Let us imagine for a moment, shall we, that this week's episode of Downton Abbey ended with the Earl of Grantham and the Dowager Countess walking out of the cemetery, discussing how they will bear up under the inconvenience of Sybil's less than ideal marriage to Branson. They are optimistic; after all, "the aristocracy has not survived by intransigence," the Dowager Countess reminds us. The Earl has just given his blessing, embraced Sybil and shaken Branson's hand. He overcomes both his selfish prejudice and his over-protective misgivings in order to maintain a relationship with his daughter. Mary and Matthew have firmly acknowledged that their unlucky love affair has reached its unshakable end (until next week), and Mary has responded warmly to Carlisle's offer to walk her back to the house, making it clear that she is accepting a life with him (until next week). Characters have made substantial decisions based not on the inevitability of fate or the manipulation of external forces, but by taking a stand and choosing between equally difficult options.
That's a lovely conclusion, isn't it? So warm, personal, authentic, that even in an episode filled with secret weddings and infidelities and black market scams and elopements and multiple death bed confessions, it felt, for a moment, that we had our wonderfully restrained and honest Downton Abbey back. But instead, the episode ended, after that terrifically compelling scene, with Bates' arrest in the middle of Downton, as he and Anna stupidly bring attention to his motive for possibly killing Vera Bates by confessing their love for one another while he is handcuffed. That is why you have the right to remain silent, idiots. So you don't incriminate yourselves in the most blatant manner possible.
The arrest may have been the most melodramatic moment of the episode, but Lavinia's convenient death certainly approached it. Lavinia courageously and selflessly frees Matthew from their engagement, and I found that encouraging. That was a brave decision firmly made by a character, and Matthew would have had to make his own decision to marry her regardless or skip along on his unfettered way to Mary's heart. Instead, the decision is taken out of his hands by those damned external forces that are constantly shaping these mushy balls of clay on a show that was once filled with strong characters, and Lavinia dies. Either of a broken heart, as Matthew smugly believes, or more likely by the Spanish influenza that racked her body. But before the sweet, mealy-mouthed little plot device passes, she actually says to Matthew, "Isn't this better?" Lavinia is quite possibly the most abominable push-over I have ever seen. She makes Molesley look like a hard-ass. It is better, Lavinia, but man alive, you shouldn't have to say that on your own death bed. Have a little self-confidence in the final moments of your life, please.
Yes, the flu is another immense external event affecting Downton, and it tidies up a few other complications beyond Lavinia. Carson falls ill, leaving Thomas to worm his way back into the Downton staff after an ill-advised black market scheme goes awry. Lady Grantham falls ill, allowing the Earl a moment alone to bone the maid before feeling awfully guilty when his wife almost dies. Fortunately, the maid turns in her resignation and removes Grantham from temptation, because the men in Downton only waft along, waiting for the women to tell them what to do. And poor old sad-sack Molesley gets a moment of concerned attention from everyone before they realize he's just drunk from one sip of wine, because Molesley is the Jerry Gergich of Downton Abbey.
But we did receive one moment of beautifully subtle character development in the midst of the flu, as O'Brien frets over the failing Lady Grantham, taking care of her all night with a heavy conscience and full heart. In this double episode (aired over separate weeks in the UK), we have moments of feeling sympathy for both O'Brien and Thomas, speaking to the talents of Siobhan Finneran and Rob James-Collier. We really shouldn't care much about either character by this point, but the two are always surprising us, and they really feel like the only two characters still capable of doing so anymore.
Well, that's not entirely true. The Dowager Countess surprised the hell out of me by barging into Matthew's room. Wow, Maggie Smith had a great episode this week, didn't she? The old DC risked impropriety to speak for Mary, defended Sybil's unorthodox choice and cheered up forever forgotten Edith, essentially proving that she is pretty much the most kick-ass Granny ever. Oh and while we're talking about fabulously strong women exerting their influence to help others: aww. Mary made a love nest for Bates and Anna! Glad they were able to share some post-coital pillow talk before he's shipped off to prison.
In even less rosy nuptial news, I guess Sybil's really going ahead with this Branson thing, huh? He's not as bullying and bossy lately, and she seems very happy, but really, doesn't she realize she doesn't love him? She literally tells him he's her ticket out of Downton and that's why she's marrying him. Still, I'm glad she'll get to be a nurse and that he's found a good job as a writer, and most of all, I'm glad that the Earl did the honorable, loving thing in offering his blessing. The gesture didn't go anywhere near making the Earl likable - inconstant, ineffectual thing that he is - but I approve of this one decision.
While the first half of the episode was all about getting everything back to normal after the war - which showrunner Julian Fellowes clearly didn't really feel like covering, so he just sort of skimmed over it in a way that makes me think he should have simply made the show only cover the years before the war - the second half of the episode seemed to present the the complicated distinction between guilt and grief. While Bates feels neither guilt nor grief over the death of Vera, most other characters are suffering from one or both. O'Brien's fierce sadness over Lady Grantham's waning health is embellished by her bitter regret. Matthew all of a sudden wishes he could have married Lavinia and claims that he can never be happy with Mary, merely because he feels responsible for Lavinia's contracting the flu and sacrificing herself on her death bed. The Earl of Grantham decides he shouldn't continue cheating on his wife after she nearly dies. Carson feels guilty for abandoning Mary to Carlisle - and Mary's a stone cold bitch about it until she remembers how much she loves him when he falls ill.
This elegant exposition on guilt and grief reminded me of the more refined first season of the show, despite the many bombastic, to use Hulk's phrasing, developments of the episode. And for once, the show did not feel frenetically paced, a concern we've all had but Erin most recently lamented. I feel that with next week's finale - which aired as the Christmas special in England, with the second hour of this week's episode being aired as the original finale, explaining the preposterously overblown moment of Bates' arrest - could bring us neatly to a third season that addresses and mends some of the issues that have plagued our beloved show this year. So tune in next week, when Erin, Hulk and I will all respond to the last episode of the season and to the second season as a whole.
Until then, some of the best quotes from this week to tide you over:
"Why not a dressing gown? Or better yet, pajamas?"
"I'm not sure how feminine I am."
"Would I ever admit to loving a man who preferred another woman to me?"
"Why don't I find that reassuring?"
"If you're turning American on me, I'll go downstairs."
"Don't be defeatist, dear. It's very middle-class."
"You are my stick." (aww.)