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'Downton Abbey' recap: Oh no, Matthew!

January 30, 2012 |  7:00 am

Rats lurk, the landscape is barren and the British soldiers ready themselves for a charge against the Germans. Not just any soldiers: it’s the troops led by Matthew Crawley with his faithful assistant William, the former footman. There is much stiff-upper-lipping, and then the quixotic race across a muddy field as the men are shot and bombarded. A few Germans are taken prisoner, but what does that matter when Matthew (and William) are down?

Back at Downton, not one but two ladies feel the cold hand of fate clutching at their men. In the kitchen, Daisy starts (maybe she loves William after all?) and upstairs, a teacup slips from the hand of Lady Mary, who feels a chill.

Actual news takes longer to travel, however, and it’s the middle of the night when Molesley shows up with a telegram meant for Isobel, who herself is off in France aiding the Red Cross. With the entire family standing around in their robes, Lord Grantham tells them that Matthew has been seriously injured and is on his way to the hospital in the village.

Then the camera pulls around and we see the Downton staff waiting behind a threshold, as if held by an invisible force field. “What about William? Is he all right?” Daisy asks. The telegram doesn’t say. It’s the most painful illustration of class difference in the series so far. The Lords and Ladies learn terrible news first, while their servants have to wait before they can even ask, huddled around a corner.

But just when the injustice of the class system starts to rankle, along comes Maggie Smith to make us embrace the elite imperiousness of a Dowager Countess.

After the jump: Maggie Smith’s best lines of the episode, and spoilers galore.

“Dr. Clarkson, I am no Jacobean revolutionary, nor do I seek to overthrow the civilized world,” the Countess says. “We just need one bed for a young man from this village.” That would be William, who has been sent to Leeds. Dr. Clarkson has the thankless task of being the bureaucrat who turns Violet down.

As she leaves his office, she tells Lady Edith, “It always happens. You give these little people power and it goes to their heads like strong drink.”

Snort. The Dowager Countess is on the case. Later, when she’s using the telephone, she says to Lady Edith, “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?” Yes please, more lines like this for her!

Lady Mary is intent on visiting Matthew at the hospital, as if he’s her man to visit. She’s there, Lavinia shows up, and when the doctor (spoiler alert) tells them Matthew has a spine injury that will mean he’ll never walk again, Lady Mary’s expression runs from sadness to hope. Is she thinking Lavinia may walk away, leaving Matthew in her hands? Lavinia weeps.

The doctor takes Lord Grantham into another room. “You mean there can be no children?” he asks as we see Lady Mary comforting Lavinia in the background. “No anything, I’m afraid,” the doctor says, with classic British restraint. Lord Grantham is worried about his line – if Matthew is the heir, and he can’t have children, what does that mean? – and maybe he’s also sad about Matthew losing his capacity for that “anything.” Earlier, Lady Mary had made her father promise to tell her everything about Matthew’s condition. How will he tell her this? He won’t.

Yet it’s Lady Mary who breaks it to Matthew that his spine is injured. To his face she is resolute and positive, even encourages him to plan a future with Lavinia; as she turns away, her face collapses in tears. Once-cheery Matthew slides into depression, and orders Lavinia away, explaining that they can never be “properly married.” More restraint. When Lavinia blurts the news out to Mary, she finally says it outright, admitting they can never be lovers.

Meanwhile, poor sweet William has been moved to Downton, but his condition is even worse than Matthew’s. Although he looks intact, we’re told his insides were too damaged by the impact of a blast and he is slowly dying. He won’t make it to another episode, but he’s got enough time to want to marry Daisy. She protests to everyone that it’s not right, because while she’s fond of him it’s not in that way. Everyone steers her into the marriage, and they all – including the Dowager Countess, who insists her sniffles are due to a cold – cram into William’s convalescent room for a bedside ceremony. When new bride Daisy bends down and kisses dying husband William on the lips, it wakes up something inside of her. Either she’s realized she loved him after all, or has grown up enough to simply do this to make him happy.

Will Lavinia do as Matthew has asked and leave in order to make him happy? She tells Lady Mary she’ll die without him; maybe she’ll stay. Lady Mary is conflicted.

Conflicted or not, Lady Mary’s marriage plans are steaming ahead. She tells Sir Richard Carlisle all about her dead-man-in-the-bed secret and asks him to stifle the efforts of Mrs. Bates to get it in the papers. Carlisle agrees, and in a tense moment decides rather than dumping Lady Mary that he’ll accommodate and marry her, with her secret shame putting them on more equal footing. Except he says it more nicely than that.

Mrs. Hughes is secretly bringing food to Ethel, the former maid who is now a single mother; the babay's officer father refuses even to read her letters. The servants are having a tough time of it. “You won’t be happy long,” the wicked Mrs. Bates tells her husband and Anna, and I’m inclined to believe her.

Matthew is also miserable. The handsome barrister-turned-heir is now, in his own words, “an impotent cripple stinking of sick.”

Poor Matthew. Rest in peace, William.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Matthew and Lavinia in happier times. Credit: PBS