Sunday, January 13, 2013

Downton Abbey S3, E1: Americans, They So Craaaaz-ee!

So Shirley MacLaine didn't appear in the first episode until the very end.  Or rather, the very middle, because in the U.S., Episodes 1 and 2 were merged together in a two-hour premiere.  Let's just say her appearance did not live up to the billing.

Welcome back, Downton Abbey!  This is the first time I've been able to watch a series as it unfolds.  Since it had been over a year since I last watched the show, I had forgotten many of its positives.  The opening credits, with the urgent "Something important is happening within these walls!" music.  The smooth cutting between the "upstairs" plot lines and the "downstairs" plot lines.  The generally swift pacing.  Of course the weaknesses were also on display, which I will get to in a bit.  

Plot Synopsis 

In the first "half" of the episode, Matthew and Mary are preparing for their wedding.  Since Sybil and Branson can't afford to travel from Ireland, Violet secretly slips them money so that they can attend.  This leads to a happy reunion, but also much friction between Branson, who hates the privileged pigs so much that he won't even dress for dinner, and Lord Grantham.  Fortunately he bonds with Matthew, who says that as future brothers-in-law, they need to stick together.  Then the rest of the family rises up in Branson's defense when Sybil's former suitor plays a cruel prank and drugs his drink.  Then Branson comes to the rescue and saves the wedding by reminding Matthew how much he loves Mary, after --

Mary gets really pissed off when she learns that Matthew was left a huge sum of money by his dead fiance's father, but he doesn't want to accept it because he thinks it was left under the misimpression that Matthew was Lavinia's one true love.  Matthew believes that he broke Lavinia's heart (by loving Mary), which is why she died -- not because she had the Spanish flu, which killed millions.  Mary is pissed off because she just learned that Downton is broke, because Lord Grantham invested all of his wife's money in shares for a railway company that went under.  But Mary isn't pissed off at her father, oh no.  She's only pissed off at Matthew.  Matthew doesn't want to use the money to save Downton, and therefore isn't on Downton's side!  Fortunately, Mary and Matthew resolve their differences -- with just enough lingering tension for future episodes -- and a surprisingly brief wedding is had!

Downstairs, O'Brien's nephew Alfred has started work as the new footman, and O'Brien has ambitions for him to rise up the servant chain.  That puts her in contention with her former ally, Thomas, now Lord Grantham's valet.  Daisy goes on strike in the kitchen because even with a kitchen "promotion," she still needs to perform a lot of servile labor.  I barely noticed it, but it will probably lay the groundwork for her eventual departure to start her own restaurant, or something.  Meanwhile, for both halves of the episode, Anna visits Bates in prison and tells him about her investigations into Bates's former wife.  She is trying to dig up information that shows the first wife killed herself.  Bates shows enough dangerousness in prison to make you doubt (but I don't, really).

In the second "half," Mary and Violet scheme to bilk Shirley MacLaine -- here, known as Martha Levinson -- out of the rest of the Levinson family fortune, because the massive sum her husband gave as part of Cora's dowry just wasn't enough.  Don't worry, we totally won't squander the money this time!  Their brilliant scheme consists of throwing a fancy party to show how important Downton is... or something.  As if that would convince Martha, with her egalitarian American values.  Then the oven breaks down, and Martha suggests a picnic, and it's so shocking, the way propriety is breaking down!  Then of course, Martha refuses to give Downton more money because she's no fool.  In the meantime, Edith is in love with a neighbor old enough to be her father, but despite this, they are very compatible.  Still, Lord Grantham nixes the relationship, until Edith reminds him that all of the men her age were killed in the war.  So Lord Grantham comes to his senses, and Edith and the neighbor get engaged.  Go Edith!

Downstairs, Martha's American maid, Reed, is showing those stuffy English servants what Americans are all about.  Americans are free and open and say whatever they feel like!  Reed demonstrates this by kissing Alfred because she thinks he's cute.  Outrageous!  In the darker plot line, it looks as though Mrs. Hughes has breast cancer.  I've always liked her character, though she tends to remain more in the background.  I hope she's not the rumored "death" of Series Three.

Other Observations

I Want My Money Back.  The Maggie Smith-Shirley MacLaine meeting was billed as a heavyweight fight between two champions.  Instead, it was more like a heavyweight fighting a middleweight.  There was no contest -- Maggie Smith's Violet clearly had the upper hand.  Shirley MacLaine just seemed bored with the cliches she had to spout.  "I'm an American, so I believe in freedom and equality and have clearly never read an Edith Wharton novel in my life!"  While Maggie Smith was sharp, Shirley MacLaine sounded tired and mumbly.  If I had paid for the fight, I would want my money back.  That said, I don't know if Stockard Channing would have been a better choice to play Cora's mother, as some suggested.  Channing definitely has a physical resemblance, and would have been more aggressive, but she just looks too young.  Then again, it's not exactly unheard of for Hollywood to cast women 10 to 15 years (or 17 in Channing's case) older to play the "parent."

Opposite of the Intended Effect.  If we were supposed to find Martha so outrageous! and out-of-control, it didn't work.  Instead, I actually felt sorry for her.  This woman went to the trouble of travelling across the Atlantic to see her granddaughter's wedding, and for her efforts, all she got was disdain.  No one at Downton, save Edith, acted like she was even related to them.  Mary wouldn't touch her with a 10-foot pole.  Cora never stood up for her or defended her beliefs.  No, we were just supposed to laugh at the eccentric old woman and then be mad for Mary's sake that she wouldn't just fork over more money.  Go home, Martha.  You're better than these people.

Thank God for Isobel.  Isobel Crawley irritated me quite a bit in Series Two, the way she acted so dictatorial after Downton Abbey was transformed into a hospital.  But so far I've found her to be a breath of fresh air in Series Three, reminding the viewer that not everything is English Traditional versus American Crazy and New!  She approved of Branson not dressing for dinner, and thought that Martha's statements about simplifying the Downton lifestyle actually made sense.

Branson, On the Other Hand...  I should be on Branson's side, given that I agree with most of the things he says.  Why should he be expected to dress up for every meal?  Why respect traditions that are antiquated, lavish, and ridiculous?  Why not remind the Crawleys that their privilege comes with a price?  And yet I find Branson to be insufferable.  He has absolutely no ability to modulate his tone -- everything is loud and abrasive with him.  He's like a college student who thinks he is the first to discover injustice.  Worst of all, he is disrespectful toward Sybil.  After Sybil's suggestion that he try to moderate his behavior a little, he demands: "Don't disappoint me!"  How about being on your wife's side?  Do you really want to divide her from her family?  She wanted freedom, not to be an orphan.  Hopefully this is just the beginning of a story arc where Branson learns to talk to, instead of at, his in-laws.  If so, I hope he realizes that he needs to do it for his wife's sake, instead of expecting her to prove time and again that she is "worthy" of him.      

Matthew and Mary Are Surprisingly Meh.  After spending two series "will they? or won't they?", I thought their wedding and the after "spice" would be a more significant part of the episode, but both were almost an afterthought.  I suppose it's a sign of good taste that we didn't get a scene with Mary and Matthew rolling around in bed?  Or maybe the writers just wanted to preserve the mystery of whether Pamuk deflowered Mary by omitting the moment where Matthew observes: "You're really not a virgin, are you?"  Regardless, when they finally did tie the knot, there was a sense of "What was all the fuss about, again?"     

Beware of Message Boards...  This is the first time I've been able to go to message boards and participate in discussions as they happen.  In doing so, I've learned that many viewers are perfectly aware that Downton Abbey is little more than a lavish soap opera.  Part of their enjoyment in watching the show is knowing that they are smarter than the show -- and they usually are.  I've read a lot of enlightened and interesting discussion.  But beware of the message boards you go on.  Make sure that they're spoiler-free, unless you really don't care.  I went on to a spoiler board, which was a mistake, because I read a major spoiler about this season that I really wish I hadn't seen.  I won't hint at it here.  But if you get enjoyment from being surprised, beware.

Next Time:  Episode Two.  I don't remember from the previews, but I think there's more Matthew-Mary money angst.


  1. This is spot on. Please keep this up this season.

  2. Now that the season is over, you can get your "Downton Abbey" fix at, only this is all true and happened right here in the United States!

    1. Not quite over for me. Still have one more episode to review!