If last week’s Downton Abbey was all about the initial power war has to upset the social order, this week’s episode was about the lingering power of institutions, whether the idea that a man headed off to war is entitled to a sweetheart; the sororicidal battles between women for position; or the ability of the servant class to conduct intense power struggles entirely beyond the notice of their employers. It’s fitting, given that theme, that it seems we’re locked into some old plots this week, as Thomas returns to cause all sorts of trouble at Downton, but with increased capacity to sow dissension now that he can play Cora and Isobel off against each other; Mr. Bates and Anna seem locked in a stalemate by his iron and the pace of English legal proceedings; and Sybil and Branson have trouble understanding each other.
It was awful to see Daisy trapped this week, forced into accepting William’s proposal by Mrs. Patmore’s theories of troop morale, forced by William into announcing their engagement prematurely, and then told by Mrs. Harris that she should stay downstairs because “No, Daisy. Not you. The war has not changed everything.” There’s no question that Daisy is safer at Downton than she might be under other circumstances, but the very things that keep her safe and provided for also keep her trapped. It never occurs to anyone that Daisy might have a mind of her own — in fact, Thomas and O’Brien’s machinations against Mr. Bates last season depended on the idea that her head could be sown with any idea no matter how ludicrous. There’s a real sadness in that belief that could morph into a ruined life if William survives, and Daisy is railroaded into marrying him against her desires.
She’s not the only woman torn between her heart and norms, enforced by both law and society, that govern the behavior of women. When Anna finds Mr. Bates, she’s relieved to find out he’s found grounds for a divorce, but disconcerted by the revelation that “for her to divorce me, she needs something beyond adultery…for a husband, adultery is enough.” But when she ventures that that seems unjust, the force of Bates’ passion barrels past her bloom of a political opinion. “I don’t care about fairness,” Mr. Bates declares. “I care about you.” And he refuses to sleep with her, even when she points out “it’s not against the law to take a mistress, Mr. Bates.” Meanwhile, back at Downton, Ethel’s willingness to be sexually available gets her on Mrs. Hughes’ watch list, but it also lands her a date with a soldier that may put paid to her saucy talk.
While women are at subtle odds in those situations, they’re at outright war when it comes to the struggle between Isobel and Cora for control over Downton in its role as convalescent home, and Rosalind is trying to make a cold war hot by prodding Mary to slander Lavinia and break her engagement to Matthew. The first debate is exacerbated by Thomas, who’s returned to Downton determined to take Carson down a peg and with new power to manipulate the people upstairs. I have mixed feelings about Thomas’s manuverings here — the pilot this season suggested some real growth, so it’s disconcerting to see both him and O’Brien fall into old patterns. I hope there are longer games here that move both of them forward, or tragedies born of their limitations. But it’s fascinating to watch Isobel and Cora go at least other in conversations that come up to the very edge of civility. And of course it’s the civility that matters: one of Cora’s complaints is that Isobel has usurped her place with her servants. Cora has more social pull than Isobel does, while Isobel has more practical skills. It’s Edith, perhaps, who represents a way forward, combining Cora’s graces with Isobel’s unflinching desire to connect, even when it means confronting wounds like the amputation that took Captain Smiley’s hand (I am, for the record, considering him George’s father). Seeing the General call her out for her good deeds gave me hope that Edith will find her own way, a typically middle-child blending of Mary’s conventionality and Sybil’s rebellions.