Downton Abbey Season Two: Poor William

Everything I know about WWI, I learn from watching Oh! What A Lovely War.

It may seem odd to learn history from a musical, but OWALW is no ordinary musical. It was historically accurate, with historical figures uttering famous lines, all of the music was taken from actual songs sung at the time, and like WWI, the musical drags on forever at the end until the Americas show up and then very suddenly, it’s all over. (As an aside, for those Downton fans who have not seen it, I highly recommend it as a movie. Among other delights it features a scene with Maggie Smith, in her prime.)

I bring this up because towards the end of OWALW there is a scene that stunned my 8-year-old self the first time I saw it, and to this day still blows my mind. I found myself wondering the other day if we would in fact get to seeing it on-screen here, or if William and Matthew would do us all a solid and get themselves injured and sent home first. As 1918 drags on, the troops are ordered to strap their bayonets on their weapons, and at 5am precisely on a day in September the entire British Army jumped out of their trenches at what was known as the Fifth Battle of Ypres and ran like idiots straight into the gunfire of the Germans in an act of mass suicide at the behest of General Haig, who never let a little thing like the reality of the war get in the way of his reasoning.

Something about that scene, with the commanders anxiously staring a their pocket watches and holding their whistles has always stayed with me. That is why, as this week’s episode opened, and Matthew pulled out his pocket watch and stared anxiously at it, I knew, all at once, what we were in for.

So is this where I get to gloat for calling it that William’s fatal injuries are sustained when he throws himself in front of a shell to try to save Matthew’s life? I don’t really feel like gloating. Watching Daisy bow to the pressure on all sides to keep up the charade of wanting to marry William and then being forced to go through with the marriage to make him happy was squirm inducing. For her sake, I almost hoped they left him in the hospital in Leeds, but of course, that couldn’t really happen. What did disappoint me was that they left it to Violet to pull her strings at the proper Board of Directors to get him home. Something in the way Thomas seemed to take it personally that William wasn’t being allowed to come home because he wasn’t of the right class gave me hope that we would finally see Thomas doing right by William. But no. It was more realistic for it to be the Duchess who pulled the proper strings, even if it wasn’t as emotionally satisfying. (Though we did get to see her battle with a telephone. The Dowager Countess vs Technology is always a satisfying experience.) Even William himself pushed Daisy to go through with it so she could be a war widow with a pension, so he could leave her something. Considering the absolute lack of self agency she’s shown up until now, there’s a level of nobility in William’s actions. In the end, Daisy does the “right thing” both for him (and for her), and accepts the inevitable of being his wife for a few hours before he dies. I cried at their wedding, as did Carson. I was glad that she stayed with him until the end. She may not be able to stand up for herself very well, but Daisy’s a good girl.

What I didn’t see coming was how injured the story would decide to make Matthew. Spinal injury, never to walk–or have standard issue heterosexual sex–again? Why am I sure that the feeling will miraculously return to his legs (and other parts) just as soon as Lavinia has been safely married off to someone else now that he’s sent her away? These sorts of spinal injuries do miraculously heal themselves in novels all the time. Until then, we get to see Mary doing the penance of acting as his emotional wife, holding the vomit bowl for him and tending to his bedside. Mary may write it off as nothing in front of Matthew’s mother, but Isobel is quite right–it’s the exact opposite of nothing.

The real question is, when Matthew does experience this miraculous healing, how will Mary extract herself from the engagement to Sir Richard?

The return of Mrs. Bates at O’Brien’s meddling was not unforeseeable, but I’m hoping now that it blew up in her face, and even Thomas disapproved of it, that our “evil twosome” will finally stop doing stupid obnoxious things for the sake of doing stupid obnoxious things. Vera’s return, and her announcement that she was taking Lady Mary’s story to the papers was the perfect impetus for Mary to go to Richard and come clean, hoping to sell her soul for his silence. Good thing Richard was in the market for souls. This story tied Lady Mary to him in a way that a regular engagement would not have, and her dirty laundry made him feel as if they were just a little more equal than they were before. Mrs. Bates may have been the one to sign the contract to sell her story to Richard exclusively for him to do with as he pleased on pain of lawsuit, but the moment when Richard took Mary’s leather gloved hand, she signed a contract just as binding, and in her own blood. Unlike Daisy, she won’t even get a war widow’s pension for her trouble. Just silence. Not that it will save Bates. Poor Anna may believe their garden is rosey, but Mrs. Bates’ target was never Mary. The upper class may have been saved from embarrassment, but at what cost to Bates himself?

These two stories took up so much of our episode, there was barely room for anyone else. Sybil and Branson were relegated to only a couple of moments, though those were important ones. Branson had to face that his idealistic vision of a bloodless coup was not realistic. But the real turning point was Sybil’s breaking down her guard long enough to find herself within arms reach of him for the first time, and his reaching out to touch her. It may have only been a moment, a hand on her hip to stop her from walking away, but after a season where she always kept a good five foot space between them, this was a huge step forward in their relationship.

Meanwhile, Ethel has magically given birth to a 6 month old in the space of Spring to Fall, and Mrs Hughes is quietly feeding her out of the Downton kitchen. She does try to do Ethel a second solid of contacting Major Dickwad Bryant and trying to force him to acknowledge paternity, but that’s about as effective as you might expect under the circumstances. Ethel can only find work scrubbing floors, lying that she is a war widow. Speaking of war widows, the new maid Jane, that replaces Ethel, is a real war widow with a son. The status of War Widow gets her a job that would not normally be open to her. Proof that men control things, even beyond their graves.

Now with William gone, and Matthew injured, I assume this is the last we’ll see of the war. It’s fall of 1918 at this point anyway, by my reckoning, so November 11th isn’t too far off…

3 thoughts on “Downton Abbey Season Two: Poor William”

  1. Are we sure that Jane really is a war widow?

    I assumed her real story was similar to Ethel, but from far enough away to keep up the fiction — that the whole Daisy/pension discussion was to point out that Jane wouldn’t be so desperately in need of work if it were true.

    1. As Mrs Hughes said “The difference is: we believe her.”
      I think it depends on the age of the child–if the kid turns out to be a toddler or younger, then yes, i think we might be seeing another Ethel. But if he’s school age, and remembers Daddy, that’s different.
      …also I don’t think William’s pension doesn’t mean Daisy doesn’t have to work. It just makes her life a bit more comfortable. But I don’t know what a war widow’s pension was back then.

  2. This is a good one and I’ll tell friends. I too remember OWALW very well and one of the most memorable scenes is Maggie Smith. It glitters with savage irony as these lemmings rush out.

    Miss Draek

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