Downton Abbey, Season 2
Why on earth is Matthew Crawley going off to war?
Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television
I’m fascinated by your takes on Mr. Bates. Seth, you say he “almost seems to enjoy the martyr role, savoring his punishments.” I think I understand why he takes his licks so stoically. He’s a manservant with a physical disability and a criminal record—he already has two strikes against him. Or as they might say in Britain, they’ve brought in the slips, and there’s a good pair of hands at silly mid on.
Dan, you call him “too good a man for his milieu.” Eh, I’m not impressed by his treatment of Anna. As commenter Rikki points out in response to an earlier entry in this discussion, “He's not just sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of the Grantham family reputation, he's sacrificing Anna's too, when clearly she should take priority in his loyalties.” I hope he hasn’t really abandoned Anna and that he’s got something up his perfectly turned-up sleeve, because for reasons I don’t completely understand, the young and lovely head housemaid is all-in on the older, slightly shop-soiled valet. He would surely never give up her love for a bunch of toffs. (I understand that he wants to keep her reputation and employability intact, but it sounds like what happened with the Turkish gentleman is already the talk of every servants’ hall north of Watford.)
Speaking of excessive sacrifices, I know that this is the opposite of a) what the show wants us to believe, and b) all that is good and true and honorable, but I can’t help thinking that Matthew is putting too much at risk by serving at the front. People upstairs and downstairs seem worried about William the footman going “off to face the guns” because he’s his father’s only child. Well, what about Matthew? It’s not like he’s holding a younger brother in reserve. For Lord Grantham and his family, losing two heirs on the Titanic may be regarded as a misfortune; losing a third on the Somme would look like carelessness. So many people’s livelihoods—let’s put aside mere happiness for a moment—depend on there being a suitable steward for the estate, it seems crazy to put all that at risk. But I know people did—all Lady Sibyl’s dance partners went off to their doom.
I am as unmoved as Seth by those scenes in the trenches. I’d be more moved if they intoned a few verses by Wilfred Owen over a battlefield photo. All those low-quality effects (definitely the product of the nation that brought us early Doctor Who) serve merely to show us that Matthew now allows his servant to dress him without grumbling but that he’s not too grand to take tea with a former footman. We don’t need to see it to know that war is hell.
I’m off to ladle soup down the throats of some unfortunates,
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.