Downton Abbey: Week 1 In Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: We’ve got a wedding, a new footman, “jolly” new hair styles, a “blushing” Mary, unlikely camaraderies, financial difficulties, a cancer scare, Irish rants, and Shirley Maclaine. Season Three of “Downton Abbey” has made it across the pond into our eager minds and hearts. Sunday night’s two-hour premiere can be summed up best by Lord Grantham at the beginning of the episode: “Nothing’s the matter. What should be the matter?” Nothing should be the matter. Matthew and Mary are about to be wed, Sybil and Branson are happy(ish) on their own in Dublin, Anna and Bates are making the best of a bad situation, the money troubles can easily be fixed by the immensely wealthy Martha Levinson (should she choose to contribute), and things are managing so-so downstairs given that they are currently understaffed. Nothing “should” be the matter. But, in true Downton fashion, many things are likely to be.

A friend of mine and I were discussing the episode, and she remarked that there seemed to be a sudden lack of chemistry between Matthew and Mary this season, minus the kiss in her bedroom the night before the wedding. It’s not the butterflies and stolen glances chemistry of Season Two, but the two are certainly more comfortable with each other. More equal. More relaxed. But since the sexual tension has died down and the catharsis of satisfying a forbidden love has ceased, I wonder if their relationship will mature, as it looks like it is, or take a turn for the catastrophic, as things tend to do at Downton. Mary’s anger with Matthew for not immediately signing over the inheritance from Lavinia’s father’s estate to Downton was difficult to stomach, but totally understandable. The terror with which she foresees losing the comfort of a castle that would accompany her future title as “countess” speaks to one of my favorite parts of this show. The aristocracy, when it looks like they are about to have their lifestyle tarnished in any way, fumbles and freaks in an effective piece of commentary on the flimsy class system. Sybil and Edith don’t seem to be as horrified with the idea of a simpler lifestyle, and hence their relationship with the family brings baggage and disappointment. Mary, on the other hand, has an iciness to her that makes her need to insulate herself with money extremely interesting. I fear that this might create a rift between Mary and Matthew, who expressed a keen interest in wanting to live more “simply.”

Similarly, I wonder if the need to maintain appearances and behave class accordingly at Downton will mangle Branson and Sybil. It looks very much like it will, though I will still root for them with all of my heart. While watching the two of them on screen together, and then in situations with other people, there is an enormous difference in both of their attitudes and demeanor which suggests a real happiness when they are alone together, which cracks a little when around people at Downton. Sybil, though modernized and humbled by her monochromatic and functional wardrobe, can slip easily back into the Downton demeanor at will. Branson, however, does not belong upstairs or downstairs despite being awkwardly assimilated through Matthew’s kindness. I want the family to keep trying with Branson, for Sybil’s sake and for the sake of their future grandchild. Branson has put on the morning jacket, and now the Crawleys must be willing to picnic.

So much to say about two hours of exciting television, but I think I’ll finish with weighing in on Shirley Maclaine’s presence at Downton. So she is freewheeling and despising of English traditionalism with a vendetta against the past and a lust for the future. Ok. Now what? Her hats could very well be worshiped as deities, but her character is not garnering the same high praise from me yet. I can’t say that I find her character particularly interesting so far beyond crooning and quibbling with the Dowager Countess. Will she be schmoozed into saving Downton despite her own protests? What should be the matter with a little American charity? Nothing, really, but we’re just getting started.

HOWARD MEGDAL: The return of Downton Abbey Sunday night provided precisely the well-acted, somewhat conveniently-plotted, aesthetically-pleasing television viewing we’d come to expect from Julian Fellowes and company over the first two seasons.

So much to discuss, but I’d like to focus on a few areas.

The first is, despite the ample discussion about how times are changing (1920 cited repeatedly by characters as a reason old rule don’t apply) seeing Fellowes luxuriate in using the slower pace of information to propagate various plot points. Consider: both Anna’s pursuit of friends/acquaintances of Vera, Bates’ ex-wife, and how long tracking them down is taking her. Consider: the two months (!) it will take to determine if Mrs. Hughes has cancer or not. A chauffeur might be at the dinner table (and in a particularly well-constructed exchange, able to talk to Lord Grantham on equal terms), but the flow of information is not nearly at Internet levels yet. That looks like it will drive two major plot points downstairs.

Speaking of downstairs, seeing O’Brien and Thomas at odds is a refreshing change from seasons one and two, when the forces of ill were aligned together. Really, this makes plenty of sense when Lord Grantham has invested in 1920′s answer to Bernie Madoff: everyone will need to band together up there to save Downton, and the last thing the house needs is a united front of troublemaking.

Naturally, Matthew stands to inherit enough to save Downton (does anyone rich die without it benefiting Matthew?), putting him at the center of the great moral conflicts within the season once again. It will be fascinating to see if his decision, made carefully and fully, ultimately echoes his impetuous kiss of Mary in season two. In both cases, he’d be choosing love over loyalty as primary virtue, but the decision last year was made due to uncontrollable impulse. This time, it would be a carefully considered betrayal, if an ex post facto one.

It’ll be up to Matthew because Shirley McLaine’s character, Cora’s mother, won’t save the day. It feels like a bit of a copout for Julian Fellowes to give her the name Mrs. Isadore Levinson, but for her not to be Jewish (her husband was). This would have added another vital layer to the class conflicts. And there’s even a sound sociological basis for it. Sadly, it is not to be.

Finally: poor Lady Edith. She finally convinces Sir Anthony to marry her, and Lord Grantham to allow it, and the last of the money was spent on Lady Mary’s wedding. They should have just called her Lady Womp Womp.

NAVA BRAHE: I’ve joined the “Downton Abbey” craze rather late, and having recently absorbed Seasons One and Two via Hulu, I find Season Three to be a rude awakening. I rather enjoyed the whimsy and spectacle of Season One (I’m a sucker for well-done period drama), but I found the depiction of the Great War somewhat overwrought in Season Two. It was very convenient for Matthew to regain the use of his legs after suffering a spinal injury, and I was rather appalled at the degree of Thomas’ cowardice as he offered up his hand from the foxhole for the Germans to shoot at.

The start of Season Three, however, has me in a somewhat Schadenfreudian mood. I can’t say I’m surprised by Lord Grantham’s financial woes; the British gentry and their insular attitudes about the big bad world never affecting them have always amused me. It’s like they feel all the world’s problems can be solved with a strong cuppa and some dainty finger sandwiches.

I found Lady Mary’s sense of entitlement and scheming to save her lavish lifestyle rather annoying. Her plotting to fleece her American grandmother is laughable. I agree with Sonia that the chemistry between her and Matthew has become somewhat stilted, and her childish “gimme, gimme, gimme” attitude has the potential to become infuriating. Edith is becoming a much more sympathetic figure, and I too am rooting wholeheartedly for Sybil and Branson.

I am cringing with worry over Mrs. Hughes’ pending diagnosis; I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to have to wait two months to find out if I have cancer. I’ve always found the downstairs intrigue much more entertaining than what goes on upstairs. Being born into the service caste and taking pride in one’s work as a butler, maid, footman or cook speaks volumes when compared to the disdain for present-day equivalent employment.

I am looking forward to seeing the plots develop, particularly Anna and Mr. Bates’ situation. I am fairly certain Matthew will not donate his latest inheritance to save Downton, which will keep the tension going throughout the season. Overall, I think “Downton Abbey” is one of the most riveting shows I’ve watched since “The Sopranos” ended, and has given me something to look forward to again on Sunday nights.

About Sonia Brand-Fisher

My name is Sonia Brand-Fisher and I am a film studies major at Smith College. Interests include vintage film and fashion, fake-swing dancing to early Standards, cooking lavish meals that stem far outside of my culinary comfort zone, and musing over the implications behind all things aesthetically intriguing.
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