Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 4

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 9 October 2011, ITV.

The patients staying at Downton plan a concert party, Isobel feels left out of the management of the house, Sybil and Branson grow closer, while Matthew and William run into German soldiers and go missing…  

When is it set? A caption simply states ‘1918’ at the beginning of the episode.

Where is it set? The house. The dower house. Isobel’s house. The trenches in France (which oddly only come up to people’s shoulders). The pub where Bates is now working.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* A wounded soldier (Howard Gossington) shows up at Isobel’s house, asking for food, so Mrs Bird starts to run an impromptu soup kitchen.
* Ethel is dismissed, with no reference, after being caught shagging one of the officers. She returns a few days later and asks Mrs Hughes for help: she’s pregnant.

Best bits:
* Isobel and Cora go to battle over control of the hospital. Isobel’s expertise is ignored and her wishes countermanded by Cora. Isobel responds by saying, “It would be foolish to accuse you of being unprofessional since you’ve never had a profession in your life.” Penelope Wilton (Isobel) is terrific, of course, while Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) drops her head and stares intently.
* Molesley has nothing to do now that Matthew is at war, so helps out at the big house – he’s clearly hoping they’ll give him a full-time job as the new valet. Sadly for Molesley, Robert’s recently found out that Bates is nearby, so talks him into returning.

Worst bits:
* Thomas and O’Brien’s bitter twistedness is getting tiresome now. They’re just evil for evil’s sake. Thomas preens when Bates returns, throwing his rank around.
* When O’Brien finds out about Mrs Bird, Mrs Patmore, Daisy and Molesley running a soup kitchen, she makes sure Cora catches them. However, Cora simply insists on them using food bought by the family, not the army. You can see the saccharine twist coming a mile off.
* The soldiers staying at Downton put on a concert party, which forms the climax of the episode. Meanwhile, news reaches the house that Matthew and former footman William have gone missing in France. After days of worry, the two men walk into Downton while Mary is performing a song at the concert. Matthew even joins in. Melodrama has rarely been melo-er. (Facetiousness aside, it’s admittedly a moving moment.)

Real history:
* The rioting in Dublin “last Easter” is again mentioned by Sybil. Branson says it was put down in six weeks. (As it’s now 1918, she means the Easter before last.)
* Preparing for the concert party, Mary sings a bit of If You Were the Only Girl (In the World), a song written by Nat D Ayer and Clifford Grey for the revue The Bing Boys Are Here (1916). At the concert she sings a full-length version, with Edith on piano. It’s in 3/4 waltz time, which is historically inaccurate.

Upstairs, Downton: Sybil and Branson’s romance echoes the taboo relationship James Bellamy had with servant Sarah in the first two seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs. William and Matthew being missing in action echoes series four of Updown, when James was similarly lost behind enemy lines. And a 1974 episode of Updown was named after the song Mary sings here.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.”

Mary’s men: She’s resigned to marrying Sir Richard, because Matthew has moved on, but is not thrilled by the idea. She writes to Matthew, who’s in France, to let him know her decision. Later Matthew goes missing. Initially the fact is kept from Mary, but then Edith tells her. Mary cries, but thankfully he shows up the following day.

Review: The First World War famously broke down social barriers, which here is dramatised by Sybil and Branson’s romance. (Incidentally, clips from their cross-class flirting in this episode were used for comic effect in superhero movie Iron Man 3.) But this isn’t a flowering of socialism or anything: the soup-kitchen storyline is there to point out that Downton is only helping injured *officers*. Additionally, maid Ethel loses her job for sleeping with an officer. The class system is still alive and well.

Next episode…

 

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