Downton Discussion: What You Need to Know About Episode 6

We officially finished the technical Series 2 of Downton Abbey last night – though, don’t worry, we’ve still got the Christmas special to come next Sunday – and I don’t know about you guys, but I am just having emotions all over the place about everything.

So all over the place that I feel the need to caveat going in to this installment of Downton Discussion – that despite some (major) problems with some (multiple) things that went down in this episode, it was all around supremely enjoyable television. I was glued to the screen for two hours and sorry when it ended and I just shamelessly loved watching it, even when I didn’t love everything (a lot of things) that happened. I imagine a lot of folks may have felt that way too.

There’s a lot to talk about, of the positive, negative and “Wow, did that really just happen?” variety, so just click right on through and we’ll get started on that. (I think I should probably apologize in advance for the length of this. It’s…not brief.).

Honestly, this episode just felt like a roller coaster – of awesome things, of not-so-awesome things, and of completely unbelievable things. I’m actually quite glad that this was a two-hour episode – in the original UK airings these two hours were split into two installments – because I don’t know that I would have handled a week-long break in the middle very well.

Anyway. Onward.

This season’s biggest problem remains the pacing. It has to be said, the overall pacing of Downton Series 2 leaves something to be desired. Now that we’re nearing the end of the second season the Big Things Are Happening meter kicks up to about eleven. Suddenly EVERY storyline is in high gear and things are happening in ways that seem to come out of nowhere. The action in this episode was nonstop – which certainly made for intense (and occasionally stressful) viewing – but it also begs the question, why was so much crammed into this episode? Why did we have to have Matthew’s sudden recovery, Robert kissing Jane, Mary kissing Matthew, Sybil running away with Branson, the house being waylaid by Spanish flu, Lavinia dying, Anna and Bates getting married – all in the same episode?

So many plots have to be covered that we occasionally don’t get to see a true progression for all the characters that makes their decisions feel organic. If the screentime devoted to some of these storylines had been a bit more balanced, I think some of the dénouements wouldn’t have felt so rushed and awkward (Sybil and Branson, I am looking at you). Is it a case of the show trying to do too much? Perhaps. There are certainly a lot of characters and plotlines fighting for limited episode time.

Matthew’s Miraculous Recovery. I’m just going to ignore everything about this storyline that is ridiculous and contrived and just a bit too convenient, because I am an emotional wreck about all of this and watching Matthew get up out of that chair and everyone being so excited and happy to see him stand up...well. I’m not made of stone.  This is the Downton I love, that gets all these emotional beats perfectly, absolutely right – even when the actual plot that gives us those moments is….well, maybe slightly dodgy. (To be fair, I did eyeroll just a little at Lavinia’s trip over a footstool being the impetus for his standing up, but it’s fine.) I also have to just give Julian Fellowes credit for nerve – when Matthew’s doctor basically pulled a “Just Kidding!” about his spine being broken and the big secret of his recovery basically boiled down to the fact that his doctor was wrong? Well, okay, then, show. I have to respect the straightforward, okay, we’ll just be moving on from this now moxie of it all.

Carson is the Absolute Best. The scene in which Carson and Mrs. Hughes discuss his feelings about leaving Downton – no shame, I almost cried. When Carson said that he thinks that he can help Lady Mary get it right in the early years on her own when it’s so important to do things properly and then told Mrs. Hughes a story about Mary’s childhood? It’s utterly the sweetest thing I think I’ve seen this season, and possibly during the entire run of the series. Oh, Carson. You’re so incredible. And then comes the scene where Carson tells Mary he can’t go with her because Richard is an awful person just broke my heart. Because he loves her so much, and he values her happiness, but he just can’t work for such a slimeball. I want to give him such a huge hug!

Sybil: Look at Your Life, Look at Your Choices. Meanwhile, back at the Honestly Does That Car Ever Run Garage, Sybil appears to tell Branson that life feels flat and she just misses the “hustle and bustle of the last two years” which, presumably, means the war, though I think she is possibly the tiniest bit off with her dates, but whatever. Sybil goes on to opine that she wants more from life than she did before the war, and doesn’t want to be stuck in the past like her family, pining for the old days. Branson asks if this means she’s made a decision on his awesome Run Away Plan, but Sybil says not quite, which is pointless, as we all know where this is going. Sybil actually touches Branson of her own free will this time, which is a total first.

Sybil then spends some time making speeches to anyone in earshot (Edith) about how she doesn’t want to go back to the old world because now she knows what it is to work and be tired from honest exertion and doesn’t want to go back to suffering through all those awful dress fittings. Shut up, Sybil. I’m not sure how realizing how much more she wants out of life now that the war is over and social roles have changed means contemplating running away with the chauffeur where she’ll be poor and ostracized from her family, but WHATEVER. Her going on about doing something drastic and not wanting to go back to what life was life before just shrieks of insane naïveté to me – she’s chasing this dream of some sort of idealistic “working life” that isn’t real and she’s going to break her heart on it. To be fair, I find this Sybil much more interesting to watch than, say, the bland cipher we’ve seen for a lot of this season, but I deeply wish that we’d spent some more time on seeing things from her perspective earlier on. I would have liked to have seen some sort of internal conflict within her – surely there must have been one? You don’t grow up in this kind of privilege and then decide to throw it aside with no qualms? It’s fine if this is the decision she ultimately makes – the Run Away Plan and no way back – but it might have been more palatable had we seen how she got there.

Can You be More Awesome, Maggie Smith? No, You Cannot. One of the things I find most interesting about the Dowager Countess is that for all that she’s the loudest traditionalist in the family – she’s the one who resists new fashions and activities the most vocally – she’s also an incredibly adaptable realist. Violet helped Mary during the great Mr. Pamuk incident in Series 1 and, despite her obvious disapproval, it’s Violet that is the first family member to come down even remotely on Sybil’s side about the Branson incident. Granted, this is largely because, to her, this is the sort of thing that happens to great families occasionally, and not because of any real liking for Branson, but still. And it’s Violet, again, who takes the bull by the proverbial horns and finally has a much needed and long awaited sit down with Cousin Matthew about the fact that it’s obvious to people living on Mars that he and Mary are still in love with one another.

Really, that entire scene in Matthew’s bedroom is perfection. And it’s a lovely reminder that while both the Dowager Countess as a character and Smith’s performance as an actress are indeed wonderful comic relief a lot of the time, they are both so much more than that. Her line about marriage being a long business and choosing who you spend it with wisely was one of my favorites from this episode. (Tied with her comment that Branson has virtues, if only that he is a very good driver. I had to rewind that one twice from laughing.)

Further evidence of the Dowager’s perfection: Her uncanny realization that Edith is probably feeling upset about being the odd Crawley sister out in the family romantic stakes and making a point to say something comforting to her about it.

Ethel’s Storyline is Boring. Other than the fact that Ethel’s sudden appearance at the luncheon with Major Bryant’s parents turned that entire sequence into Great Trainwreck Theater, there’s nothing worthwhile about this plot. There’s no fresh twist on this story (woman done wrong, abandoned by man, forced to raise a child alone) and the fact that it happens to a character we don’t really know that well or feel very much for makes Ethel’s scenes a slog to get through. (Think how invested we would be here if this was Anna or Daisy?)

Sybil and Branson: Worst Couple Ever. Back in the Cars Come Here to Die Garage, Sybil ducks out of the dinner party celebrating Matthew’s recovery to tell Branson that her cousin’s miracle has convinced her that the war is really over and it’s time to move on with life. (????) She then breathily says something stupid about being ready to travel and calls Branson her ticket out of Downton and out of her posh and pointless life. Shut up, Sybil.  And lo, finally, after millions of episodes of build up, Sybil and Branson kiss. And it’s really awkward. Because despite the fact that we’ve had a season and a half to get this couple to this point, to build up to this kiss and these emotions and this commitment, every bit of this sequence feels unearned to me. I am a big sap, as evidenced by my reaction to the recital scene back in episode 3, and by all rights I should be freaking out and shrieking with glee about this development, because we’ve waited so long for anything that looks like real progress between this couple. But I just feel like all of this came out of nowhere.  I don’t believe that Sybil fully understands what she’s choosing and I think her idealistic view of some “other life” that isn’t Downton is as much a fantasy as Branson’s ideas about how people of Sybil’s class spend their time.  It’s odd – Mary and Matthew are often just as frustrating as these two and are complete idiots about their relationship about 95% of the time, yet I can’t help but root for them to be together. With Sybil and Branson, even my rage has started to feel as one-note as their love story.

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary. There’s so much happening with Mary this episode. Her behavior rockets from downright petty and spiteful (her awful comments after Carson tells her he can’t come with her to Haxsby), to heartbreakingly cynical (“Aren’t we all stuck with the choices we make?”) to obviously lovestruck (dancing with Matthew). Consequently, we, as viewers ricochet emotionally from wanting to slap her, hug her or cheer for her. Mary is frequently awful, frequently unlikeable, and frequently awesome – and I think the reason that her character ends up working, that you end up hoping for her happiness even when you want to shake her is that we’re allowed to see all these facets of her character for both good and ill. It makes her a complete person.  In contrast, it’s a luxury that isn’t afforded to Sybil, for example, and her character suffers for it greatly.

What Goes Around Comes Around, Thomas. Or, to continue this topic using a pop music metaphor, that, Alanis, is ironic. There’s something soooo satisfied about watching Thomas, master schemer, himself be taken in by a con. The scene where he trashes his storehouse of spoiled blackmarket food products felt like justice, and I only wished that Mr. Bates could have been there to see it, after everything Thomas put him through in the first season. Oddly, I’m not sad to see worming his way into staying at Downton in some capacity (talk about a 180 after Series 1!). He’s certainly is entertaining and I find his relationship with O’Brien fascinating, for all that I have no idea why they are friends other than the fact that they hate everyone else.

Look at Your Life, Look at Your Choices, Part II: The Robert Edition. There’s never been any doubt that Robert loves Cora and considers himself lucky to have ended up in a marriage of necessity that turned out to be a real love match. Therefore, it’s a bit hard to buy that he’d so easily have his head turned by the simple combination of Jane paying attention to him and Cora suddenly doing her best impersonation of Kate from Taming of the Shrew. So where on earth did this subplot come from? Other than watching Robert feel useless for not being sent to the front – which seemed to manifest primarily as him being annoyed at Cora for ignoring him and mopey about having to eat lunch by himself – there’s little indication about how or why Robert’s happiness has plummet to such a state that he would be actively involved in a romantic attachment with a housemaid. His entire character has been founded on duty and doing the right thing and this entire scenario just seems so unlike him. This guy is basically the Ned Stark of Downton Abbey. He probably talks about honor in his sleep.

No One Expects The Spanish Inquisition Flu. Or, I Can’t Believe I’m Upset They Killed Lavinia. The Spanish flu comes to Downton Abbey with a vengeance as half the attendants at a dinner gathering nearly pass out at the table. Cora is hit the hardest, vomiting all over the place and just generally looking as though she is five minutes from death, but after much angsting, she turns out to be fine. Lavinia also falls ill, but looks completely hale and hearty and manages to have complicated conversations, right up until five minutes before she dies. I know, I know, none of us are really surprised that Lavinia didn’t last the season, right? However, it is surprising to me that I am actually upset that the show killed her off.

I’ve come to quite like Lavinia over the course of the season –much more than I ever expected to. She’s an obstacle to Mary and Matthew’s happiness, but she’s not entirely one note. She’s brave and determined and obviously devoted to Matthew and a legitimately good person. It’s hard not to like her in some capacity. And I thought it was quite interesting that Lavinia told Matthew that she knew she wasn’t his first choice, knew he still had feelings for Mary, and that she’d be okay with him rethinking whether their marriage was something he really wanted. It’s quite a brave and selfless thing to do, facing up to the truth, and it certainly seems something Matthew himself isn’t capable of doing on this issue. I loved her for that conversation and I loved her self-awareness that she didn’t want to be Queen of the County, that she was just a normal, ordinary person who wasn’t anything grand. I was so disappointed that the show chose have Lavinia conveniently die rather than make Matthew face up and actually make a hard decision. (And, honestly, were I Mary, I might wonder for an awfully long time about what he would have done, if he had actually been forced to decide.)

Anna and Bates Get Hitched! I maybe possibly a little bit did some excited squealing when this finally happened. Go, Anna! So awesome to watch her stand up for what she wanted and finally make Bates stop waffling   I know that they’re clearly up for a world of suffering now that they’ve actually made it to the altar, but I’m so happy that at least one couple got a minute or two of genuine happiness that I don’t care. They’re so adorable and sweet. I’m glad that they at least got to have this moment – that we, as the audience who is rooting for them – got to have this moment, before Bates got carted off to prison. On the subject of Vera’s death, the rat poison that she apparently asked for screams to me that she killed herself in order to frame Bates for it, but I guess we shall see if that guess turns out to be right.

The Continuing Saga of Matthew and Mary. (Or, Shut Up, Matthew.) Dunn dunnnn. It’s Lavinia’s funeral and Extreme Stoic Matthew is back. Nothing good can come of this. Matthew, exhibiting championship skills at making everything about himself, tells Mary that Lavinia died of a broken heart because she saw the two of them kissing. Matthew actually calls their relationship cursed (not even kidding) and says that they basically killed Lavinia, and therefore the two of them can now never be together. Ever ever. Say it with me now: Shut up, Matthew.

So….apparently there was a lot to be said here. I beg pardon because at least the episode was two hours long! Thanks if you made it through, and hit the comments section to tell me what you thought!

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Twitter at @LacyMB