Note: Season three of Downton Abbey aired in the UK this past fall, and I did reviews for the entire season here at Rickey.org. For the American airing of the show, I’m going to be providing a more general analysis of what worked/didn’t work each episode. Anyone interested in reading the original review (which gets into a bit more detail with the plotlines, some of which might have been cut for US airing on PBS, can check out the review here. Whether you decide to read this review, the other review, or both, I can assure you that you won’t find any spoilers. I would also like to ask any British readers or advance viewers who’ve seen season three already to please refrain from discussing future episodes in the comments section. Let’s keep it clean for everyone, please. Thanks, and enjoy the review.
I spoke in my original review about how the format of television can cause problems in a show like Downton Abbey, and while I wouldn’t have applied the argument to the entire season as a whole, I still feel as though it fits for this premiere, because while the show is definitely compelling, and crafted with all the opulence and grandeur of a well-made soap, the exigencies of television mean that we can’t simply have our happy ending, like it seemed we would in last year’s finale. Well, not unless the series got canceled right after, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely ready to let go of a series following England’s moneyed elite just yet. It’s pure escapism, to say nothing of the utterly beguiling accents. But all of that audience goodwill relies on our willingness to engage with the story, and while the prospect of Matthew and Mary finally getting together is exhilarating enough, writer Julian Fellowes seems to go out of his way to throw in a series of contrivances that will either make season three incredibly thrilling or achingly dull for some viewers.
That said, as far as happy endings go, I don’t know how much happier you can get than the ending on which we last left off, with Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) taking a knee and proposing to Mary (Michelle Dockery) under a soft Christmas snowfall, a canopy of stars, and the distant sound of angels inaugurating their union. It’s more or less what romance is made of, or at least what cathartic television is made of, since I can’t imagine there was anyone watching season two who didn’t just want these two to quit beating around the bush and get to making babies already. But given that this is the 1920s, first must come marriage…
Yes, nothing succeeds like excess when good-looking British people are tying the knot. And it should surprise no one to see Downton going all-out for the nuptials. Sure, it isn’t exactly William and Kate (or is it Catherine, now?), but there’s definitely the appearance that no expense was spared. Of course, given how thoroughly Robert (Hugh Bonneville) has buggered the family’s finances, they probably should have cut a few corners. In the development that will either be intriguing for some viewers or prove to be a real groaner, we learn that Robert lost the lion’s share of Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) fortune in a Canadian railway investment, which means the Crawleys might end up having to put Downton on the market. As if in lockstep with destiny, Reggie Swire, father to Matthew’s late, saintly fiance Lavinia, kicks the bucket and names Matthew his heir. Well, one of three heirs, at least. The first heir has already died, while the second heir cannot be accounted for, having disappeared in India without a trace. With the second heir presumed dead, Matthew stands to inherit an exorbitant amount of money, and once again, Matthew Crawley proves himself practically Kardashian in his ability to come into vast sums of money by doing absolutely nothing at all.
And yet, he still finds ways to refuse destiny greasing his wheels.
Still feeling guilty about causing Lavinia’s death-by-heartbreak, Matthew intends to refuse the money, because it totally wasn’t like Spanish Influenza killed her or anything. Nope, it was you, Matthew Crawley, and your rough-and-tumble jawline dabbled with Yardley’s Lavender. Now, I say this, yet if Matthew were to just take the money, he would save Downton, and the Crawley family, from ruin in one fell swoop…and we wouldn’t have a story. But I have the same problem now that I had with the development then, which is that it comes across less as an organic extension of the story, or of Matthew’s character, and more something that Julian Fellowes came up with to draw things out. It’s the worst kind of writerly intrusion, and all the more unfortunate since it comes from such an immensely talented writer. Of course, the lover’s spat, which sees Mary accusing Matthew of always putting his honor before the good of the family, is thankfully resolved by episode’s end, even if the money issue still lingers over the household.
As for the big hyping point of the episode, I have to say that Shirley MacLaine is fantastic as Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson. The character seems to exist for no other reason than to offer a contrast to the rigidity of English customs, which is not to say that the American style is necessarily the right way of doing things. But there’s commentary there, introducing a bit of benign chaos into the clockwork operation of Downton Abbey. As an added bonus, Martha is a mirror of the Dowager Countess in her biting, caustic wit.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, there’s still a lot of this episode that just doesn’t work, from the antagonizing business between Thomas (Rob James-Collier), O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and her nephew, a new footman by the name of Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), to the ongoing storyline I’m just going to call Bates Behind Bars. I know we’re supposed to like Bates (Brendan Coyle), but his stoicism makes him a weirdly alien figure, such that it was actually kind of refreshing to see him snap on his cellmate. And while I love the friendship between Carson (Jim Carter) and Hughes (Phyllis Logan), her cancer storyline seems like it’s out of an entirely different series. As does, strangely, the courtship between Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Anthony Strallan. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just seems peculiar in an episode that’s already front-loaded with so much material that the premiere threatens to lose track of everything that’s going on. In many ways, it’s a poorly-paced episode of television. Yet it’s an hour that’s excessively difficult to complain about, since it’s all handled so delicately. Sure, much of the business with the servants or with Bates isn’t as interesting as what’s going on upstairs, but it’s not given enough time to overtake the episode to the point that the episode would be ruined by it.
Ultimately, the season premiere is a success, though the more I think back on it, it’s ultimately one of the weaker episodes of the season, even with its momentous events. This is not because the episode itself is weak, but because it really does only get better from here.
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