We enter this third season of Downton Abbey much like the people associated with our favorite sprawling English estate: as either haves or have-nots. As in, some of us have not seen a single minute of this chapter in the Crawley family saga, having waited patiently for last night’s official, PBS-sanctioned premiere, while others have already consumed all nine-plus hours of fresh Downton drama via their oh-so-entitled access to British television or some shady form of online video. (Dowager Countess: “What is a bit-torrent?” “It’s sort of like a weekend, Granny, but more … more file-share-y.”)
But starting now, let’s attempt to transcend the nonsensical release date divide that separates the refined Brits from us crass Americans. Let’s even attempt to forget that, despite our best efforts to avoid any plot-related headlines, much of season three already got ruined during a disastrous Google search that flung us directly into really, reeeeally upsetting spoilers. Instead let’s begin these weekly discussions of Downton Abbey with the same attitude Lady Cora brings to throwing an indoor-picnic dinner party: open-minded and game for great fun.
Because the early, largely positive critical response to this season of Downton Abbey (see Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s take here) suggests it will indeed be great fun, as well as occasionally wrenching and a fine return to season-one form after a second season that dove too much into soapy waters. But let’s be clear: In season three, oh, there are still plenty of suds.
In these first two hours alone, we get a highly anticipated wedding that was planned, almost canceled, then held in all its Kate Middleton–esque majesty; an attempt to clear Mr. Bates of murder charges; a few (very) chaste moments of passion (and yes, we are including the one between Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine, which will be covered shortly); a financial investment gone disastrously wrong; the drugging of an angry Irishman; a cancer scare; and, in keeping with classic prime-time-drama tradition, a tension-filled misunderstanding regarding the location of dress shirts. Scene after scene zips by, layering plot development atop plot development until we’re nearly as wound up as Mr. Carson after an etiquette breach. As for the deeper themes, they are conveyed with as much subtlety as a Dowager Countess crack about a glass hammer. Whatever. Subtlety is overrated.
Within ten minutes of our reemergence into Downton land, where it’s now the spring of 1920 and the house is in a hubbub to prepare for the long-awaited nuptials of Lady Mary and her dear, ever-dapper Matthew, we are introduced to the central question of season three: Will Downton live or die? It seems Lord Grantham has stupidly invested all of his and his wife’s fortune in a railroad that’s gone bankrupt. And, because apparently Lord Grantham is unfamiliar with the term “diversify,” they’ve now got practically nothing. It’s worth noting that this threat to the Crawley family future arrives via the failure of a company once owned by Charles Hayes, a tycoon who, as Wikipedia notes, perished on the Titanic like some Crawleys we all surely recall.
Robert eventually tells Lady Cora he’s lost all of the family’s cash and possibly their ability to keep Downton as a result, then breaks down in tears. To which she responds: “Oh my dear. How terrible for you.”
Um, Lady Cora? Your husband has JUST BLOWN ALL OF YOUR MONEY ON TRAINS FROM CANADA. This seems like an appropriate time to get pissed. Ah, but Cora is a “Have gun, will travel” American who’s adaptable and totally capable of downsizing to a more modest home with, say, 35 rooms instead of 580. The way she handles this situation is admirable and very generous to her spouse, albeit a bit puzzling given her usual concerns about keeping up appearances. Also, the idea that Americans are more comfortable with downgrading to a life of modest means is quaint considering that, decades in the future, those same across-the-ponders will snatch up deceptively affordable mortgages in order to luxuriate in McMansions. In the U.S., we do also recognize that truth later spoken by Lady Violet: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
Just as all this financial drama is stirring in the Crawley homestead, Matthew finds out that he will inherit a substantial amount of money from Reggie Swire, the late father of his also late ex-fiancée Lavinia, who named Matthew as one of his heirs. Which, hooray, should solve all the money problems!
Oh no. But wait. Matthew has this wacky obsession with being honorable and feels enormous guilt about profiting from the broken romantic promise he made to Lavinia. So he plans to give the money away rather than hand it off to his soon-to-be father-in-law.
At this point, I must pause and note that Mary and Matthew — so gorgeous in all their dancey-dance snowy proposal love during last season’s finale — are largely, sadly devoid of charm in this episode. That’s partly because of the ridiculous way in which they flirt with each other the day before their own wedding. (“Are you looking forward to the wedding?” Matthew asks preposterously, cheekily adding that he’s looking forward to “all sorts of things.” “Don’t make me blush,” Mary says primly, as absolutely zero color rises to her cheeks.) It’s also partly because the writers of Downton Abbey rightly let us drink in the sight of Mary in her wedding gown, but then, wrongly, deprive us of seeing the actual wedding. But more than all that, the blandness can be traced back to that inheritance plot, which reduces Mary’s relationship with her new husband to this: “Any news about the money? Kiss me, Matthew. So anyhoo … money?” Hey, marriage is about compromise. So why can’t Matthew give away half of this reportedly substantial sum to a worthwhile charity and give the other half to his father-in-law? If Swire left Matthew as much as he implied, even part would still be enough to save Downton. What, is there not enough drama to be sapped from going halfsies?
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things that don’t make sense, shouldn’t Lord Grantham be much more eager to let Lady Edith and the well-off Sir Anthony be together? Sure, their romance is a January-December one. But he’s rich, the Crawleys may soon become homeless, and Edith needs a stable future. So for God’s sake, quit mucking about and just let Fuddy and Duddy get married already.
Phew. I feel better. Now, on to other matters, including the fact that Anna Bates has decided to become Nancy Drew and find undisputed proof that Vera Bates, the ex-wife allegedly murdered by Mr. Bates, actually committed suicide. Let’s hope her plan works, because (a) we all want Mr. Bates to be free (well, all of us except Thomas) and (b) I cannot bear to sit through an entire season of moments in which Anna and her husband speak to each other in that grim prison visiting area. Downton Abbey already more than fills its weekly quota of Scenes in Which Dialogue Is Uttered Across a Table. It does not need more.
I haven’t even mentioned poor Mrs. Hughes and her possible cancerous tumor or newbie Downton employee Alfred Nugent, the inept footman and valet who has driven a wedge between Wonder Twin meanies Mrs. O’Brien (his aunt) and Thomas, and who also, as established by the Internet, is basically Taller British Landry Clarke. But there isn’t time this week, I’m afraid, because we simply must discuss the bull in Downton Abbey’s china shop, the gloriously American mother of Lady Cora, Martha Levinson.
When Shirley MacLaine made her much-hyped entrance in hour one, what followed was both delightful and a tad predictable. She was bossy and blunt. She chided the Brits for their commitment to stuffy tradition. She drove the Dowager Countess absolutely nuts. (“She is like a homing pigeon,” the DC complained. “She finds our underbelly every time.”) And she strolled around with what may have been the feathers from several homing pigeons spewing forth from every ornamental piece she placed on her conspicuously consuming head. Basically, she did everything we expected MacLaine’s character to do.
But then, during hour two, something magical occurred. The Song happened.
In the second of the premiere’s two truly magnificent set pieces — the first being the Branson Gets Roofied, Then Becomes Matthew’s Best Man moment, which led to Lord Grantham executing the best “WHA?!?!?!” head turn ever — the Crawleys were forced to transform a very important dinner party into that aforementioned indoor picnic, one that included Martha Levinson’s cover of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” While boozily belting out the pop standard, MacLaine lasered in on Lady Violet, who — thrown by the casualness of the affair — may have partaken of a cocktail or two. Martha sat down beside good ‘ol Granny. She gazed into her eyes. “Let me call you sweetheart,” she crooned while Carson looked like he was going to have a bad-manners seizure, “I’m in love with you.” And the Dowager Countess responded by seeming surprised, then embarrassed, then perplexed, and then possibly a little aroused. And she did it all while looking like a perfectly confused peacock. It was like Downton Abbey’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” moment and it was basically sublime.
It also was proof that, even with all its focus on aristocratic custom and sometimes too on-the-nose telegraphing of larger themes (yes, we get it, the times, they are a-Changin’), Downton Abbey is still very much capable of surprising us.