Tragedy strikes again...and again...and again...

By Aubry D'Arminio
Updated February 13, 2012 at 05:49 PM EST
Carnival Film and Television Limited

Something was rotten in the halls of Downton last night. A footman did the butler’s job (and vice versa). A woman hugging a baby ran through the house during lunch. His Lordship got off with a maid. A man raised his voice in the dining room. The paralyzed walked. The valet went to jail. An ersatz aristocrat said “bastard” in the library. The chauffeur set foot in the drawing room. The Countess got sweaty in her finery. The ladies spoke about cutting their hair. The men didn’t wear white tie to dinner. And a ginger girl died in one of the bedrooms. Have you ever seen such debauchery? Or such tragedy?

Yet, we all knew it was coming. If there is one rule at Downton (besides changing for dinner, serving yourself at breakfast, or not marrying the chauffeur), it is that once you say something, the exact opposite will happen. Mrs. Hughes mentioned that things were getting “back to normal,” and then Carson was carrying a tea tray like a lowly footman. Dr. Clarkson warned the Earl that Lady Grantham’s illness might be terminal, and then she lived. Matthew told his mother that Lavinia’s bout with Spanish flu didn’t “seem so serious,” and then she died. And then there was all that talk about Matthew never walking again.

Those backwards portents were nearly the worst thing about this uneven two-hour episode. Nearly. The Dowager Countess and Edith had very little screen time. There was too much expository dialogue. Bates didn’t need to describe his legal situation to Anna every time he passed her in the hallway. The same thing goes for Thomas, the black market, and O’Brien. Most of all, Lord Grantham’s heavy petting with housemaid Jane was unbearable to sit through: (a) because he was suffering from an embarrassing midlife/post-war crisis (the perfect storm of male neuroses), (b) because he was cheating on Cora, and (c) because the Earl and Jane had zero sexual chemistry. They were like two cold fish that Baron Fellowes just kept smacking together. Nothing could have been less sexy.

It took me quite a few scenes to finally understand why Robert wanted Jane so badly (other than because Cora was blowing him off for lunch). The answer was hidden in something he said when the Crawleys were pining for their prewar lives. “Before the war my life had value,” he whined, “I suppose I should like to feel that again.” Jane, unlike Cora or his daughters, made Lord Grantham feel useful in the way he was before the war, when his social standing and his wealth mattered. His title helped her son gain admission to the fancy pants boys school Ripon Grammar. He gave her money to ensure the child would have more opportunities in the future. With Jane, Robert was valuable again. (She also listened to his endless moaning about “what was it all for?” How many times can a man look longingly into the distance, and then pensively down to the floor, before you punch him?)

With O’Brien upstairs dutifully nursing Cora, and Thomas in a shed mourning the loss of his life savings, Robert was last night’s baddie, whether he intended to be or not. When not groping Jane, he said hurtful things to Cora, yelled at Sybil, and did a terrible job of protecting Mary “with a ring of steel.” In what world does a caring father agree to let the man his daughter loves marry another woman in his house? I swear I heard a collective sigh of relief when Robert ended his dalliances with Jane — just as Mrs. Hughes and Carson started to catch on — because they were “unfair to everyone.” (And because Bates nearly caught them locking lips in His Lordship’s dressing room while Cora was practically dying in their bed.)

NEXT: Matthew gets up offa that thing, but doesn’t feel much better

To get right to the point: Matthew can walk again, meaning that his John Thomas is back in play. He had been barking at Lavinia to let the servants clean up the tea trays (it was very un-Matthew), when she tripped over a footstool. He naturally rose to steady her, and they both noticed that he was standing. Cue the gasps and the happiness, and then the bashful visit from Dr. Clarkson who had told everyone that Matthew would never walk again. This is where things got really maddening. Dr. Clarkson admitted that the only possible explanation for what happened began with his own “mistake.” He had diagnosed Matthew’s spine with an incurable transection, but the doctor who offered a second opinion didn’t agree. This doctor thought Matthew was suffering from spinal shock (i.e. intense bruising on the spine that prevents the legs from working, yet eventually heals). Clarkson wasn’t buying it, so he lied to the Crawleys, telling them the other doctor had confirmed his original diagnosis. His excuse: “I didn’t want to raise Captain Crawley’s hopes to no purpose.” This is the point when the entire family should have bum rushed him, but the only people who looked even slightly miffed were Mary and the Dowager Countess.

Now that Matthew and Lavinia could be “properly married,” they renewed their engagement and asked to be wed at Downton (a ballsy move if you ask me). The Earl was more than happy to oblige (see above), which made Cora livid. And Mary, well, she looked like a woman who was trying to force a smile while being knifed in the heart by her own father. The perceptive Dowager Countess noticed and visited Matthew (in his bedroom!). She told him that Mary still loved him and now that he can have “a happy married life,” they should wed. Mathew replied that he would never jilt Lavinia, who was willing to spend her life washing him, feeding him, and doing “things that only the most dedicated nurse would undertake” (translation: she’d wipe his butt) just because his baby maker was back in working order.

In the meantime, vile Richard wanted to know exactly what was going on between Mary and Matthew, so he ambushed Anna in the hall and asked her into his room — you know, the one that is blood red from top to bottom. Then, with his face half covered in shadow, he offered to pay her to spy on Mary. She refused and told Carson and Mrs. Hughes about his proposal. Appalled, Carson told Mary that he would no longer follow her to Haxby, because he could not leave Downton to work for a man who would do something like that. This is when season 2’s postwar Mary started her slow decline back to being season 1’s prewar Mary. She said things like “you’re abandoning me,” “how disappointing of you,” and “I always thought you were fond of me.” Then she dismissed him cruelly, letting him hear her tell Richard his resignation didn’t matter, because “butlers will be two a penny now that they’re all back from the war.” She even dressed down ever-loyal Anna for not coming to her first. Later, when Richard asked Mary to tell him if she was still in love with Matthew Crawley, Mary snapped “Would I ever admit to loving a man who preferred someone else over me?” She managed to be evasive, mean, and snobby all at once. Too bad there wasn’t an engagement for her to breakup or someone to die in a bed. Oh, wait.

NEXT: The Spanish flu hits Downton and all Edith’s hilarious Monty Python references go unappreciated

Think back to the first half of the episode when the Countess randomly commented, “the stories of the Spanish flu are too awful.” Then flash-forward to a few days before Matthew and Lavinia’s wedding when Cora could hardly walk down the stars. Carson was too woozy to preside over dinner. Lavinia’s head was practically dipping in her soup. And all three were sweating like O’Brien in church.

Yep, they all had Spanish flu. While his betrothed convalesced upstairs, Matthew and Mary danced cheek-to-cheek to “Look for the Silver Lining” from the failed musical Zip! Goes a Million on the gramophone downstairs. She commented that they were also a show that flopped. He told Mary about her grandmother’s visit to his boudoir and confessed that he couldn’t marry her “however much he might want to.” Then they kissed, just as Lavinia appeared behind them on the stairs. Any hopes that she missed their smooch were dashed when, after they postponed the wedding because of Lavinia’s illness, she told Matthew that they were lucky to have second chance to decide whether they should really get married. She confessed to seeing (and hearing) everything and thinking that he and Mary looked so right together. She told him she didn’t believe Mary was going to marry Sir Richard and then broke down in tears as he finally left her room.

Now, remember how in episode 1, Lavinia told Mary outside Crawley House that if she ever lost Matthew she would die? She was a woman of her word. The next time we saw her she was soaked with sweat and wheezing out her last words. That’s when she did something pretty evil, whether it was conscious or not. Seconds before passing, she said to Matthew, “Isn’t this better? You won’t have to make a hard decision. Be happy for my sake. Promise me. It’s all I want for you. Remember that. It’s all I want.” In other words, “I’m telling you to move on with your life in such a way that makes you feel so guilty it nearly guarantees that you never will.” No man could be happy after that.

NEXT: Dr. Clarkson is the worst physician north of London. Fact.

This is where Dr. Clarkson comes in again. He had told Mary to give Lavinia milk, cinnamon, and aspirin to relieve her symptoms. There is a theory that many Spanish flu deaths were not caused by the illness itself, but by aspirin poisoning. I think Fellowes was slyly hinting that the drugs could be why Lavinia mysteriously took a turn for the worse, not because Spanish flu was “a tricky disease.” Look at the man’s track record: He nearly killed that local farmer, he drove the blind officer to commit suicide, and he misdiagnosed Matthew. Who wouldn’t believe he accidentally poisoned a young bride?

After Lavinia’s death, Matthew skulked around Downton with hooded, red eyes, and really terrible posture. At her funeral, he told Mary that he believed Lavinia died of a broken heart, that they killed her, and that they can never be together because of it. Mary walked back up to the abbey with Richard, as if to say, “Okay, I give up.”

NEXT: Ethel meets Major Bryant’s God-awful parents

Before falling ill, Cora received a letter from the Bryants requesting to visit Downton because it was the last place they saw their son alive. Mrs. Hughes and Ethel instantly hatched a plan to introduce them to Little Charlie: Ethel would bring him to Downton that same day, and Mrs. Hughes would tell Mrs. Bryant about the baby and give her the option of meeting him. Then it turned out that Papa Bryant not only had only a bigger, greasier mustache than his son, but also a colder, meaner attitude. He wouldn’t even let his chauffeur have a sandwich. Mama Bryant was weaker than a baby bird, and clearly unaccustomed to challenging her husband. Mrs. Hughes couldn’t get a moment alone with her and so she abandoned the plan and sent Ethel home.

Instead, Ethel ran through the kitchen holding the baby, pushed right into the dining room where the Crawleys, the Bryants, Lavinia, and Richard were eating lunch, and announced that Little Charlie was the Major’s love child. Mr. Bryant demanded proof that the baby was Major Bryant’s son, insisting that if he knew he had a child, he would have taken responsibility for it. Hah! All the while, Mrs. Bryant just repeatedly cocked her head hopefully at little Charlie and then ruefully back at her husband as he accused Ethel of blackmail. Cora looked grief stricken. Edith looked mortified. Matthew had a face like thunder. Even Carson bristled every time he insulted her.

Days later, Mrs. Bryant contacted Mrs. Hughes to set up another meeting with Ethel. She claimed that her husband had repented and they would like to see the baby properly. She left out that Mr. Bryant wanted to adopt Little Charlie and give him a life of privilege if Ethel agreed to never see him. He was, unsurprisingly, awful to the girl again, calling Little Charlie “the nameless offshoot of a drudge.” Mrs. Hughes could barely suppress her smile when Ethel returned to Downton after Lavinia’s death to tell her that she rejected his offer. “They say they could do better for him,” Ethel remarked, saying perhaps the only sensible thing she’d uttered all season, “but what’s better than a mother’s love?”

NEXT: Bates and Anna tie the knot, but don’t live happily ever after

Only Mrs. Bates could die from arsenic poisoning and still be able to royally stick it to her husband from beyond the grave. A comment from Lord Grantham about her supposed suicide — I don’t believe that Vera killed herself — made Bates remember that he’d purchased the arsenic when they were living together. Anna begged him to come clean to the police, but he thought that would make him seem like a suspect. After that, the evidence just kept piling up until he was a suspect. A letter surfaced that Vera had written right before Bates’ last visit — the one that was worse than Anna could have ever imagined and that ended with a large scratch on his face. She wrote to her friend that Bates sounded “as angry as I’ve ever heard him” and claimed “I never thought I’d say this but I’m afraid for my life.” Add that to the facts that he inherited back all his money when Vera died and that her death left him free to marry his soul mate, Anna, and Bates looked pretty guilty.

Knowing this, Anna insisted that they wed immediately at the registrar’s office, so that if he is arrested, she can stand by him as his wife. Mary took a break from being an ice queen to have Jane turn one of the abbey’s fancy bedrooms into their “honeymoon suite.” And Anna and Mr. Bates finally, after seven years, saw each other naked. It was good thing, because now he’ll have something to visualize in the slammer. After Lavinia’s funeral, the pair returned home to an ashen Mrs. Patmore and two cops waiting in the servants’ hall. They arrested Bates for Vera’s murder. Thomas was the only one below stairs whose mouth wasn’t hanging open. Anna just stood alone in the doorway, white as her pinafore and with her chin trembling.

NEXT: Mary and Edith foil Sybil and Branson’s attempt to get a quickie marriage in Gretna Green

With everything else that was going on, no one seemed to notice that Sybil was slipping out to visit Branson, accept his marriage proposal, and let him kiss her. You’d think that during the six years he was pining for Sybil, he would have come up with a better plan for them to get hitched than stealing the Earl’s car and sneaking off to Gretna Green (a.k.a. the Las Vegas of Scotland) to elope. After Mary discovered that they were gone and where they were headed, she and Edith frantically chased after them. They found the couple at an inn, where Sybil was fully dressed on the bed and Branson sat next to her (also dressed) in a chair. The first thing Mary said to them after she burst in was “At least nothing’s happened, thank God.” Then, in a way that only she could, Mary fought with Branson while convincing Sybil to return home. If she really wanted to marry the chauffeur, she should tell her parents and stand her ground.

After Branson was offered a job at a newspaper in Dublin, Sybil invited him to the house — when everyone would be there — so they could announce their engagement and their plan to move Ireland after Matthew’s wedding. I’d say walking into the drawing room and declaring, “I’m here,” wasn’t the best way for Branson to get the ball rolling. Loud arguments ensued: Granny wanted to protect Sybil from getting stuck in what she thought was a passing folly and Robert wanted to wring her neck. But they were fighting a losing battle. Sybil didn’t care about being cut off from their only weapon: money.

Lavinia’s death, however, caused Robert to have a slight change of heart. As they were leaving the funeral, he told Sybil and Branson that they would have his blessing and a little bit of his money. He and Branson even had a moment between them when Robert threatened to murder the chauffeur if he mistreated his daughter and Branson replied that he wouldn’t expect any less.

NEXT: Thomas gambles on the black market, while O’Brien tries to come clean about the soap

Why does anyone listen to Pimp Patmore? Look at how miserable Daisy became after she bullied her into marrying William. Nevertheless, Thomas took her advice and sunk all his money into selling food on the black market. He found a fellow in Leeds to supply the goods and a shed in the village to house them. Then he put on a smart suit, and hung around Downton waiting to sell his wares. Thomas’ goal: Make enough money during the food shortage to go into legitimate business afterward.

Eventually, Patmore agreed to buy some ingredients for Lavinia and Matthew’s wedding cake, but only to pay Thomas if she liked the results. The cook was, apparently, a sucker for candied peel. The black market food, of course, turned out to be two-thirds plaster dust and older than Adam (poor Daisy, it was the first cake she’d baked by herself). Thomas, in a tearful rage, destroyed all of it. He’d been “taken for the fool I am.”

With no money, no work, nowhere to live, and a hand “that looks like a Jules Verne experiment,” Thomas found himself begging Mr. Carson for his job back. Since he’d spent the last two years bragging about not being a servant, the butler was more than happy to refuse him. Then the Spanish flu hit, half the staff took ill, and Thomas made himself indispensable in Mr. Carson’s absence. He even wore his livery. Thomas, the evil footman, was back.

Meanwhile, O’Brien was having her own crisis. Cora’s illness made her feel even guiltier about secretly triggering Her Ladyship’s miscarriage by causing her to slip on a bar of soap. She stayed by Cora’s bedside day-and-night, mopping her brow, catching her puke, and hoping for a chance to ask the Countess for forgiveness before she died. When it seemed like the end was nigh, a delirious Cora told O’Brien that she was always so good to her. O’Brien barely got to say, “Well, truth be told…” when she was interrupted. And it was for the best, because Cora didn’t die after all and would have been around the next day to murder her.

All said and done, it was a rough two hours (or four or five months) at Downton, punctured only by the Violet’s occasional quip. On the Spanish flu: “Wasn’t there a masked ball in Paris when cholera broke out? Half the guests were dead before they left the ballroom.” On Branson: “I used to think that Mary’s beau was a mésalliance, but compared to this he’s practically a Habsburg.” On Edith’s chance at marriage: “Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class.” At least we didn’t have to see too much of Daisy, who was conflicted about staying in touch with William’s father. Plus, now we’re set up to celebrate Christmas next week with Mary and Matthew, but without Lavinia. And, with with all due respect, what can be more exciting than that?

So, Downton fans, tell me your thoughts on Lavinia’s departure, Matthew’s guilt, Ethel’s decision, Mary’s cruelty, Sybil’s engagement, Bates’ arrest, Anna’s future, Robert’s lust for Jane, Thomas’ return to service, O’Brien’s thwarted confession, and anything else in the comments below.

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