War plays a critical role in the developments of Downton Abbey in the first episode of Season 2. The show picks up in the Fall of 1916 during World War I, with Matthew Crawley and Thomas fighting in The Battle of the Somme. Though the opening scene demonstrates that their lives have drastically changed since the end of Season 1, they are not the only beloved characters of Downton whose lives have been altered by the Great War.
Life back at Downton Abbey is clearly another world in comparison to the horrors in France. The servants downstairs have received a new housemaid, Ethel, who seems to be extremely outspoken about her responsibilities as a maid. Though she is optimistic about her life after the war, her positive outlook seems to rub everyone downstairs the wrong way. In addition to this new source of conflict, William and Mosley are both frustrated by the fact that they cannot join in the war effort. This disappointment changes the relationship between Daisy and William significantly when he expresses his love for her in the Downton kitchen. Though I think Daisy is flattered by William’s confession, it doesn’t seem as if she is ready to return a similar degree of affection.
However, the lifestyle of the privileged never really seems to change much in times of war. Though Lord Grantham is aiding in the war effort, he is not expected to experience any type of combat. Instead, his role as Colonel of the North Riding Volunteers is merely symbolic. What is more, the women of Downton are carrying about their normal routines, without seeming to worry much about what is going on over in France. This false sense of security changes, however, when Lady Sybil finds out that one of her friends has passed away as a result of the war. Even though Lady Sybil tries to hide her bad news from her parents, the tragedies of war have finally hit the Downton household. This reality is confirmed when Lady Sybil claims that “sometimes it feels as if all the other men I’ve danced with are dead.” This scene functions to change the entire spirit of Season 2 as many of the characters of Downton Abbey are finally forced to acknowledge the realities of war.
But the tragedies of war also prove to be instrumental in changing the role of women. Though Lady Mary and Lady Edith still remain true to tradition, Lady Sybil expresses her desire to help with the war effort. This is by far one of my favorite parts of the episode, because even though Lady Sybil does not have any true talent, she wants to help those who are affected by the war. Although Lady Sybil cannot cook, clean, or make her own bed, she decides to be trained to become a nurse. Perhaps in future episodes to come Lady Sybil’s compassion for others will rub off on the other women of Downton.
For now, however, the other women of Downton are still preoccupied with the aristocratic duties of marriage and charity. To aid in the war effort, the ladies and servants of Downton have planned a concert to raise funds for the village hospital. Since the war started, the hospital has been receiving many more casualties than usual, and it no longer has the space to properly accommodate all of the injured men.
But the charity concert also functions to reunite two of Downton’s most beloved characters. Last season, Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley parted after Matthew decided that he needed to leave Downton Abbey. Yet, the reality of war changed everything when Matthew was forced to enlist. Though Matthew is currently away fighting in the trenches, he has announced that he will be attending the charity concert with his new fiancé Lavinia Swire (played by Zoe Boyle). Lavinia is a sweet, naive, London native, who claims to be deeply in love with Matthew, but she seems to be nothing more than that. When she finally meets the strong-willed women of Downton at the charity concert, this flaw in her character is painfully evident.
Although Lady Mary warmly greets Lavinia Swire, the romantic connection between her and Matthew is still quite obvious. When Matthew finally speaks to Lady Mary, it seems as if both characters are relieved by the fact that they are reunited. But Matthew is spoken for, and he is leaving for France in the morning. Though Lady Mary and Matthew are finally on good terms, Matthew may never come back to Downton Abbey after the war. In what seems to be a final plea for affection, Lady Mary says goodbye to Matthew at the train station and gives him a good luck charm. It is this scene that makes Lavinia Swire’s existence almost completely insignificant.
After Matthew’s departure, things seem to calm down until Mr. Bates is forced to leave Downton. His former wife Vera comes to collect him after she threatens to expose Lady Mary’s scandal regarding Mr. Pamuk to the London press. This is a horrible tragedy for Anna, as Mr. Bates finally proposed to her earlier in the episode. But Mr. Bates is not the only beloved character who will be leaving the Downton home. Lady Sybil also leaves Downton at the end of the episode to be trained as a nurse. Though Cora seems to have a great deal of trouble saying goodbye to her youngest daughter, Tom Branson also makes Sybil’s departure difficult. He has finally declared his love for Lady Sybil, but Lady Sybil cannot yet reciprocate his feelings.
While Anna and Tom are left without their loved ones, the footman Thomas is over in France desperately seeking an escape from the trenches. Throughout the episode, Thomas is recognized as a coward as he constantly thinks about his comfortable life as a footman back at Downton. In the traumatic final scene of the episode, Thomas purposely draws attention to his hand, so that he is shot by enemy fire. In the final moments of the episode, Thomas is caught clutching his bleeding hand and thanking God for deliverance.
Overall, this episode was a superb start to the second season of Downton Abbey. Not only have the elegant costumes drastically improved, but Julian Fellows seems to have brilliantly changed many of the shows’ most esteemed characters. After watching the interaction between Lady Mary and Matthew, I can’t wait to see if there is still one more chance for the two to end up together. I’m not sure what other viewers thought, but it also seems as if the themes of this season will be less like Pride and Prejudice and more like Ernest Hemingway’s In Love and War. Whatever the outcome, I cannot wait to watch the rest of Season 2! No wonder the show has received such rave reviews!
If your still interested in further analysis about this episode, check out the PBS synopsis by clicking here.