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'Downton Abbey' recap: Goodbye, cruel world

February 13, 2012 |  9:12 am

Maggie Smith in "Downton Abbey"


The Grim Reaper came calling at Downton Abbey this week. But before getting into who shuffled off this mortal coil — that and other spoilers are after the jump — some other catching up.

Mrs. Hughes continues to bring food to Ethel, the former housemaid turned single mom, and conspires to bring her to the attention of the baby's grandparents. As usual, Ethel oversteps her bounds and bursts into the formal dining room, interrupting the aristocracy's dinner while displaying her plump baby. Grandfather is as scornful and dismissive as his son but later relents, offering to take the baby from her. Ethel can't bear to give him up, so it'll be back to the hovel for her.

Meanwhile, Daisy makes a cake, which finally gives her something to do other than make squinchy faces over how she didn't love poor dead William. But then she gets a friendly letter from William's father: yep, more squinchy faces.

Sir Richard offers to pay Anna to spy on Lady Mary for him. Not only does she say no, but she tells Mr. Carson, who decides he cannot work for the man after all and tells Lady Mary why. She's mad, and feeling increasingly trapped.

Anna and Mr. Bates continue their romance. Mr. Bates fears that his wife's death — a suicide — may lead police back to him. Could his wife have framed him (dum dum dum) from the grave? Anna puts her foot down and says he must marry her. He does. They spend a night in a fancy Downton bedroom together.

The same can't be said for Lady Sybil and her chauffeur Tom ... but I'm skipping ahead.

The malevolent, ambitious Thomas has plans for postwar black-market profiteering, but they go awry when it turns out the rationed supplies he's bought were mostly garbage. Thomas has been had, and he's broke, and so he hangs around Downton trying to be simperingly useful. He gets his chance.

Thomas gets that chance to start working at Downton again when the Spanish flu arrives, sending Mr. Carson to bed ... but I'm skipping ahead again.

Lord Grantham is left rudderless after the war. His wife doesn't need him, his heir Matthew is in a wheelchair, he's got a big beautiful estate — OK, things aren't exactly terrible, but he's basically bummed. He shares these thoughts with the maid Jane, with whom he seems to find comfort, companionship and, wait, what's that Prince song I'm thinking of? Here: Tom Jones has it.

That's right, Lord Grantham plants a kiss on Jane! After they hastily pull apart, the next time we see him he's rubbing the belly of his beloved Labrador, a poor substitution, I think. Later he calls Lady Grantham "stupid and selfish," while running into Jane alone over and over. Finally, he pulls her into his dressing room, and there is making out — but when they're interrupted by a knock on the door, he sends her away with a belated sense of honor. She resigns. That's probably the last we'll see of Jane.

Clearly, Lord Grantham's dalliance with the help has got him in knots, because it makes him overreact when he hears Lady Sybil's news. She has finally decided to make a new postwar life with the chauffeur, Tom — he's going to be a journalist, which is marginally more acceptable (but just barely). They plan to elope and make it halfway to their destination when they stop for the night. They're interrupted in their modest hotel room, with Sybil chastely in the bed and Tom settled into the chair next to her, by Lady Mary and Lady Edith, who have come to stop Lady Sybil from making a terrible mistake. How sneeringly can Lady Mary say the word "chauffeur"? Very sneeringly.

Anyway, they get her back to the house; she'll stay for a week, she says, so the family can get used to the idea. Tom agrees to wait for her in town. Lord Grantham is outraged, will banish her, promises to cut off her funds, then tries to pay Tom to go away — none of which works to drive them apart. She decides to stay a little longer at Downton, though, because something has happened.

That something has to do with Matthew. One day, as Lavinia trips while moving a tea set, he reaches from his wheelchair and ... what's that Sly Stone song I'm thinking of?

Matthew stands! The doctor is summoned, and he delivers a highly unorthodox mea culpa in front of the entire gathered family. It was his bad! Matthew can walk after all! Matthew, grateful for Lavinia's devotion, says they must be married as soon as he can walk — they'll do it at Downton. Preparations begin.

Nobody mentions that Lavinia's devotion had a little help from Sir Richard. Instead, the Dowager Countess sets upon Matthew and tells him that Lady Mary is in love with him. "You loved her once. Are you sure you can't love her again?" she asks. If this is a little straightforward for her, it's not for their romantic benefit — it's because she's trying to keep the estate in the family. "Marriage is a long business," she adds. "There's not getting out of it for our kind of people."

That nudge is all it takes. When the flu hits the house and Matthew and Lady Mary find themselves alone with a Victrola, they dance close and admit their own mistakes. And then — a kiss! The cameras spin! Lady Mary can get away from the controlling Sir Richard! Matthew can have a sparring partner, instead of sweet Lavinia. Their romance is rekindled! Except: wait, there is Lavinia on the stair. What has she seen?

The Spanish flu has sent Mr. Carson, Lady Grantham, and Lavinia to bed. Lavinia and Mr. Carson recover somewhat, but lie weakly in bed, trying to recuperate. Lady Grantham is the worst off, pale, sweaty, feverish, not entirely there. Mrs. O'Brien tends to her faithfully — there is something she wants forgiveness for, but we're not sure what. Lady Grantham writhes and sweats, at one point with blood running from her nostrils. It's pretty scary.

But it is not, in the end, Lady Grantham for whom the bell has tolled: It tolls for Lavinia. She takes a sudden turn, and in her last moments she tells the stricken Matthew that she saw everything between him and Lady Mary. She says they belong together, and it's better this way, because he won't have to choose. Matthew doesn't even have time to reply before Lavinia dies.

After the funeral, at the graveside, Matthew tells Lady Mary what Lavinia had seen. In guilt and rage he says she gave up because of them — so they can never be together. Now stricken herself, Lady Mary turns to the hovering Sir Richard with tears in her eyes — it's the first time she's needed him. They walk away together.

Because that is so sad, there is a little good news to close the episode. Lord Grantham relents about Lady Sybil and Tom, and says they can go ahead with their plan with his blessing. They'll move to Ireland and make their own way, with a bit of help from him. Cousin Violet is also on the case, saying something under her breath about getting them together with some aristocratic family — did she say Branson? —  they know there.

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Photo: Maggie Smith in "Downton Abbey." Credit: PBS

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