My favorite costume drama soap opera returned to my television screen last night -- Downton Abbey's back, and the next six weeks promise to be insanely addictive as a third season of drama and romance in the lives of the Crawley family and their servants unfold on-screen. When we last met the Crawleys, it was Christmas 1919, and Mary at long last said yes to Matthew's proposal against a snowy, fairy-tale perfect holiday backdrop. While the upstairs residents of Downton Abbey reveled in that realization of a much-longed-for dream, downstairs was shaken by the trial of Mr. Bates for the murder of his WITCH OF A WIFE, Vera. Of course the impact of the trial was felt by the Crawleys, and the earl -- to his credit -- sticks by his belief in his valet's innocence, while Anna is shaken to the core at the possibility of losing her new husband to prison.
Now a few months into 1920, spring brings the promise of renewal, rebirth, and the frenzied excitement that comes from planning a society wedding. The household is anticipating the arrival of Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Cora's mother, for Mary and Matthew's wedding with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation -- after all, she is so very "American" (ha!). Carson (Jim Carter) is stressing about Downton being rather short-staffed -- the war may be over, but its impact continues to be felt throughout society and large estates such as Downton are particularly hard-hit in the conflict's economic aftermath. But the ever-loyal Carson has NO CLUE exactly how bad things are for the Crawleys. The well-intentioned (but far from business savvy) Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is summoned to his London solicitor where he's informed that the bulk of Cora's fortune is gone -- lost in an ill-fated Canadian railroad investment. Without an immediate (and LARGE) infusion of capital, Robert stands to lose Downton and see the estate he's devoted his life to sold piecemeal. Talk about a buzzkill...Mary does not strike me as someone who'd do well with "making do" or getting married on the cheap!
Robert being Robert takes this financial bombshell and internalizes it, arriving back at Downton and having a minor freak-out at the news that they've hired a new footman -- Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), the one and only O'Brien's (Siobhan Finneran) nephew. So he institutes the 1920 version of a hiring freeze, which means the household staff is forced to operate without the extra maid and kitchen staff they've been expecting to hire -- but under Carson's ever-vigilant eye, they must maintain the same exacting standards of service. Now, the introduction of O'Brien-as-loving-aunt is an interesting one -- are we to think the schemer has something resembling a maternal instinct towards her nephew, or is she looking at the opportunity to bring family on-staff at Downton as a chance to expand her sphere or influence? Or is it perhaps a mixture of both? Thus far I'm quite favorably impressed by Alfred -- not only is he taller than me (I'm 6'2", and Milne is 6'4", so the tall jokes were cracking me up!), but he seems quite nice and (thus far) not prone to his aunt's scheming -- so maybe that isn't a family trait. *wink*
The scene when Robert finally breaks down and tells Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) that he's lost her fortune is a perfect illustration of just how much I love this couple. The are without a doubt one of the strongest portraits of marriage, and the commitment that relationship requires to work, on-screen today. They've had their ups and downs, yes -- but they work through them and always, always come back to each other -- and I love that. Cora exhibits some "American" sass and spunk when she takes the news in stride, resolving to make Mary and Matthew's upcoming nuptials one last glittering "hurrah" the family can always remember -- at least until Fellowes throws a hail Mary into the script and saves the house for future generations of Crawleys. :)
Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) are ADORABLY cute preparing for their wedding -- this has been a long time coming, hasn't it? Given that this is SUCH a soap opera all I can say is enjoy it while it lasts, people. There are hints of less-than-perfect bliss between the happy couple, though, as Matthew is (understandably) less than thrilled with the idea of moving into Downton as soon as they return from their honeymoon -- but Mary is all for it as it is her home, and since Matthew is the heir why not just move in already? Oh Mary...loosen up, m'dear. The ghost of Lavinia returns to haunt Matthew on the eve of the wedding as he receives the shocking news that he is the likely heir to Lavinia's father's substantial fortune. He temporarily keeps that news close to the vest as he is apparently still eaten up with guilt for being HONEST ABOUT HIS FEELINGS for Mary with Lavinia and then having her drop dead. LET IT GO ALREADY, MATTHEW. *rollseyes*
Robert opts to tell Mary about the family's reversal of fortune as he realizes that oh, it might be a good idea since she expects to inherit. Mary immediately starts to double-down and go into Downton survival mode, as more than her mother and sisters her identity is, like her father's wrapped up in Downton and their position in the world relative to the estate. She and the rest of the family are temporarily distracted from wedding prep and money drama by the surprise arrival of Branson (Allen Leech) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) from Ireland -- an anonymous benefactor sent them the money needed so they could attend Mary's wedding. This is the couple's first visit to Downton since their marriage, and Branson is on the defensive from the start (though to be fair that is not without cause -- even Carson is determined to make his view of the erstwhile chauffeur known by subtle slights at the dinner table!). I was really happy to see that -- aside from Branson's apparent inability to keep his mouth shut about Irish politics -- Sybil and Branson seemed so happy and normal. Sybil was not destined for the trappings of a high society life and I loved hearing how much she enjoyed just being "Mrs. Branson" at their home.
More family drama arrives in the form of the long-awaited Martha Levinson. Shirley MacLaine is as bold, brassy, and awesome as I'd hoped she'd be -- the perfect, take-no-prisoners American foil for the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith). She has even less of a filter for her opinions than Violet, but she obviously cares very deeply for her family -- and as a later scene with Edith reveals (which makes up for their initial greeting), isn't adverse to being a bit more emotionally available than the stiff-upper-lip Crawley norm. When Violet learns that the family stands to lose Downton, she and Mary hatch a plan to impress Martha with the home's historic and economic importance in the community -- a maneuver with oft-times hilarious results as its patently obvious that the savvy Martha knows when and why she's being played. I get where Mary is coming from, but really it is a bit beyond the pale for her to expect her American grandmother to forfeit a portion of her (albeit independently wealthy) uncle's inheritance to cover the Crawley family folly. It's a nice way to explore the tension between those who embrace the changing times in a spirit of "make-do" or "adapt or die" while others, like Mary and Violet, are determined to cling to vestiges of past -- and perhaps unrealistic? -- glories. I loved Martha's sass, blunt way with words, and her pragmatism, and I desperately wish she'd been written into more than just the first two hours of this season. *sigh*
So with all of those pieces for dramatic possibilities in place, things start to get really good. Just when I was starting to think it was really looking hopeless for Branson to achieve any measure of acceptance by the Crawleys, at a pre-wedding dinner a former wannabe suitor of Sybil's spikes his drink -- and he ends up getting VERY loud and obnoxious. Unexpected rescue comes in the form of weirdo neighbor Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst), who witnessed the "prank" (I like how drugging someone is a "prank" at a proper English dinner like this) and then Matthew who immediately asks Branson to be his best man. More about the Matthew/Branson friendship in a second -- first I need to talk about Sir Anthony. When he was first introduced in season one as a potential suitor for Edith (Laura Carmichael), I thought -- eh, this might work. But then season two came along, and he hurt his arm and got all sappy and googly eyed ALL THE FRIGGIN' TIME, and ever since then every time Edith throws herself at him I just wanna scream "RUN!!! You can do better girl!!!" I don't know what it is but between the sappy manner and the weird hand sling and the COMPLETE AND UTTER LACK of any sort of initiative re: Edith leaves me with little goodwill for the poor guy. All of that to say while I totally get where Edith is coming from -- trust me, girl, I know it sometimes REALLY sucks to be single -- I loved the fact that Robert tried to show Anthony the door. I mean if HE believes Edith can do better, deserves a little spark in her love life, c'mon girl KEEP THE FAITH!!!
But back to Branson and Matthew (I don't know that I'll ever be able to call Branson "Tom"). Their developing friendship is one of my favorite aspects of this episode. Even though they hail from very different backgrounds, they both share a common bond as "outsiders" marrying into the Crawley family -- and that is a point of unity that Branson quite astutely capitalizes on when a fight between Matthew and Mary threatens their marriage. For all I think Mary needs to LET GO of the status quo a bit, when she learns that if Matthew inherits Lavinia's father's fortune he plans to give it away I was with her in being a bit peeved about it. Matthew has GOT to let go of the whole "I'm so friggin' awesome I killed Lavinia by refusing to love her" thing. But again, that said Mary does take it a bit too far with the whole "YOU'RE NOT ON OUR SIDE" whining...so clearly they both have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to meeting in the middle on any future disagreements. But thankfully for all concerned Branson is in residence and steps up with a priceless insight, telling Matthew that "as long as Lady Mary walks the earth you'll never be happy with another." People, THAT is just one of the reasons I've been Team Branson from day one -- I always knew he was capable of such awesomeness. *wink*
Matthew and Mary make nice on the eve of their wedding with a positively adorable conversation separated by a closed door -- so sweet! And then the day of their long-awaited marriage dawns. I love love LOVED seeing everyone at Downton and in the village throw themselves into the celebration -- it was indeed the local equivalent of a royal wedding. And seeing the radiant joy on Mary's face as she walked out Downton's door on her father's arm brought tears to my eyes -- this has been a journey fraught with tension and uncertainty. But her gorgeous gown and veil, the look on Matthew's face -- it made all the drama of the first two seasons worthwhile for me.
Downstairs is full of as much drama and upheaval as the impact of Robert's sudden economy and the stress of the wedding plans hit home. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) fast became one of my favorite characters through the events of season two -- she is really coming into her own. Upset that the hiring freeze has prevented her promised promotion to Mrs. Patmore's (Lesley Nichol) assistant, she allows Thomas's needling to convince her to go on strike, with hilarious results. I loved how Mrs. Patmore just refused to acknowledge it until Daisy wore down and relented. *wink* I'm also quite excited about the possibility of a little romance in Daisy's life as she is repeatedly caught making eyes at the new footman, Alfred, and wondering WHY ON EARTH he seems so susceptible to the fast "charms" of Martha's maid Reed (Lucille Sharp). Since McShera is only 5'2", the idea of her and the 6'4" Alfred is BEYOND cute. I desperately hope that possibility gets further explored this season!
On a more stressful note, beloved housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) confides in Mrs. Patmore that she's discovered a lump in her breast and fears cancer. The support Mrs. Patmore subsequently shows Mrs. Hughes reveals a depth of friendship -- a sisterhood, almost -- and understanding between the two women that was truly wonderful to see play out. With their lives devoted to the service of others, while each may have extended family, they each sacrificed the chance for a family of their own for a lifetime in service -- and in a very real sense their friendship and camaraderie are all they have to lean on when disaster threatens to strike. I have gotta say after Dr. Clarkson's (David Robb) flu diagnosis debacle last season I would be really petrified at the thought of him being my primary care doctor when facing something like cancer...but needs must I suppose. Fellowes infuses Mrs. Hughes's tense appointments with a much-needed dose of humor from the well-intentioned Mrs. Patmore -- one would think she's the patient. It just broke my heart seeing Mrs. Hughes hold the worry and fear inside, refusing as yet to confide in Mr. Carter -- but I loved how, at the end of the day, he could sense that something was wrong. Seriously Mr. Carter and Mrs. Hughes might as well be married they're such a team!
I'm really excited about the possibility of former allies O'Brien and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) as adversaries this season -- talk about a downstairs shake-up. *wink* O'Brien's undisguised ambition to further her nephew's career sets poor Alfred at odds with the wily Thomas, resulting in a "scandalous" episode where the former wrecks Matthew's tailcoat. Payback is swift as "someone" (*ahem*) absconds with all of the earl's dress shirts, forcing him to show up "scandalously" under-dressed for a formal dinner, rattling his mother so much that she mistakes him for a waiter. *wink* As long as Alfred isn't corrupted by his aunt, because Daisy deserves a NICE guy, I'm all for O'Brien and Thomas continually trying to undermine each other for a change!
Meanwhile Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) continue to deal remarkably well with the whole prison thing keeping them separated. Anna is more determined than ever to prove her husband's innocence and sets about investigating any and all clues that SKANK VERA may have left behind. I was surprised by how well the prison visitations scenes worked for me -- I was thinking it would feel a tad overdone, even by this show's standards. But Bates and Anna's relationship is so sweet, without being cloying, and mature (when compared to many others on the show) that I really liked seeing their commitment to each other in the midst of the most adverse of circumstances. Also, it was great to see a glimpse of Bates the badass I always knew he was when he lets his new cellmate know in no uncertain terms that he will not be threatened. :)
Finishing things up I suppose I should mention that Isobel's (Penelope Wilton) latest cause is running a home for "women who have fallen over" (as Martha puts it -- ha!). Isobel was fairly mellow in this installment, which was good since she has a LOT of ground to make up for annoying the heck out of me last season. But her rehabilitation home for wayward women means that Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is still on this show with all of her baby-out-of-wedlock drama. And arrrggghhh I am SO over Ethel!!! But whatevs. Another character that does absolutely nothing for me is poor Moseley (Kevin Doyle), though heaven knows he probably does deserve to be Matthew's valet more than Alfred, no matter WHAT O'Brien thinks. At least now that Anna is married maybe he'll quit making eyes at her all the friggin' time!
I'm absolutely thrilled that Downton Abbey is back on my television screen. The premiere was a delight from start to finish, delivering all of the gloss and drama that I've come to expect (and love) from the show. Yes, it's pure soap opera, but with a setting I love to lose myself in and characters I adore, I could care less. I love this drama, and long may it reign. :)