The first episode always sets the theme for the rest of the season and if we learned anything from last night's Downton Abbey it's that the theme is "change." With the "fingers of the war" dipping into Downton, the line between Upstairs and Downstairs has been blurred as everyone is equal in doing their duty. But despite the more important events of World War I, not having enough footmen for dinner service is still a super dramatic big deal of the utmost importance, as is the clandestine love affair of Lady Mary and Matthew.
With all the death and destruction brought on by the war, the most devastating aspect is that Matthew has a new fiancee, Livinia Swire, which he's brought to Downton. Naturally, Lady Edith, as jealous and rotten as ever, was delighted to break the news to Lady Mary. For her part, Mary put on a brave face and was kind to Livinia, leaving the biting commentary to Grannie. ("That's Mary's replacement? I suppose looks aren't everything.") It's obvious by their tension and their shared eagerness to make nice that Mary and Matthew are still in love, and the fact that they can't (or actually, won't) be together will play out in front of all of us, which is something that Grannie is glad about. ("I hate greek drama, when everything happens off the stage.")
World War I made a huge impact on women's lives in England, which is evident not just with Lady Edith learning how to drive, but with Lady Sybil learning how to be an actual functioning person. Dissatisfied with her boring life and wanting to make a difference, Sybil longs to do "real work" and jumps at the opportunity to take a two month course to become an auxiliary nurse. Cousin Isobel encourages Sybil—who's never even made her own bed—to take some lessons in the kitchen from Mrs. Patmore because "it may be useful to know a little more than nothing." Ultimately, Sybil is bound to really signify the social shift of the country as she goes to work and is undoubtedly falling in love with Branson, the family's chauffeur. Branson wisely remarked, "When the war is over the world won't be the same place as when it started."
In fact, everyone had something wise to say about the war and the changing world. Mrs. Hughes noted, "Things cannot be the same when there's a war on," to which Carson replied, "I do not agree. Keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans that they will not beat us in the end." Because using the right candle sticks is as patriotic an act as any. (BTW, how can anyone look at Carson and not see Sam the Eagle?)
Back at war, Matthew ran into former footman Thomas in the trenches. Apparently, soldiers can have tea breaks, and over a cuppa, the two men spoke about life and death with Matthew saying, "War has a way of distinguishing between the things that matter and the things that don't." Taking this point to heart, the war helped Thomas realize that his life matters and that his left hand does not. He holds it up and purposely gets shot to earn himself a ticket home.