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'Downton Abbey' recap: 'I can be as contrary as I choose.'

January 23, 2012 |  9:26 am

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"I am a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose," says Violet. Later, when she hears convalescing soldiers clamor through an open door, she says, sighing, "Really. It's like living in a second-rate hotel where the guests keep arriving and no one seems to leave." With that, the Dowager Countess is back.

The ladies take the lead this week at "Downton Abbey." The cousins are almost at war, while the sisters make an uneasy (no doubt temporary) peace. Lady Mary has decided to say yes to Richard Carlisle; Lady Sybil is considering the overtures from Branson, the revolutionary chauffeur. Downstairs, Mrs. O'Brien starts to shift her allegiance from her fellow conspirator Thomas to Lady Grantham, making small moves that can have big effect. The house cooks quietly conspire to turn the Crawley house in town into a soup kitchen. Ethel, who wants nothing more than a next adventure, finds one in her Omar Sharif. And even Little Daisy, the lowest of the maids, makes two significant things happen: she inadvertently tips off the house that Mr. Bates is working in a pub in town, then insists that her sort-of-beau William's not coming back to Downton for a short leave means something must be wrong.

Something is: last we saw him, he was on patrol with Matthew, running into the forest with bullets coming from both directions. Now he's missing in action.

Cousin Isobel also quickly disappears from the scene. Her duties running the convalescing officers at Downton Abbey have been absorbed by the running of the house -- with a bit of velvet glove control from Lady Grantham. Sure, Isobel is annoyingly officious, but Lady Grantham locks her out rather cruelly. Isobel responds by marching off in a huff -- all the way to France, where she will serve the Red Cross where she's needed. An extreme reaction, perhaps -- not to mention dangerous.

Lord Grantham seeks out Bates; apparently, a Lord visiting a pub was a pretty unsual event in 1918. Even more unusual: he apologizes to him, admits that he's come to love Matthew like a son and his disappearance has him verging on despair. Then he invites Bates to return as valet, or perhaps valet-slash-confidante-slash-shrink. Bates, sick of slinging pints without Anna at his side, says yes.

After the jump: more, including an end-of-episode plot twist.

Michelle Dockery is really fantastic wrestling with the news of Matthew's disappearance: we see Lady Mary stricken and also gut-checking herself about her emotions, simultaneously feeling fear and sadness and trying to figure out what they mean about how she feels toward Matthew. By comparison, her sister Lady Sybil  -- Jessica Brown-Findlay -- comes up short. She's fine when enthusiastic, but flat just when she needs layers of emotions -- there is supposed to be an undercurrent of love to her conversations with the chauffeur, but Allen Leech is doing all the work. She seems disinterested, and Branson seems sort of insane.

Then there's Maggie Smith, who is simply incomparable. When the Dowager Countess learns that Matthew is missing, she shows a sliver of sympathy, to her son's surprise. "We're used to Matthew now," she explains. "God knows who the next heir will be. Probably a chimney sweep from Solihull."

Trust me, it's totally excellent when Maggie Smith says it.

The recuperating men are putting on a show, with a song from the presently detente-y Lady Edith and Lady Mary. Everyone joins in on the chorus, during which the missing Matthew and William appear. Lady Mary stops dead, Matthew joins in for a duet; romance sparks. After, she reaches out to him when he tells her of his anxiety about returning to the front; foreshadowing?

Then the two ratchet it back as they chat. Chat is clearly the romance killer. Matthew explains how they were lost behind enemy lines but got back safe, then they talk about Lavinia and Carlisle. One step forward, one step back.

Anna and Bates share hope for a perfect union. Daisy remains conflicted over the inexplicably smitten William. Ethel is fired and pregnant. We are reminded that love does not conquer all.

RELATED:

"Downton Abbey" recap: Power struggles and longing

Golden Globes: "Downton Abbey" wins for best television miniseries

"Downton Abbey" recap: back with a bang and a velvet frock

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in "Downton Abbey." Credit: Masterpiece Classics

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