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I recently asked my long-suffering husband if he knew what "Downton Abbey" was, knowing he’s never seen a full episode, fully expecting him to shrug noncommittally. Instead he characterized it as “that show with all the rich people drinking tea on the lawn,” which is actually pretty correct.
In series two, things have changed. It’s 1916 -- two years since the garden party at which the unflappable Lord Grantham announced England’s entrance to the Great War. It’s worth noting that the United Kingdom’s human losses in WWI were significant, with over a million deaths across the whole of the empire, and over two million injured, and even still this was reasonable compared to the losses sustained by Germany and Russia. It was the bloodiest war the Western world had ever seen, and would only be topped by the losses of World War II, which we can hope will never be surpassed.
Anyway, war has changed everything, like it does, and arguably the war is the most important character of the second season, as it informs pretty much everything else that happens.
Matthew, the unlikely heir to the Crawley fortunes, is an officer in the army, and is naturally off being dutiful, noble, and sensible, just as we’d expect of him. He also looks very nice in a uniform.
Matthew has gone and gotten himself engaged to the improbably-named Lavinia Swire, whom I would be keen to despise if only she weren’t such an insufferable ray of sunshine. Girl is practically an angel, soft-spoken, kind, and totally out of her depth amongst the ever-snarky Crawley clan.
The news of Matthew’s engagement is broken to Lady Mary, recently returned from London, with characteristic bitchitude courtesy of Lady Edith. I think we’ve all tried to be understanding of Lady Edith’s sad neglected middle-child syndrome -- at least up until the last episode of the prior series, in which we learn that Edith betrayed her sister Mary’s deepest darkest secret in a letter to the Turkish embassy -- but it’s also possible that Edith is just not a nice person.
In case you’re lost, eldest daughter Mary implusively slept with a Turkish diplomat visiting Downton Abbey in the prior season, and he very amenably died on her. I mean literally died, on her. At which point Mary had to enlist the help of her mother and Anna the housemaid to surreptitiously carry the dead dude back to his own room in the middle of the night, so his corpse might be found in the morning in a less scandalous fashion. Edith, who is quite horrible, spread this story around in hopes of destroying her older sister’s life.
It seems the intervening years have done little to temper Edith’s awfulness. When members of the Order of the White Feather -- a wartime organization intended to embarrass dudes into enlisting in the army by presenting non-uniformed men with white feathers to indicate their cowardice -- crash a fundraising concert at Downton Abbey and humiliate William the footman, Edith sides with the feather-bearing women against those who might not be so keen to go into battle.
Worse, when she surprises a kneeling Mary in her room one evening, Edith laughs at her sister, asking if she’s praying. “What are you praying for?” she inquires mockingly. FOR DEAR MATTHEW’S SAFETY, YOU SANCTIMONIOUS LITTLE BRAT.
Yes, Mary’s still in love with Matthew, whose heart she both won and lost in the prior series, and it’s evident in every look she gives him. Matthew, on the other hand, is fairly convinced he’s going to die any minute now, and unbearably the two of them keep talking about how good it is to be “friends” again.
My favorite romance of this series, if it weren’t obvious, is the continuously thwarted Mary/Matthew, but I know that it’s valet Bates and housemaid Anna that most folks adore. The good news is, they’re not happy either. Bates’ erstwhile wife Vera has suddenly reappeared, and at first Bates thinks this is a positive development, as now that he knows where she is, he can pay her off and get the divorce he’s been after.
Bates totally jinxes things by asking Anna to marry him IMMEDIATELY, tantalizing us all with happiness. Enter the current Mrs. Bates, who doesn't actually want a divorce, and who demands that Bates quit his position at Downton and come back to her.
When Bates hesitates, his wife tells him she knows alllllll about Mary’s Turkish delight and Anna’s part in covering up the truth of it. Mrs. Bates' motivations are perplexing, as she seems to despise her husband, and yet she is insistent that he return to their married life togther. The chronically-gallant Bates follows her orders to protect the Crawley household, informing an enraged Lord Grantham (who might have to button his own shirt for a few weeks, HORRORS) and a distraught Anna that he is leaving tomorrow, refusing to give his reasons why.
Back upstairs, Sybil, the one daughter with a good head on her shoulders, has lost one friend too many in the fighting. With Isobel’s help, she is off to college to train as a nurse, having gotten some secret training in tea-making and other forms of self-reliance from the household staff, much to the astonishment of her parents.
When chauffeur Branson drops her off and they linger in their goodbyes -- this being the first time Sybil has been away from home -- Branson stuns Sybil by making a very clear declaration of his love for her, social boundaries be damned. Branson can be a dick sometimes, I know, but I like him! Sybil is predictably shocked, but promises not to say a word to her family lest Branson be fired for his romantic outburst, because I guess that was a thing that happened.
Obviously, I haven’t covered everything above, but that’s what the discussion thread is for. What’s your take on BranSybil? Are you as anxious during the scenes with Matthew on the front lines as I am? Will Bates and Anna ever get two minutes to just hold hands and feel happy? Also, pranking the new housemaid: all in good fun, or really kind of mean? Let’s talk about it.