Downton must cope after the war ends early for William and Matthew

By Aubry D'Arminio
January 30, 2012 at 02:59 PM EST
Nick Briggs/PBS
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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

The news of Matthew’s condition — still alive but critically wounded and on his way to Downton — made it to the Granthams via Molesley, who accepted Isobel’s midnight telegram from the War Office and ran it over from Crawley House in his pajamas. (Robert, in a rare breach of etiquette, got so angry that the letter was mistakenly sent to the empty cottage in England rather than to Isobel in France, that he nearly said “balls up” in front of his wife and daughters.) Edith then drove to the Mason family farm searching for information on William and discovered the worst: He was near death in a hospital in Leeds, and unlike Matthew, would not be transferred to Downton because he wasn’t an officer. This injustice provoked outcries from the two most unlikely villagers: Thomas, who was enraged to see a fellow working-class lad get a raw deal, and Dowager Countess Violet, who as town matriarch, became fiercely determined to bring William home to the Abbey. Pity the fool who got in her way.

Violet, with Edith in tow, took William’s case to rule-abiding Dr. Clarkson, who refused to “change the order of things.” “I am no Jacobin revolutionary, nor do I seek to overthrow the civilized world,” Violet snapped back, “We just need one bed for a young man from this village.”

And later, dripping with scorn, she warned Edith that “It always happens when you give these little people power — it goes to their heads like strong drink.” Violet then pulled out the big guns, calling her niece, the Marchioness of Flintshire, who got her husband, the Minister of the Foreign Office, on the phone, resulting in an hilarious one-sided exchange that went “Is this an instrument of communication or torture? Hello, SHRIMPIE? Yes, this is Aunt Violet … I won’t beat about the bush, dear. Whom might we know on the board of the General Infirmary?”

And so William, who looked fine on the outside but was literally dying on the inside from internal injuries (the oft-repeated disbelieving exclamation of last night’s show was “But he looks so normal”), returned with Violet and Edith to Downton. Put up on the South Gallery, with Edith as his nursemaid, William expressed his wishes to marry Daisy before he dies. The downstairs staff, especially Mrs. Patmore, pressured poor Daisy, who no longer wished to mislead William, to painfully accept his proposal (“It ain’t lyin’ if he’s dyin’” seemed to be everyone’s motto).

Then the Dowager Countess once again sprung into action to grant William’s final request, strong-arming the hesitant vicar, who accused Daisy of scheming to inherit a widow’s dole, in the episode’s best scene. “He wishes before he dies, to marry his sweetheart,” Violet told him calmly. “You cannot imagine that we would allow you to prevent this from happening. … I would point out that 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.”

NEXT: Mary learns the extent of Matthew’s injuries and Richard puts a muzzle on Mrs. Bates

While her grandmother and sister looked after William, Lady Mary remained at the hospital glued to Matthew’s side. Kudos to actress Michelle Dockery, whose pained stance and stunned looks did more to relay the horror of Matthew’s condition — falling against the broken wheel had caused spinal damage that rendered him impotent and paralyzed below the waist — than the blood and dirt all over his body. (If you had the totally inappropriate thought that Mary and Sybil both saw Matthew naked when they bathed him, you were not alone.)

Dockery was even better later on when Lavinia revealed that Matthew, who’d fallen into a deep depression, had broken off their engagement because they “can never be properly married.” Behind Mary’s concern was the realization that she and Matthew could now also never be lovers — just like underneath her father’s permanent frown at the hospital was his awareness that Matthew would now have no heirs, male or otherwise.

Meanwhile, O’Brien’s incendiary letter to Mrs. Bates — informing her of Mr. Bates’ return to Anna — came to bite her in the bun when the bitter Londoner arrived in Downton, in the midst of all this tragedy, ranting that she still planned to destroy the Granthams by telling the press about Mary’s fatal romp with Pamuk. To save her reputation, Mary told newspaper owner Sir Richard the truth about “the Turkish gentleman,” asking him to buy Mrs. Bates’ story and then never print it. Rather than dump Mary for her sexual indiscretions, Richard used them to gain leverage over his bride-to-be — hinting that if she wrongs him or backs out of the marriage, he’ll tell all of England her secret. As he said to Mrs. Bates, “I am unforgiving when anyone breaks a contract with me.” For her part, upon realizing that Richard had tricked her, Mrs. Bates (draped in a creepy fox fur that still had its head and feet) raised holy Hell, warning him that she’d still find a way to ruin her estranged husband. To quote Lord Grantham when he read about Mary’s engagement to Richard the next day in the papers, “Good God Almighty.”

NEXT: William says the long goodbye

Only hours after his marriage to Daisy, during which she never left his side, William wheezed his last breath while still looking slightly dopey-yet-reassuringly pleasant. It was chilling, sad, and almost matched by Matthew’s painful moan of “Mother!” when Isobel finally arrived at the hospital. It was Downton’s saddest episode — even Violet’s numerous bon mots couldn’t lighten the mood. The only uplifting element was Edith solidifying her two-week streak as the show’s best character by fulfilling her promise to William’s father that she wouldn’t leave the dying boy’s side. There wasn’t a scene where she wasn’t in or just outside William’s room. Hopefully, Fellowes will repay her with some happiness in the near future.

What else is on the horizon? I’d say more strife between Thomas and O’Brien, who are squabbling more than ever. Something is up between steadfast husband Lord Grantham and Jane, the new widowed housemaid. Did he ever gaze that intensely at Ethel? Major Bryant needs to pay for his sexual misconduct — and his baby — either by surrendering to the bayonet and mortar shell I’ve got with his name on it or to one of Ethel’s requests. Branson and Sybil — who actually touched in this episode — need to finally kiss before she goes cross-eyed from looking at his lips and he gets a crick in his neck from leaning toward her face. And someone should to tell Daisy that, yes, she did lead William up the garden path, but he won’t come back to haunt her.

Now, while I go mop up my tears, tell me your thoughts about the episode in the comments below…

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The war is over, but intrigue, crisis, romance, and change still grip the beloved estate.
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