As World War I quite literally drives right up to the front door of Downton Abbey, the old ways of the aristocracy come face to face with the 20th Century and class distinctions rear their head once again, affecting everything from administrative duties at the hospital to forbidden love between a chauffeur and a lady. Whether its an attempt to hold on to the status quo in a world determined to shatter it or the last gasp of an aristocracy angrily slapping away the elements seeking to dissolve it, the upper classes got the upper hand this time around, which isnʼt exactly surprising.
Seeing their family home turned into a military convalescent hospital would be frustrating and confusing to the Crawleys in any case and to the showʼs credit, some time was spent in the early part of the episode depicting this unease. But show creator and head writer Julian Fellowes has a tendency to go out of his way to make the aristocracy look as benevolent as possible, so a foil was needed for the family; someone to whom they could vent their rage over the massive disruption to their lives. Having Lord Grantham yell at a wounded soldier wouldn't make for the best optics, so an uppity middle class woman with an authoritarian streak and no sense of boundaries will do nicely instead. Enter: Isobel Crawley.
Itʼs kind of a shame, really. Isobel was never shown to be this pushy and obnoxious in the past, but there was a concerted effort in the writing this episode to frame the change at Downton in terms of class (Witness the Dowager Countessʼ upset over the fact that soldiers will be "mixing ranks" which in her mind will surely lead to "putting everyone on edge") and since Mrs. Crawley is one of the most prominent non-aristocrat characters in the cast who isnʼt a servant, she became in this episode the face of the middle and working class-fueled social change that deﬁned the 20th Century. And perhaps not coincidental to how the aristocracy actually viewed the burgeoning middle class, she is portrayed as pushy, disrespectful, and lacking any graces, going so far as to order the servants around and suggest that the family dog be restricted. The result is that Lord Grantham now has someone he can righteously voice his anger and frustrations to without looking bad for it.
Lady Rosamund and the Dowager Countess get deeply involved in ﬁnding a way to break up Matthewʼs engagement to Lavinia Swire and this is mostly due to the fact that they feel Mary should be marrying him, but thereʼs still a bit of class snobbery informing all their actions here. A good illustration of just how deeply their class distinctions run come when Violet all but snorts at the mention of the Painswicks, her daughterʼs in-laws, whom she considers no more than a "recently polished diamond," since the family was "entirely the creation of my son-in-lawʼs father." They may be moneyed, but theyʼre not old money and thatʼs enough to fuel Violetʼs derision. Itʼs also enough to get her and her daughter to believe the most scandalous things about Lavinia with little to support it outside of their own prejudices.
Meanwhile, the Czar and his family are living in captivity but Branson canʼt even entertain the idea that his ideological heroes in the revolution will be anything but humane and just toward them. "Give them a little credit," he says with annoyance when the idea is voiced that the royal family is in any danger. This is, of course, to be proven tragically wrong, which makes Bransonʼs working class ideals look naive and destructive even if theyʼre coming from the best of intentions or born out of understandable discontent. The show tries its best to portray the reasons behind the growing unease outside the aristocracy but doesnʼt always follow through and almost always ends on the point that the aristocrats are the truly benevolent and moral ones."We werenʼt at our best in Ireland," offers Lady Sybil in a defense of her countryʼs actions thatʼs almost hilariously weak, but Bransonʼs attempt to humiliate an ofﬁcer visiting Downton is a poor response to it. His anger is well-explained, but unfortunately his actions in attempting to vent his rage only left him looking foolish and impotent.
And ﬁnally, Thomas, the wily former footman at Downton has the audacity to stroll right through the front door, shattering the social restrictions that always prevented him from doing so. Carson, who in many ways can be more bound to tradition and class distinctions that even the Dowager Countess ("It was an honor," he agrees with a huff, when Violet mentions dancing with him at the servantsʼ ball) is practically apoplectic over this blasphemy. Unfortunately for him, and for anyone whoʼs trying to hold on to the old ways in this rapidly changing world, Thomasʼ cocky grin in response is not only earned, itʼs downright prophetic as to whatʼs to come.