Well the entire First World War came and went – some shaky trench shots, a couple of mounds of bodies, (including that of the sweet and unfortunate William), the temporary paralysis and impotence of Matthew. ‘I think I’m right about the diagnosis,’ says Doctor Clarkson, and you instantly know he must be wrong.
Not long for a wheelchair, soon Matthew feels a ‘tingle’ and just as we get used to him tottering about with a stick, he’s dancing with Lady Mary – ‘You are my stick,’ he says, conveniently overlooked by Lavinia Swire, his relatively plebeian fiancée. Lady Mary looks as thrilled as Lady Mary is capable of looking, ie entirely unmoved. Will the endless impediments to Lady Mary and Matthew’s alliance be swept away at last? Will she discover emotional nuance and sound like a woman in love, well, like a woman at least, and not a beautifully modulated robot? Will the camera ever stop whirling around Lady Mary and cousin Matthew in an endless clinch?
Soon Downton Abbey is ‘full of’ the flu. ‘Wasn’t there a masked ball in Paris, when cholera broke out? Half the guests were dead before they left the ball room,’ intones Dowager Countess Grantham, with all the hauteur of an offended ostrich, and as ever Dame Maggie Smith delivers her lines with perfect timing.
‘It’s a tricky disease,’ says Sir Richard, the evil newspaper magnate and Lady Mary’s intended, and you just know someone is for the chop. ‘Don’t ever let me get in the way, please,’ says Lavinia to Matthew, palely loitering in bed. Oh oh! Living impediments to love (and the plot) tend to be swiftly despatched at Downton. Vera, Bates’ scheming and highly inconvenient wife takes rat poison and dies. The wicked robber baron and grandfather to the son of Ethel the maid, schemes to deprive her of her child. ‘If anyone asks, his mother succumbed to Spanish Flu’, he says. ‘So I’m just to be written out – painted over. Buried.’ –says Ethel. Well, yes dear, this is Downton - better get going and take the baby with you!
Meanwhile Lady Sybil rushes in, ‘Matthew. Mary. It’s Lavinia!’ ‘It’s bad I’m afraid, very bad,’ says the doctor. ‘It’s a strange disease with sudden, savage changes.’– and his track record on correct diagnoses goes even further downhill. Predictably then, Spanish flu kills off the saintly Lavinia, though before she dies she tells Matthew to be happy. ‘I’ve wanted to marry you from the first moment I saw you. When I saw you and Mary together I thought how fine, how right you looked. I’m tired, can I rest for a bit?’ Written out and buried then.
In another wing far away, (this house is as big as an entire town), ‘I want to be with you – let me,' says Jane, an unfeasibly smitten, young and pretty maid, to the considerably older Lord Grantham. ‘I want you with every fibre of my being,’ says the noble Lord, as his wife lies in her room, delirious with fever. Blood courses from her nose, she vomits in a bowl – better watch out, Cora, lest you become excess to requirements!
Exit Lavinia then – but we came for a wedding and a wedding is what we get – enter John Bates and loyal maid Anna, about to become the second Mrs Bates.
‘My whole life gone over a cliff in the course of a single day,’ says Lord Grantham – and by the end of Series Two, we all teeter on the brink of another cliff hanger as Bates is handcuffed and carted off. Will bouncing Bates (first he’s here, then he’s gone, then he’s back, then he’s gone again) end up bouncing on the gibbet?
Will Carson end up with Mrs Hughes - or will he have the perennially threatened heart attack at last? Will Lord Grantham ever be reunited with his maid - ‘Will you be happy? Can I kiss you before I go?’ she says before leaving, having bravely resigned, though why she started spooning with the Lord in the first place is unclear. ‘You don’t owe me anything,’ she says as he hands her a wodge of notes ‘For Freddy,’ her son, of course. Nothing so unsavoury as payment for favours received - though as Lord Grantham tries to buy off the chauffeur before he absconds with Lady Sybil, and is roundly refused, at last you see some semblance of sympathy from Tory Peer of the Realm and Downton writer Julian Fellowes for one of the lower orders. The man stuck to his guns, (and who knows, perhaps he’ll soon be in league with the IRA, and Fellowes can hate him again), and stayed true to his woman, riches or no riches. He and Lady Sybil are off to the ole country, where a Dublin newspaper awaits.
Lavinia’s gone then – could our happy couple be together at last? ‘I believe she died of a broken heart because of that kiss – we’re the ones that killed her,’ says Matthew to Mary at the end of Series Two. Spanish flu be hanged! Oh no, maybe they won’t get married after all! We’ll have to wait for Series Three to find out – and also perhaps, to discover what happened to the pretender to the throne of Grantham, who made a brief appearance, disfigured and unrecognizable, all the way from his brief sojourn on the Titanic, followed by a spot of amnesia. A stay in Canada entirely eradicated any semblance of Englishness from his voice. Who is he? Will he ever be back? Will he get together with Lady Edith? Will the plots get any sillier?
Well, let’s hope so. Once you stop expecting historical authenticity from anything other than the sumptuous costumes and new fangled inventions – electricity even! – you can just enjoy Downton Abbey for what it is. Epic nonsense, mawkish, sentimental, entirely unfeasible, slavishly devoted to the establishment and the unerring rights of the landed gentry, ever increasingly more farcical – and let’s face it – still fabulous.
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