Catch up on what has happened in the sprawling world of Downton Abbey. Watch a short video recap for episode 1 or read the full synopsis below.
Fall 1916 — Spring 1917
In the throes of the Great War, uncertainty and worry have taken up residence in the great house of Downton Abbey. Some newcomers arrive, met with varying degrees of welcome; some young men are absent, desperately clinging to survival in the trenches of France; and some men remain at Downton, their discontent festering.
Robert, ever the honorable patriarch, struggles with the uneasiness of a diminished house and the suspicion that the uniform he wears is empty. The Crawley women, too, attempt to find their place in the new climate, as Isobel helps chart a new course for one sister and Branson exerts his influence over yet another. Among the servants, love is in the air — O'Brien being, as always, the exception — until Bates makes a decision that crushes the hearts of the two people who love him most.
News about Matthew stuns the house, and Mary has a revelation of her own. Downton Abbey itself is to be made useful, transformed into a convalescent home for wounded officers. In wartime, not even the seemingly immutable Dowager Countess, Violet, remains entirely unchanged!
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
The battlefield explodes with debris around Matthew Crawley as he carries a wounded man through heavy shelling to the British trenches. It is 1916, the Great War's Battle of the Somme, and Matthew has survived long enough to earn a brief leave in London, where a girl awaits him.
At Downton Abbey, the family and servants too do their part. They are busy preparing the house for a concert to raise funds for the village hospital, which is receiving more casualties than it can accommodate from the front. But war and its accompanying changes have taken a toll on the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.
William, the second footman, is standing in for Robert's valet Bates, who is attending his mother's funeral. But William is distraught; his father has forbidden his only child to enlist, and the powerless young man feels like a coward.
Robert too is anxious to fight — his hopes are briefly buoyed when he is named Colonel of the North Riding Volunteers, but they are soon dashed when he learns that his role is merely symbolic. Sybil too feels useless; another young man whom she knew has died. But the grieving girl is inspired to action when a visiting Cousin Isobel suggests that Sybil train to become an auxiliary nurse.
Isobel's visit has an awkward purpose: to share with the family her happy news that Matthew is returning on leave from the front, bringing with him his new fiancée, Lavinia Swire. Cora and Robert are disappointed for Mary's sake but agree that they must all move forward. Edith informs Mary of Matthew's status with relish, and Mary responds with indifference to the news, casually mentioning a new suitor of her own, the newspaper tycoon Sir Richard Carlisle. But alone with Anna, she privately weeps.
An ambitious and boastful new housemaid, Ethel, puts herself in O'Brien's line of fire when she insults the lady's maid. But the resulting levity does nothing to calm Carson, who is trying to compensate for his diminished staff, all the while frightening Mrs. Hughes that he will work himself into an early grave. He is much relieved when Bates returns from his mother's funeral. But it is Anna to whom Bates's return brings joy. Explaining that his wife Vera turned up at his mother's house, he proposes to Anna, confident that he can secure a divorce if he gives Vera his inheritance.
Matthew arrives with Lavinia and Mary greets them both warmly. While Violet and Carson cannot count themselves among Lavinia's supporters, Mary shows kindness to the shy newcomer. When his brief visit ends, Mary sees Matthew off at the train, giving him her lucky charm for safekeeping. He is truly glad they are friends again, but Mary is secretly still in love.
Anna's happiness with Bates is short-lived, for Vera arrives suddenly at Downton, not just to refuse a divorce, but to threaten exposure of Lady Mary's scandal to the press if Bates doesn't immediately leave Downton with her. Fearful of bringing ruin to the Granthams and to Anna, who helped Mary cover up the scandal, he complies. Anna is destroyed and Robert is hurt and furious. But Mrs. Hughes, who listened to Vera's exchange with Bates through an air vent, confides in Carson all she knows about Bates's true reasons for leaving. Carson then informs Robert that Bates was doing the honorable and loyal thing by leaving. Though Robert asks, Carson doesn't reveal the nature of the scandal.
With great pride, Cora sees Sybil off to her training as a nurse. Before Branson leaves Sybil, he declares his love for her. But while she worries that he will be imprisoned should he refuse to fight in the war, she does not reciprocate his feelings. Meanwhile, William gets the wrong idea about Daisy when, trying to lift his spirits, she gives him a kiss. He wants her to be his girl.
Mary surreptitiously prays for Matthew's safe return. Back on the front, in a dugout in northern France, Matthew recognizes Thomas as their trench is shelled. The traumatized former footman reminisces with the heir then makes his way outside the shelter. At the edge of the trench, a lit match held aloft, he waits until a shot rings out. As he clutches his injured, bleeding hand, he thanks God for his deliverance.
By April 1917, Carson can barely survive the pressure of his own exacting standards, trying to run Downton as before with most of the male staff serving at the front. Robert's new valet, Lang, is recently returned from the war and only O'Brien recognizes that he suffers from shellshock. She treats Lang with uncharacteristic gentleness and reveals that her own brother, suffering shellshock, had died.
O'Brien has not, however, ceased her meddling, suggesting to Cora that Thomas, injured and unable to return to the front, would like to work at the village hospital. But as Thomas returns, lording his freedom from service over his former peers' heads, William is thrilled to learn that he has been called up. When he asks Daisy for a photo to bring to war, Mrs. Patmore encourages the reluctant girl not to send him away with a broken heart, or he will never return. She is biased by the tragic loss of her nephew, who died in the war. She only recently learned that he was shot for cowardice.
At the hospital, Thomas and Sybil devote themselves to the care of a young officer blinded by gas. When Clarkson reveals that the man, in his delicate condition, is to be sent away to convalesce, Thomas and Sybil protest. But room must be made for the fresh wounded. Distraught, the officer takes his life, and the tragic incident motivates Isobel to suggest the use of Downton as a convalescent home. Violet forbids it, but Cora asserts that the decision is hers and Robert's.
Meanwhile, Matthew, promoted to Captain, has been given a temporary transfer, accompanying his General on a recruitment tour of northern England. When news arrives that Matthew will be coming to Downton, Mary invites Sir Richard to come, and a house party as before the war is soon in the works. Anxious, Carson drafts an unsure Lang as footman. During dinner, Lang makes a few small mistakes that send Carson reeling into a panic attack. Confined to bed, he is visited by his beloved Mary, whom he counsels to let Matthew know that she is still in love with him. But Mary, en route to confess all to Matthew, encounters a distressed Lavinia instead and, moved by the young woman's love for Matthew, changes her mind. Robert's sister Rosamund overhears Carlisle arguing with Lavinia and, her curiousity piqued, she presumes that they share a dark secret.
Carlisle, proud to be a self-made man, wants Mary and the access to the aristocracy that she would provide. He proposes to her, expressing that they would make a powerful team. Mary confides to Anna that she will accept him, but Anna could never accept anyone but Bates; her heart belongs entirely to him.
Robert confirms that Downton is to be converted to a convalescent home.