After a questionable second season, whose times jumps played havoc on all aspects of the series, last year's "Downton Abbey" Christmas Special righted the ship that show creator and head writer Julian Fellowes let run precariously off-course. Now that "that pesky war" is over with, Fellowes can return to what he does best: posh manner drama (with plenty of downstairs intrigue).
Like last year, I did cheat again this time and procure the episodes as they aired first in the U.K. (if you want to know why the episodes air here so late, Slate has a good explanation for it), and can confirm that the third season is miles above the second in terms of story (with another surprising Christmas Special). But that is the last you'll hear of it (and NO spoilers in the comments, please), because unlike last year, the season doesn't require constant reassurance that you'll need to stick with it. It speaks for itself.
Now onto the specifics: it's 1920, and things much as they were in 1912. The biggest difference is that unlike a Jane Austen novel, life continues even after marriage, and so we pick up both with Anna and Bates' trials (literally, and snooze) as well as Sybil and Branson after their move to Ireland. The most important marriage of them all is the one still on the horizon, though: Matthew and Mary, and show's OTP (or "one true pairing," to use fan speak that means soulmates) are finally ready to tie the knot (and do, amen).
Though they quarrel, Matthew brings it all home again, thanks to the aid of Branson, with the delightfully romantic line, "I would never be happy with anyone else as long as Lady Mary walks the Earth." Dreamy indeed. Matthew and Mary, whose "will they won't they" is no longer the focus, have also proved useful as being levelheaded (besides Mary's pre-wedding petulance), particularly when Matthew saved the day with Branson by declaring him his best man.
Branson's transformation has been interesting. While he clearly loves Sybil and always has, he also doesn't fit in well with - as he sees it - Downton's oppressive Englishness. His slow acceptance into the family makes sense, but what is less convincing is Sybil not standing up for him. Yes she wants her family to like him, but she hasn't seemed to care much about their opinions up until now. Keep in mind this was a budding suffragette who wore pantaloons and ran off with the chauffeur, yet she wants him to buy tails just so he can look like a Crawley to impress a former flame? Hardly the Sybil we had grown to respect in Downton's early years.
Still, Branson's woes are extremely compelling. He's caught between the Upstairs and Downstairs worlds, barely tolerated by either. Even his visit down to the kitchen was met with a mixed response from his former co-workers, although his position as chauffeur never really made him one of the gang to begin with. Per usual, it's Mrs. Hughes and Anna who are warm and sensible, while Thomas and Carson (an unlikely duo) turn their noses up at the change.
After a whirlwind second season for his character, Thomas is firmly entrenched back at Downton as a footman, and is as snidey as ever. He's still one of the show's best characters though, and where he goes this season will be interesting. Though he still holds a professional (and personal) grudge against Mr. Bates, he finally has a new nemesis in O'Brien's nephew Alfred, who O'Brien is not only trying to move up the ranks as quickly as possible, but in doing so finally breaks up the Downton Abbey Troll Society (members: Thomas and O'Brien, naturally).
Of course, the biggest event in the house to kick things off this year was the arrival of Cora's mother Mrs. Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), a far more subversive sparring partner for Lady Violet than the straight-forward Isobel Crawley could ever be. While the tet-a-tet between MacLaine and Maggie Smith is fun, it also reminds us how crass and pushy Americans can seem when transported into such a genteel setting. Unfortunate. Of course, her modern ideas are important to the future of Downton, which is in question thanks to Robert's (a.k.a. Flopbert's) poor investment.
Dragging poor Lavinia's ghost back up regarding Reggie Swire's inheritance, should it fall to Matthew, seems like too many steps backwards to feel fresh for a new season, and hopefully we've seen the last of Matthew and Mary arguing (after all, we've already had two seasons of it). It's a sticky situation, accepting the money, but Lavinia wanted Matthew to be happy, and saving Downton would do it. Stop being so Emo, Matthew. Your backbone healed, remember?
Programming note: PBS aired two episodes of "Downton Abbey" back to back tonight - you can read my recap of the second hour here.
Musings and Miscellanea:
- As annoyed as Mrs. Patmore made me for pushing Daisy into marrying William, etc, last season, I loved how she handled Daisy's strike with patience and good humor. "Oh dear, have you swallowed a dictionary?"
- Larry Gray: "I never thought we'd meet in person." Branson: "As opposed to in spirit?"
- Will Cora ever stop being controlled by O'Brien?
- "Smithers, like all lady's maids, lives for intrigue" - Lady Violet
- I loved the running joke of Mary changing the name of the second heir in line for Reggie Swire's money.
- Poor Edith. I've always liked her, despite her terrible choices, and felt genuinely sad for her when she was in the room with her sisters, her mother and Anna who were all talking about marriage and sex as she stood there, unmarried and without prospects. I think Sir Anthony is as good of a beau as any, really, and for people to say he's too old in that day and age? Rubbish.
- "Never make an enemy by accident" - Anna's mother.
- Some have mentioned that the Crawley's claiming to care about their contribution to employment in the county is a very modern take on things, but it rings sincere to me. From other books I've read from the time, people seemed to take their responsibilities to the township as very important. This is also addressed on the show as Molesley fears he could lose his job as Matthew wants to live "simply," in line with changing times.
- Mary's wedding headband was to die for (sigh).
- "Now come and kiss me" - Matthew being dreamy.
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