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'Downton Abbey' recap: Back with a bang and a velvet frock

January 9, 2012 |  7:15 am

Downtonabbey_season2-1Bombs are exploding and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), ice blue eyes shining in a face grimed by mud, plans to leave the trenches for a short visit home to Downton Abbey.

"Life at Downton," he says. "It seems like another world."

And it is: a world of lovely dresses, handsome help and winsome gentry. The wildly addictive Masterpiece Classic "Downton Abbey" is back for its second season, with all the pomp and intrigue anyone might wish for.

World War I -- or as the Downtoners would say it, the Great War -- has been in progress for two years when the season opens, but our time in the European trenches is short. Matthew swiftly heads back to Downton, where the Crawleys are putting on a fundraiser to support the men at the front. There is tension about which men are fighting and which men have stayed at home, but really. What does that matter when Matthew and Mary are about to see each other again?

Don't get too excited. Matthew now has a fiancee, Lavinia; she gets to wear the greenest, shiniest dress of the 36 or so on display this episode. [See the gown tally below.]

We're swiftly reminded of the order of things. Cousin Isobel, Matthew's mother, has found an uneasy peace with the Dowager Countess -- if Mary won't marry Matthew, who stands to inherit Downton, then they all want to find a way to make things work (at least, on the surface). Mary feigns disinterest when she hears of Matthew's engagement -- then later bursts into tears. Can he really love Lavinia instead of her? Maybe, but don't count on it.

The music comes to a subtle halt as Mary and Matthew's eyes meet across the room. What's there -- is it love, anguish, desire, hope, disappointment?

That's upstairs. Downstairs, the servants are having more luck in love. Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) make sweetie eyes at each other. And wait, what's this? They're having a conversation on their own, all joy and smiles?

From a place to live to plans for children, Mr. Bates has mapped out a future for himself and Anna. She asks if it's a proposal: it is! A couple is going to end up together! Go Downton!

Note: Be happy while you can.

Young Daisy (Sophie McShera) is less scatterbrained. The cataract operation seems to have restored the sight of cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). The maid Gwen finally must have found a job as a typist because she is now gone from the series (actress Rose Leslie has found a job on "Game of Thrones") and her place is taken by Ethel (Amy Nuttall).

The malevolent Miss O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) puts Ethel through her paces; she has little plotting to do, what with the devilish, handsome Thomas (Rob James-Collier) off at the front. Where, when we finally catch up with him, we see he's a coward. Or justifiably terrified, what with all the mud, blood and helmet-piercing bullets he has to deal with.

"Things cannot be the same when there's a war on," says housemaid Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan).

"I do not agree," says Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). "Keeping up standards is the only way to show Germans that they will not beat us in the end." Yes, that polished silver will show them.

Sybil, teary-eyed, tells Cousin Isobel that she's received news that another man she knew has been killed: "Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead." She decides to go off to be a nurse, and her tasks include only bringing dresses that she can put on without a maid's help and learning how to make tea.

What's up with Lady Edith? Would you believe she's getting intimate with driveshafts and a farmer's stump?

Mary and Matthew  find a not-entirely-unflirtatious peace. She contrives a way to send him off, where they have a heart-tugging conversation, and gives him a good luck charm -- a small stuffed dog -- to keep him safe. When he gets back to the front, he unpacks it and Lavinia's photograph. But which does he tuck in his pocket when rushing toward danger? Maybe there's hope for Mary and him after all.

Meanwhile, Anna and Mr. Bates' happiness was terribly short-lived. His wife, Vera, shows up, ready to reclaim his new inheritance (RIP, mother Bates), and won't mind stooping to blackmail if it's her best method of doing so. He leaves in a shot; Anna is heartbroken.

Oh, will anyone ever get married?

Mary brings around a new beaux, Sir Richard Carlisle, a handsome self-made man with the distinctly undesirable occupation of being a newspaper magnate. He deals in tabloids and argues in the garden with Lavinia. Does he see Mary, as he says, as the lady half of his power couple, or could it be possible that a tabloid magnate might be hanging around Lady Mary because he's curious about her handsome-dead-Turk-in-bed secret?

Along the way, injured soldiers are overfilling the hospital and eventually Isobel and Sybil prevail upon the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to turn Downton into a rehabilitation home. "It's a brave new world we're headed for, no doubt about that," he says. He's echoing Shakespeare, beating Aldous Huxley by 15 years, and promising a host of dashing soldiers will land at Downton Abbey next episode.

The stunning gown tally:

Cora, the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern): 8

Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery): 8

Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay): 5, including one we only see on a hanger and a crisp nurse's uniform

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith): 5, plus two masterfully mad hats

Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael): 4

Cousin Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton): 4

Lavinia (Zoe Boyle): 2

RELATED:

"Downton Abbey"'s intrigue continues

Emmys 2011: for "Downton Abbey," a David vs. Goliath win

Faces to Watch: Jessica Brown-Findlay, aka Lady Sybil

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville in "Downton Abbey." Credit: PBS

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