Last week, Meredith bemoaned the rushed nature of Matthew and William's brush with danger - they were missing! And now they're back! Hooray!
Well, we probably should have spent a few more minutes celebrating their safe return, because it's time for both men to get their asses handed to them on the battlefront. But this time, it's personal - Matthew has spinal injuries resulting in paraplegia and William is going to die in exactly 57 minutes. I can be flippant about this now because I've already watched this season, but I can assure you that when I first watched this episode, I was making those sort of wet, racking, embarrassing sob-hiccup-like sounds, startling the cat. Poor, sweet, dead William.
I will admit that I am not a fan of this season: its rushed, frenetic pacing does a disservice to the story it tries (so quickly!) to tell. As a result, certain characters' actions can only be viewed as annoying, out of character, or plain stupid. We don't have the slow, languid build up of last season - a season in which it seemed perfectly plausible that one dead Turkish man could put a blight over an entire household - and the whole show suffers for it. But the one story this show is taking care to tell is the rise of its women - how both the upstairs and downstairs women in Downton Abbey are taking matters into their own hands. In this episode, we see a lot of that, which makes the contrast of Daisy and Lady Mary's storylines even starker.
So let's start with Daisy, since for the first time this season, I'm lined up to fight on her side. All season, this young girl has been told to just go along with it - to pretend to feel what she does not in order to make a young boy happy and give him something to live for. (I always presumed "not getting my ass blown up by Germans" was reason enough, but what do I know?) And as much as Daisy has protested, she has been portrayed as being just a little selfish, just a little whiny - because why shouldn't she want to make this young, sweet boy happy while he's off fighting the war?
But now, with William dying very quickly from damage to his lungs, she's pressured to accept his wedding proposal. For his part, William at least seems slightly cognizant of the fact that Daisy doesn't really love him, instead wooing her with the good sense that she can get his death benefits (which, hey, just as a note? Is as romantic a proposal as I can imagine.), but still the entire house, plus William's father, throw themselves behind William's request. And so here is Daisy, faced with a choice: she can give up her self-respect, her pride and, indeed, her genuine affection for William and distaste for leading him on in order to make a dying boy happy or she can be seen as a selfish bitch by everyone around her, denying their quickly waning hero his last chance at happiness. Well, at least her wedding bouquet is pretty.
Lady Mary finds herself in a similar position with the awful Sir Richard - Vera Bates is back and threatening Downton with exposure again, because Vera Bates merely exists to try to shove ridiculous plotlines that no one cares about ham-fistedly down our collective throats. To save Bates and Anna, not to mention her own neck, Lady Mary valiently travels to London to meet with Sir Richard and tell him the truth about her killer skills in bed. Sir Richard is as odious and slimy as one might expect; he practically claps his hands with glee at the prospect of being able to finally lord something over Lady Mary. If Downton Abbey were a cartoon, Richard Carlisle would be even now portrayed as a hunched-over old crone, possibly one with an equally evil yet impossibly fluffy cat sitting nearby. He promises Mary that he'll bail her out, but he lets her know that he now owns her; to wit, he publishes an announcement of their engagement the next day in his paper. This startles Lord Grantham, as one might expect, and renders him feeling even more useless. Grantham is a raging mess of wounded male pride and impotent fury right now - you might want to keep your eye on him.
Although Daisy and Mary both sacrificed something precious of themselves to ease the minds of others, the rest of Downton's female characters are nothing but industrious and strong. Maggie Smith, who of course is the highlight of every episode, bullies, panders or blackmails anyone who stands in the way of seeing William moved to Downton (the officious Dr Clarkson stresses that his hospital is only for rich people) and married to Daisy. Her tenacity even impresses Lady Edith, who might have found herself a new idol. The scene in which the Dowager Countess attempts to use the telephone is almost worth every bad moment in this entire season; it's simply amazing. Edith herself continues her trend of being quietly competent, tending to William with dedication and concern but also being wise enough to understand Daisy's personal angst. I know that Edith is no one's favorite but mine, but she is legitimately the only character who I solidly root for at all times.
Matthew, grief-stricken by Clarkson's prognosis that not only will he never be able to walk again but also he can't have sex, breaks up with Lavinia For Her Own Good. Breaking up with someone For Their Own Good is the most self-serving, ridiculous bullshit idea that humans have ever had, and we're the same species who once considered phrenology a respected science. Lavinia, to her credit, stands strong in the face of Matthew's angst and even genuinely bonds with Lady Mary as they individually ponder their lives without the possibility of Matthew's skills in the sack. And while Lady Mary's pride takes a big blow with Sir Richard, her competence and steely resolve while dealing with the extent of Matthew's injuries prove that she will never truly be a wilting flower.
Even Cousin Isobel, who I've never particularly liked, serves Matthew invaluably just by being herself: when she finally makes it to Matthew's side, his face all but crumples from relief at being allowed time with a woman for whom he has no artifice or responsibility. His mother is here, finally, and so finally he can allow himself to break down.
All of these women striding around with importance or gamely sacrificing themselves for more noble causes make me even more perplexed by Lady Sybil's continued romance with Branson. He is more obnoxious than ever in this episode, giving the verbal equivalent of a shrug and an "aw, shucks" face as he recounts to Sybil that the Romanovs have been murdered. He urges her to remember her socialist leanings; she, on the other hand, reminds him that when people are dying to left and right, lofty ideals don't mean a hell of a lot. He responds by hitting on her inappropriately and making fun of Lady Mary's unrequited love for Matthew. Branson, you're a hot, liberal Irish guy who fights against the oppressive and colonizing beast that is turn-of-the-century England. I should love you. Please stop making me loathe you. It's not the natural order of things!
Last but not least (well, actually, sort of least): Ethel and her baby are being fed by Mrs Hughes out of the Downton pantry. She has received no aid at all from Major Magical Mustache, to the great surprise of only Ethel. Meanwhile, Downton has broken their hard and fast rule of only hiring ginger maids and taken on Jane, the widowed wife of a soldier with several kids to feed. Hulk and Meredith will, in their turn, judge her presence accordingly, I'm sure. Hulk will be back next week to discuss episode 2.06; Meredith will add her thoughts to 2.07 and we'll all be back to dish on the season finale and the Christmas special, in which I can finally let loose with all the rage-filled CAPSLOCK-style anger I've been holding on to since September.