TBTS Reviews: Downton Abbey Season 2
As I mentioned in last week’s review of Downton Abbey Season 1, I’m late to discover this show’s greatness, but so very glad that I have. I powered through Season 2 in a matter of days; like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, the show must be devoured in one sitting.
The slowly unfolding drama of the first season seems absolutely calm in comparison to the second. While the first season dealt mostly with the entail and the developing relationship between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, the second season sees all this fade into the background in the face of war. The everyday domestic concerns seem trivial in comparison to what our protagonists now face: war, class upheaval, reform and revolution, and all manner of sadness and death.
Season 2 opens in 1916 in the battlefields of France, where Matthew Crawley is now stationed. Thomas the thieving footman is there as well, working as a medic. Matthew embraces his command and actually seems well-suited for it; as with his job as a solicitor before the war, he needs a purpose, something important to do with his days. Season 1 saw his struggle with accepting the life of landed gentry and the eventual inheritance of a position that requires daily maintenance of an estate he does not quite feel he has earned. His position in the war allows him to put that struggle on the back burner in the face of more pressing and dangerous concerns. Thomas is also struggling; he saw volunteering for the war effort as a means of escape from his lack of prospects at Downton Abbey, but failed to realize that would actually mean going to war. Ever the opportunist, he manages to sustain a bullet-wound to his left hand which gets him transferred back to Downton to work in the village hospital. Eventually he ends up back at the estate, in his old position as footman, and the irony is not lost on him.
Meanwhile, those left at Downton Abbey find themselves useless in the face of war. Lord Grantham is made the head of the northern army, but is disappointed when he discovers the title is only an honorary one. Sybil decides to become a nurse with Isobel Crawley’s help, and eventually they convince Lord and Lady Grantham to convert Downton Abbey into a hospital for recuperating soldiers. The change is not an easy one, and a power struggle ensues between Isobel and Cora that causes Isobel to volunteer with the Red Cross in France, leaving Cora in charge. Everyone soon finds a job to do, even Edith, and the hospital becomes the focus of everyone’s daily lives. The only outlier is Lord Grantham, who resents the upheaval in his home and his family, and finds himself and his old ways completely superfluous.
Mr. Bates and Anna, having finally declared their love for each other, start planning their lives together. Mr. Bates’ mother has died, leaving him a sum of money that he feels will guarantee a divorce from his wife. Vera Bates has other plans, however, and she spends most of Season 2 conniving and scheming to undo John’s happiness. She blackmails him with threats to go to the press with the story of Lady Mary and the Turk, and he agrees to go back to her in exchange for her silence. He leaves Downton, and Anna, but the separation is not a lengthy one. Eventually he discovers his wife’s unfaithfulness and returns to Downton. Vera retaliates by committing suicide and making it look as if John murdered her. The season ends with Mr. Bates on trial for her murder, and though he is found guilty, an appeal is in the works.
The end of the war brings the return of some normalcy to the estate, though Matthew has been seriously wounded and may not walk again. His fiancée, Lavinia, pledges her love and support, and they plan their wedding. Meanwhile, Lady Mary agrees to marry Richard Carlisle, a newspaper magnate who pays to keep her shameful story out of the press. On the eve of Matthew and Lavinia’s wedding, the Spanish flu strikes the household, nearly killing Lady Cora. Lavinia sees a moment of passion between Matthew and Mary, and releases Matthew from their engagement just before she dies of the flu. Matthew feels so guilty that he tells Mary he could never allow himself to be happy with her. Mary eventually breaks off her engagement with Richard Carlisle after her father learns of her true reason for marrying him and convinces her that her happiness is not worth the risk of scandal. The season finale, set in early 1920, sees Matthew and Mary finally coming together.
As Season 2 draws to a close, we feel, as the characters feel, a little older, a little wiser, a little heavier. There has been much sadness brought down on their shoulders in the last four years, and no one escaped the war unharmed or unchanged. The changing of the decade brings the beginnings of a strange new world. Some, like Sybil, embrace the change and welcome it. Others, like Lord Grantham, seem fearful in its prospects. But everyone seems to realize that change is inevitable, that their lives are no longer as sheltered as they felt before the war. Thankfully, everyone also seems to realize how fragile and precious they all are, and they no longer take for granted the privileges they enjoy or the people in their lives who really matter to them.