Episode four of Downton Abbey’s second season was its strongest narrative yet. It was all about honoring debts and contracts, both written and unwritten and no one was immune.
The episode began with an even further blurring of the line between upstairs and downstairs, as Matthew and William prepare for a battle in Amiens that they seem to know they can’t win, as the ominous ticking of Matthew’s pocket watch counts them down into battle.
Daisy and Mary both feel as if someone “walked over their grave,” and sure enough, Moseley arrives at the main house late at night with a telegram about Matthew’s condition meant for Isobel who is still volunteering in France.
If you had told anyone (Carson in particular) last season that the family and the staff would have all ended up in the main hall in their PJ’s, they would have said you were dreaming, or sent you off to Dr. (excuse me, Major) Clarkson for your head to be examined.
Speaking of Clarkson, Violet isn’t too pleased with him because she has to force his hand to relent to William staying in the Downton hospital when it is only meant for officers. Thomas doesn’t have a whole lot to do this episode, but when he hears about Clarkson standing on ceremony regarding William’s care, he mildly shocks everyone by saying that “it bloody well isn’t fair.” To the room of surprised faces, he explains that even though he’s wearing the uniform, he’s a working-class boy too, just the same as William. Is Thomas’ moral code kind of screwy? Sure. But never let it be said that he doesn’t have a sense of justice or loyalty.
O’Brien is loyal too, but her penchant for scheming seems to have gotten the best of her. She sent a letter to Vera Bates (who is the worst, but only second to Richard Carlyle) telling her about John’s whereabouts, which she instantly regrets after realizing Vera’s plan to drag the Crawley name through the mud. In one of their patented secret stairwell chats, O’Brien says “I’ll not be standing by while she brings misery and ruin down on my lady.” To which Thomas replies, incredulously (well, as incredulous as a person can be with smirk still on their face) “You started it!”
But the worst is still coming. William wants Daisy to marry him before he goes. Daisy will be a war widow, with a pension, and he’ll know that she’ll be taken care of and she know’s that leading him on will always be on her conscience. With Daisy dressed in her Sunday best and William immobile in his hospital bed, they are married. The biggest room that William is ever going to sleep in is decked out with garlands of beautiful flowers fit for both a wedding and funeral. And Daisy stays by his side until he doesn’t need her or anyone anymore.
The ceremony is performed by the vicar, who Violet awesomely strong-arms into doing it. He has some doubts about Daisy and William’s motivations, but Violet tells him to suck it up and work around them, because the only reason why he can afford to have scruples is because Robert pays him. “I tried and failed to save him from conscription, and I will certainly attend his wedding.” You don’t mess with the Dowager Countess, even if she can’t figure out how to use the telephone.
A little Downton levity.
But the hits just keep on coming, and they are devastating. In spite of William’s sacrifice, Matthew’s spine is permanently damaged. Though he may regain most of his health, Clarkson’s prognosis is that he will never walk again. And he will never be able to have children. The most heartbreaking scene of the series thus far, was Mary valiantly trying to soft-pedal the truth and Matthew’s look of utter self-loathing and resignation through his tears as he worked out what his life would be like now.
Mary is perhaps the character that has changed the most this season. She comforts poor Lavinia without agenda because Matthew has set her free, telling her “I won’t steal away your life.” And in an act that is an even further blow to a pride that was once legendary, she goes to Sir Richard to try and put a gag on Vera, and it’s terrible. In case we weren’t completely sure at the start of the season, now we know. Richard is a sketchy jerk with a disgusting sense of entitlement.
Mary, admirably, owns up to the mistake. And Richard agrees to fix it, but it comes with a price. In his mind, since Mary “sullied” herself, they would enter into a marriage agreement as equals. And he plans to hold it over her head for the rest of their lives. “As my future wife, you’re entitled to be in my debt.” Seriously Mary, run. Run as far and as fast as you can. Vera is tricked into giving up the story and could be thrown in jail if she breathes a word of it, and Richard prints the engagement announcement posthaste.
I almost made it through the episode without crying, but once Isobel walked into that grand old room to see her Matthew lying there, I started to tear up. This was definitely the turning point and it will be interesting to see how Fellowes and company negotiate, as Mary said “the start of a different life” for this family.
Above, Sophie McShera as Daisy