman. Mrs. Hughes bravely confronted that deadbeat dad Major Bryant about his son with Ethel. Sybil finally told Branson to stop belittling the emotions (and the heartache) of her aristocratic family. And stoic Carson cried. Only Mrs. Bates persisted with her nasty tricks and vengeful declarations. Thank heavens for vile Sir Richard, who put the kibosh on her scandal brokering, if only so that he could later hold it over Mary’s head.
When this episode aired in the U.K., critics knocked Captain Crawley’s informal, and rather corny, pre-battle chat with his men in the trenches. Apparently, when a soldier says to you “We’re with you, sir,” it’s more accurate to tell them to stuff it than to reply “I know you are, Wakefield, I can’t tell you how much lighter that makes the task.” But I appreciated that Matthew’s version of a St. Crispin’s Day Speech was simply “How are you, Thompson? Have you shaken that cold?” Only six years earlier he was a middle class lawyer in Manchester riding his bike to work, not an earl-in-waiting facing death-by-bayonet. I wouldn’t have accepted anything but the kindest, most human, and least class-obsessed Matthew in these final moments, whether or not that was “historically correct” or “proper.” I would have, however, also preferred for him to leave the trenches with more than just a pistol and for William to have avoided sacrificing himself in order to push his superior out of the way of a direct hit.
NEXT: Violet and Edith fight to bring William home