This post contains spoilers through the first episode of the second season of Downton Abbey.
So, caveat! I am almost but not entirely caught up on the first season of Downton Abbey, so I am relying a little bit on Wikipedia for backstory here. I will be caught up by next week, but for now, please be merciful.
I really am struck by the atmosphere of creative destruction in this episode, the way the war clarifies and distills the characters priorities. I agree with critics who say that Downton Abbey is predictable, more a product of its genre than a subversion of it. But it’s the rare thing that both can be qualified that way and that is executed so strongly that it’s a bracing reminder of why these cliches exist and are powerful. Even when I can see something coming from a mile away, whether it’s a hand injured in the war, a maid’s disappointment or a nobleman’s wrongfooting, it still lands like a blow to the chest. And there are enough surprises that are true to character that there’s fresh air in it.
The walls between the upstairs and the downstairs were already crumbling in the first season, whether in Lord Grantham’s tie to Bates or Carson’s confession to Lady Mary that “even a butler has his favorites” after he reassures her that her life isn’t over yet. But the war’s brought them down in force, with Isobel as something of an intermediary. First, there’s Sybil, who, after realizing bitterly that “Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead,” decides she wants to try nursing, and by extension, learn how to be a functional woman rather than an ornament of the aristocracy. “Have you ever made your own bed, for example? Or scrubbed a floor?” Isobel asks her gently. The scenes of Mrs. Patmore and Daisy trying to teach her how to do the simplest tasks, including filling a kettle without drenching herself, are kind, revealing Sybil’s foibles but helping her work beyond them. It’s fascinating to see Violet and Lady Grantham’s response to her desire. Violet, surprisingly, sides with Isobel, insisting that “You can’t pretend it’s not respectable when every day we’re treated to pictures of queens and princesses in a Red Cross uniform.” And Lady Grantham’s concern for Sybil ultimately undoes her objections: her daughter’s emotional well-being trumps her concerns with propriety. “I was worried about Lady Sibyl. But I’m not worried anymore,” she tells the butler. “Carson, the cake will be a surprise whether you approve of it or not, so please don’t give it away.”