Downton Abbey, Season 2

Is Branson a Conscientious Objector or Just a Coward?
Talking television.
Jan. 15 2012 10:30 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 2

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Why I love the Very Serious Looks of Downton.

Gents,

The Crawleys meet the war head on.
Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Julian Wadham as Gen. Sir Herbert Strutt, Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley, David Robb as Dr. Clarkson, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey

Nick Briggs/Courtesy Carnival Film and Television Limited for Masterpiece.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Now I see why tidiness is essential in great houses such as Downton. If the ever-efficient Anna hadn’t straightened Lady Sibyl’s bedspread right after she went down to dinner, she wouldn’t have discovered Branson’s note in time to have Mrs. Hughes and Carson intervene to save Gen. Strutt’s honor—and his lovely mess dress uniform. (Still, I swear Branson’s concoction—oil, ink, sour milk, and “a bit of a cowpat”—is often served as soup back in Blighty.)

I find Branson incredibly annoying, and I blame Julian Fellowes’ Toryism for that. I admire Branson’s conviction, but he’s too hot-headed and naive to be entirely admirable. Take his stance on the war: He says he’s a conscientious objector, but it sounds like he just wants to save his own skin. That’s a different matter. I have friends who grew up in peace churches, and it took a lot of guts for their dads to stand up for their beliefs in times of war. Branson just doesn’t want to go to the Dardanelles.

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We’ll see how Carson decides to deal with Branson, but one thing does bother me about the incident: Given how much everyone on this show loves to get up in other people’s business, it seems odd that no one asked why Branson was impertinent enough to write a note to Lady Sibyl and then enter her private boudoir to deliver it.

Dan, you feel the focus on the outside world dilutes the core Downton experience, which should focus on the family and their servants. I’m glad that the convalescing officers and the other new characters are expanding the show’s horizons, especially when it highlights some of the family’s less admirable traits. I’m not terribly sympathetic to all those self-pitying sighs and mumbled complaints about their house being taken over—it must be awful when one only has a room as big as half a football field in which to read one’s newspaper. And when the general took it upon himself to praise Lady Edith’s quiet generosity, did her mama have to let out that audible gasp of surprise, and did her papa have to look as though he thought there might have been some terrible mistake?

Perhaps my favorite thing about this episode was its ridiculous reliance on Very Significant Looks. At around 5:45 in the first of the two awesome Downton satires made for last year’s Comic Relief charity campaign (which feature some amazing British actors, including Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, and my favorite comedian, Victoria Wood), there’s a funny riff on how “so much of it is done with looks.” The video exaggerates for comic effect, but only slightly. In this episode, almost everyone exchanged meaningful glances—Anna and Mr. Bates, Mary and Matthew, Mary and her grandmother, Cora and Isabel, Sibyl and Branson, Carson and Thomas, Rosamond and Mary, Mary and Lavinia, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. They must have a dedicated Stare Cam.

I do wish Julian Fellowes would ease up on the foreshadowing—sometimes it’s so unsubtle that it amounts to self-spoiling. When Ethel moons over a handsome major, O’Brien and Anna warn her off, but Ethel remains unconvinced that she should steer clear of the officers. The scene lasts a matter of seconds, but it’s the television equivalent of one of those massive flags male cheerleaders wave around at college sports events—and needless to say, this one was red. Similarly, when Daisy announces that she and William will get married after the war, and he replies, “I’m not sure I can wait that long,” you can almost hear viewers around the country saying, “OH!” as they get a brief but crystal-clear preview of future events.

I’m off to dance at the servants’ ball,

June

Note: Out of consideration for viewers in the U.S., please do not post Season 2 spoilers in the comments.

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