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Downton Abbey is back and all is right with the world, if not at Downton Abbey itself.
There’s trouble upstairs and downstairs at the titular, grand manor house at the heart of the popular British series that began airing its third season last night on PBS.
Here’s a recap of the special, two-hour opening episode:
It’s spring, 1920, and the times they are a’changing, fast and furiously. If Bob Dylan had been born yet, he’d be singing under the opening credits, underlining the themes that it’s clear season three will explore.
Upstairs, the overriding concern is money – or lack thereof. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, learns on the eve of his first born daughter Mary’s wedding to Matthew Crawley, her distant relative and Downton’s heir, that he’s nearly broke. It seems Lord Crawley has blown the family wad by sinking most of his fortune (and wife Cora’s even greater one) into a stinker of an investment in a Canadian railroad. The result? There may soon be a “for sale” sign on Downton’s manicured front lawn.
Family reactions to the bad news differ. Robert is in the dumps, seeing no way out. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) takes the financial setback more in stride: “I’m an American. Have gun, will travel,” she jokes. Lady Mary acts as if her world has come to an end and – nudge, nudge – for a certain strata of society in England, their world had indeed ended after the Great War, though it will take Mary and her kind a while to realize it.
There are two other major plot threads in the upstairs story lines during the first half of the episode, one concerning Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the new Crawley son-in-law, an Irish radical who was once the family chauffeur. The second involves Matthew and Mary spatting over an inheritance possibly coming his way.
A pregnant Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), the youngest of the Crawley sisters, and Tom, her hotheaded hubby, arrive at Downton Abbey from Dublin in time for Mary’s wedding. Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), the Dowager Countess, has sent them tickets home despite her wariness of Tom. “He will behave properly because I shall hold his hand on the radiator until he does,” she harrumphs.
All is not paradise for Downton’s star-crossed lovebirds, Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens), who’ve already waited through eight years and one World War (and two TV seasons) to be together. She blows up at him when he tells her that he is planning to turn down a large inheritance he may be getting from the recently deceased father of Lavinia, Matthew’s dead fiancée from season two. Matthew, going all noble, says he can never accept the money because Lavinia knew he loved Mary and, thus, her death was as much due to a broken heart as the flu. Mary contends that such a big pile of cash could save Downton. “Deep down, you’re not on our side,” she tells Matthew and stalks off in tears, leaving the next day’s wedding in doubt.
Downstairs, the servants have problems of their own. Maid Anna Smith Bates (Joanne Froggatt) visits her incarcerated husband, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Lord Crawley’s once-and-future (we hope) valet, in jail. Anna is busily tracking down leads that might prove he has been wrongfully convicted of fatally poisoning his first wife, Vera. Bates marvels at Anna’s loyalty and faith in him. “I’d rather work to get you free than dine with the King in Buckingham Palace,” she tells him.
Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the head butler, needs to hire a new footman and scheming lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) volunteers her nephew. When the nephew, Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), shows up, Carson takes one look this towering beanpole and sniffs, “You’re too tall to be a footman. No footman should be over 6-foot-1.” Nonetheless, Alfred is hired. (“Are you really that tall?” the Dowager Countess asks the first time she spots him. “I thought you might be walking on stilts.”) And Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), the kitchen maid, feels she’s underappreciated and starts acting aggrieved with the cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and everyone else. “Have you swapped places with your evil twin?” Mrs. Patmore wonders.
It’s at this point that a breath of fresh air blows through Downton in the person of Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Cora’s brash and bossy Yankee mom. She’s come over from America for the nuptials and greets granddaughter Mary with, “Tell me all of your wedding plans and I’ll see what I can do to improve them.” The Dowager Countess rolls her eyes, and not for the last time.
Tom, whom Matthew has asked to be his best man, stops talking about Britain’s oppression of Ireland long enough to tell the would-be groom to make up with a sulking Mary and get married already. “You won’t be happy with anyone else while Lady Mary walks the earth,” he tells Matthew. The prospective groom realizes it’s true and reconciles with his intended, sharing a tender, closed eyes, pre-wedding day kiss.
Cut to the next morning and Mary sweeping down Downton’s grand staircase in her wedding gown. “Will I do, Carson?” she asks the butler, who has always harbored a soft spot for her no matter how much she acted like a spoiled and spiteful brat. “Very nicely, my lady,” he says, managing to shut his gaping gob.
And, yes, dear reader, Mary married him. Matthew, that is, in the village church, with the family and servants all looking on approvingly.
As the second half of the episode gets under way, the happy couple return from their honeymoon in the south of France to enthusiastically share a bedroom at Downton. Mary and Violet soon hatch a plan to convince Grandma Martha to hand over part of her fortune to save the family manse. “We must make her feel that it’s her duty to save Downton,” Violet says.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Downton’s housekeeper, has found a lump in her breast and takes Mrs. Patmore into her confidence. The kindly local doctor says he’ll have to do further testing before he knows if it’s cancer. Mrs. Hughes tells Mrs. Patmore to keep it all on the QT and starchy Carson is not to know, even as he upbraids Mrs. Hughes for slacking off in her duties.
There’s lots more talk about having to sell Downton. Robert and Mary continue to pout and fret while Cora seems much less troubled. “What are you so afraid of?” she asks Mary. “If we sell, we move to a smaller house and a smaller estate. You don’t have to go down into the mines.”
“It only goes to show you’re an American and I am English. In my book, the Countess of Grantham lives in Downton Abbey,” Mary churlishly replies.
Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mom, finally gets a plot of her own as does Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), the annoying middle sister. In keeping with her do-gooder instincts, Isobel gets involved with a seemingly local charity to help fallen women rebuild their lives.
Gwen Dawson (Rose Leslie) Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), the disgraced, former Downton maid (she had an illegitimate baby) from season two, is now a sidewalk hostess herself and keeps lurking about, trying to work up the courage to speak to Isobel. (One does find oneself wondering just how many prostitutes work in the local village, which always seems a mighty small place.)
Edith continues her attempts to snare Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst), a distracted older gent who lives nearby. When stuffy Lord Crawley says he disapproves of the relationship because Sir Anthony is too old, Edith points out that all the men her age have died in the war. “Do you want me to spend my life alone?” she asks piteously. Dad changes his mind and Edith goes off to land her man, which she does. She and Sir Anthony are to wed in a month.
There’s plenty of action downstairs as well. Anna discovers a possible lead that might clear Bates’s name. O’Brien and smirking Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), former co-conspirators during season two, now declare war on each other after he fails to help Alfred, her nephew, adjust to his new job as footman. They embark on nasty, dueling campaigns of sabotaging each other.
The show builds to a big, formal dinner party that Mary and Violet are throwing to convince Martha to fork over funds to save Downton. Just as the guests arrive, the kitchen oven stops working. Faced with social disaster, Martha saves the day, declaring that they’ll have an informal, indoor picnic. Everyone happily munches on cold ham while Martha leads a sing-along, serenading a distinctly uncomfortable-looking Violet with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
Afterwards, Martha tells the assembled Crawleys that, sorry, she can’t cough up the dough to save Downton because her capital is tied up according to the terms of her husband’s will. “Besides, Mary, the world has changed,” she tells her granddaughter. “These houses were built for another age. Are you sure you want to deal with the bother of it all?” With that pointed question, she announces that it’s time for her to head back to America.
And so the episode ends with Downton still in danger and no firm fix yet in sight.
Best line of the night by the Dowager Countess: “Just how long is she here for?” Violet asks midway through Martha’s visit. “No guest should be admitted until the day of their departure is settled.”
What was your favorite part of last night’s episode? Least favorite?