Downton Abbey Review: Welcome to WWI

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The season 2 premiere of Downton Abbey reminded us why the Crawleys are kind, considerate and compassionate people, genuinely interested in everyone around them. Their own livelihood, that of their town, their country, their home and their staff are all equally important. That they take nothing for granted is unique in a story of this type and makes them utterly charming.

From the moment Matthew and his mother stepped foot onto Downton Abbey, I fell in love with them. But I didn't realize how much I cared for Matthew until I saw him on the WWI battlefront in the opening scene. As the third cousin once removed and heir to Downton Abbey, what could have been a painful situation for the family turned into one of mutual respect and admiration, as he and Isobel proved themselves worthy to the task of looking after the Abbey.

Going to War

Whereas the sinking of the Titanic put Matthew into a position he could never have dreamed at the start of the series, his own life is now in jeopardy as he fights for his country, beside the very same people he had come to know as household help just two years earlier. It's an extraordinary sequence of events demonstrating how easily circumstances can change for any one of us, no matter our position in life. That the residents of the Abbey treat each other justly works in their favor because their situations continue to transform.

If ever there was a catalyst for transformation in Europe, World War I was it. The Abbey is left with few men on staff, and the Earl of Grantham himself is embarrassed to be dismissed from active service and used merely as a morale booster in the war effort. Still, not understanding of the changing times, Violet has taken it upon herself to ensure the Abbey is not completely without man-servants by using her station to speak with the local Army doctor about medical conditions she believes would keep some male staff from duty.

It was particularly upsetting to learn of this hidden deal when two women attending a fundraising concert at the Abbey stood up and handed out white feathers signifying cowardice to the young men left behind. With Isobel hard at work on the war effort and her own son in the trenches, once she learned of Violet's deception, she demanded that each man be evaluated on their own merit for service. Only Mr. Mason begged release.

It was no surprise that Sybil felt so greatly the need to assist in the war effort. After speaking her mind to Isobel, the latter suggested she learn some things from the help - such as how to make her own bed, clean the floors and learn cooking skills so she would have talents to start with in the nursing career. That she wouldn't know how to do those things never entered my mind, but it was absolutely joyful watching her in the kitchen. The richness of the household relationships was at its best during those scenes.

Mr. Carson felt he needed to let Cora in on the secret, and the love on her face as she watched Sybil successfully remove a cake from the oven that was to be a surprise for her mother was beautiful. I assume it's because Sybil is their youngest child and the decision to tackle nursing meant leaving the Abbey is why Carson was so concerned about Sybil's desires... because Edith was busily learning to drive in the event William was called to war and they were in need of a chauffeur. Although her driving caused much laughter, it didn't cause any other undue concern.

Mary's engagement was to be the family's salvation of Downton Abbey, and when her fiance died on the Titanic and Matthew was introduced, everyone naturally thought they would make a match. But she was used to getting what she wanted, and at that moment in time it wasn't Matthew. A dalliance ending in the death of a suitor is still causing ramifications for the Abbey years later. Because of Edith's jealousy, what could have remained a household affair became a scandal on the national level. Now it's Anna's turn to suffer for her role in the affair.

After returning from his mother's funeral, Bates believed his estranged wife, Vera, would finally grant him a divorce and that the love he shard with Anna would be allowed to bloom. Before asking her to marry, he asked Robert for a nearby cottage so they could continue their service at the Abbey. Unfortunately, when his wife went to find a job of her own, they mentioned the scandal and Anna's role in it.

Seizing the opportunity, Vera made way for Downton Abbey, demanded John remain married to her and leave the Abbey immediately lest she throw the entire Abbey under the bus, so to speak. Anna was devastated, Robert was distraught at the loss of his friend and Bates fell on his sword to save those he loved from any harm at the hands of his wife.

In one of the most surprising turn of events, we learned Matthew had been visiting London but had not come to the Abbey when he had time off of the lines. During those visits, he had fallen in love and become engaged. On the occasion of the concert, he decided it was time to bring his fiance home and introduce her to the family. It was also time for he and Mary to mend fences. Mary acted as though she was happy for him, but the love everyone once thought inevitable had indeed peaked, but it was too late.

She saw him off at the train station and Matthew asked her to look after his mother should he not return, as well as his fiance, Lavinia. Mary had been her own worst enemy, but once she understood what she felt for Matthew, she wouldn't let him return to the front without giving him something to think about during battle.

Carson gave Mary advice to tell Matthew what she feels for him, in case the worst happens and in the event it might change his mind about Lavinia. My advice to her would be not to invite newspaper magnates as potential suitors when Matthew is around, although Sir Richard was refreshing in his lack of social skills. None any of this changed the circumstances of how Mary or Matthew felt, nor did it explain how Richard and Lavinia knew each other. Something odd is definitely afloat.

Elsewhere, Sybil was working at the hospital and Lady Cora arranged to have an injured Thomas reassigned there as well. When they were forced to send a soldier away from before he was ready to go, he committed suicide and the savagery of the act opened the door of Downton Abbey to become a convalescence home for recuperating soldiers.

Other thoughts:

  • Mr. Carson's nasty attitude finally caught up with him. He had what would now be called a panic attack during a dinner party. He refuses to let maids do the work of footmen, even when there are no footmen available. All he does is complain and then he wonders why he gets flustered.
  • It was a hoot watching Edith pull a giant tree stump out of the ground with a tractor when she went to work at a neighboring farm. After the giant fuss she made over Mary's indiscretion, she's kissing a married man? It got her fired.
  • How awful was it that Mrs. Patmore's nephew was shot for cowardice? I can't even imagine receiving that news.
  • Am I the only one who thinks William looks just like the a grown up Charlie from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (original)?
  • I can't imagine feeling for someone what Anna feels for Bates. To be so deeply and surely in love. How wonderful that must be, even having been separated.
  • Miss O'Brien's constant toying with new maid Ethel was mean and I'm glad it let up somewhat by the second hour.

Things are sure to remain highly engrossing as we follow the upstairs and downstairs Abbey residents moving through World War I. Come back next week for the second installment of this season's Downton Abbey.

Season 2 Premiere Review

Editor Rating: 5.0 / 5.0
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Rating: 4.6 / 5.0 (78 Votes)

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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Downton Abbey Season 2 Episode 1 Quotes

Anna, help me do battle with this monstrosity. It looks like a creature from the lost world.


But no, I'm not back in the Army. It appears they don't want me.

Lord Robert