Downton Dish: Time to Talk the Downton Abbey Series 3 Premiere

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Wow. It’s finally here – the long-awaited and highly-anticipated premiere of Downton Abbey Series 3 has made it to America at last and we can see what all the fuss is about for ourselves, talk about plot twists until we’re blue in the face, swoon over Matthew and Mary and just, well, everything.

The two-hour Series 3 premiere introduces us to life at Downton after the war – and the family and estate look a bit different. There are new faces downstairs, wedding planning is underway, Cora’s very American mother arrives and the family faces a financial setback. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on!

Click through for a rather embarrassingly in-depth look at all the twists and turns of the Downton Abbey Series 3 premiere and then let’s dish everything in the comments!

Wedding Planning is Happening! Matthew and Marry have managed to not break up in the gap between seasons and are busily rehearsing their wedding ceremony. We learn that Sybil and Branson are still in Ireland because they’re broke and Mary’s a bit upset about it. Lord Robert, however, is totally relieved about the situation because it means that the neighbors in the county won’t be able to freak out about Branson’s presence. Isobel, being Isobel, immediately gets all huffy, insisting that no one cares about Branson’s elevated new lifestyle status, but Matthew hilariously tells her that she’s wrong about that, because everyone cares when an Earl’s daughter runs off with the chauffeur.

How much of a relief is it that the show seems legitimately committed to the Matthew and Mary relationship? As much as I wished otherwise, I was actually anxious that the new season would begin with the two of them having found some other ridiculous reason to stay apart. Woohoo!

Isobel is Still Annoying. Wedding preparations concluded for the day, we head back to the Dowager house for some tea. Dame Maggie Smith appears to the relief of us all, and Lady Violet proceeds to surprise Isobel by agreeing with her about the Branson-at-the-wedding situation. She says he should be present because he’s family and especially because he’s scandalous family, since they must show everyone that he can behave normally. Lady Violet then proceeds to threaten Branson with bodily harm until he can behave normally, which sounds like something we’d all pay money to see. (The Dowager Countess’ Charm School is also a spinoff I imagine we could all get behind.)

It seems Isobel is returning to especially annoying crusading form this season, as she immediately goes into full Defender of the Downtrodden Mode. She says Branson is an interesting addition to the family, insisting that doesn’t need to be “normal” in the first place and declaring that she likes a man who can fight his own corner. [Insert your own preferred level of eyeroll here.] Isobel then declares that she’s going to send Sybil and Branson the money to come to the wedding, because Isobel is a ridiculous meddler who needs a hobby.

No Money, Mo Problems. After Robert receives an ominous phone call and suddenly announces that he’s going to take a quick trip to London, it’s pretty obvious that something shady is happening, even if you haven’t seen any of the trailers for this season. It turns out that while Robert may be excellent at being an aristocrat, he is terrible at running an estate. He’s apparently invested all of his money in some railroad fund and this move has turned out to be only slightly more advisable than simply taking piles of money out into the back yard and burning them.

Robert’s solicitor informs him that the only options are going to be to let Downton go entirely or to sell it off piecemeal, because the family is that broke. Robert heads back to the house in shock, breaks the news to Cora and starts crying. Poor Robert. You’re really not good at this. I mean, honestly, who is running this estate? Cora’s fortune saved Downtown Abbey in the first place, what, forty years prior maybe, and it’s already been lost? Maybe part of their investment strategy IS taking money out into the yard and burning it.

Free Bates! (Sooner Rather Than Later, Please). Anna goes to see Bates at the Somewhat Ridiculous Local County Jail (seriously, it looks like a miniaturized Tower of London) and the two of them visit for a bit in a dingy and incredibly poorly lit room. During the hiatus, Anna has apparently turned into Nancy Drew and has turned up some sort of datebook that used to belong to Vera while cleaning out Bates’ old house. She instructs Bates to write down everything he knows about the names in the book and she and his lawyer will investigate. She pledges to keep investigating every avenue possible until she can prove her husband’s innocence.

It’s quite fortunate that Bates and Anna are still exceptionally sweet together, because their scenes at the prison are the very definition of borrrrrrring. I love them together, but this feels like an obstacle that’s just there to be an obstacle. We all know Bates is innocent and that eventually he’s going to get out of jail and the prospect of the “how” this is going to be accomplished is not especially interesting. There seems to be little chance that someone we know has killed Vera, which is the only twist that might prove shocking or exciting here. Can’t we just cut to the chase?

Oh, and Bates informs his wife that he’s got a shady new cellmate, which is obviously a plot point that is going to come up again. Anna visits several times over the course of the episode and remains steadfast and loyal about making sure she gets her husband out of jail.

Shut Up, Matthew. It turns out that that Reggie Swire, father of infamous Series 2 plot roadblock Lavina Swire, has passed away and named Matthew as one of his potential heirs. There’s a lot of rigamarole here about there being two other potential candidates as well and whether they’re alive and if not, when exactly they died as that goes into figuring out who gets the money. The long and short of it is that Matthew might be about to come into a substantial fortune courtesy of his dead fiancée’s dead father and woohoo, that means he can use it to save Downton, right? Not so fast.

It’s been a year since Series 2, so it’s possible that we’ve forgotten that Matthew’s kind of an idiot. Matthew gets exceptionally ridiculous, even for him, over the possibility of this inheritance, insisting that there’s no way on earth he can keep it because Reggie never knew the truth about what happened to Lavinia – that Matthew, broke her heart and destroyed her will to live and blah blah blah Series 2 all over again. Shut up, Matthew! His objections to keeping this money – particularly once he finds out that the Crawley family is in such crisis – seem both specious and vaguely selfish, based on an idea of himself that isn’t necessarily grounded in reality. Is it supposed to make him a more noble person if he gives the money away? Or feel less guilty about what happened to Lavinia? Not so much with the making sense here, plot.

Sybil and Branson Return and It’s Awkward. Someone gives Sybil and Branson the money to come to the wedding and they return to Downton Abbey and everything is awkward because none of the servants seem to know how to act around the former chauffeur they now have to serve. Mr. Carson is particularly cranky about it and so is Thomas, so you know it’s got to be a really big deal if the two of them actually agree on something. Sybil is happy to see her family again and Branson looks uncomfortable.

Sybil and Branson have their first dinner with the family and it is painfully awkward. Even Lady Violet is making an effort to be inclusive, but Branson seems to take a strange sort of glee in rubbing in the fact that they’re poor in Ireland and that he doesn’t own a dinner jacket or tails or any of those useless trappings of the aristocracy because they’re just living a totally different kind of life now. And this is apparently Branson on his good behavior, because then he starts ranting about Ireland being oppressed by the English and dominated by a foreign power and the rest of the family suddenly doesn’t really know where to look.

After dinner, Sybil tells Mary that Tom’s a good person and that she loves their life together in Ireland, which is supposedly some sort of magical place where class issues don’t matter. She says Tom acts the way he does because he feels patronized by the Crawleys. Sybil and Tom go to bed and she tries to convince him to maybe buy some tails and shut the hell up about Ireland, Ireland, Ireland all the time. Branson gets snotty at this and implies that Sybil is somehow letting him down –  he literally says “Don’t disappoint me, Sybil” like a huge jerk and she just says okay. Seriously, what happened to the Sybil from the first season? It’s nice that Sybil is trying to bridge the gap between her family and her husband and that she clearly wants to make things easier for everyone, but it’s unfortunate that the Crawley’s most modern daughter is now apparently doomed to spend all her time defending the frequently boorish behavior of her husband. Yes, she’s living a life of her own choice in Ireland, but it certainly seems so restrictive and focused mainly on Tom. I wonder what Series 1 Sybil would say to herself now? (Is this just me? Do people enjoy them together?)

Matthew and Branson, Adorable BFFs. The only time Branson is likeable for me so far is during his scenes with Matthew. Their offbeat we’re-outsiders-who-have-to-stick-together vibe is kind of adorable and their scenes do give Branson an unexpected opportunity to be self-aware, in ways that he has yet to be with Sybil.

During a dinner party with several friends of the family, Branson gets drugged (is the phrase “roofied” too anachronistic?) by a cruel former suitor of Sybil’s and subsequently goes off on another political rant of such epic proportions that the entire family is facepalming. Sir Anthony saves the day by pointing out that he saw Larry the ex put something Branson’s drink and everyone is appalled. (Edith even uses the word “beastly,” which you just get the feeling is like the worst insult.) Larry sneers and asks who even cares what happens to Branson, he’s just a jumped up chauffeur anyway. All the other men around the table leap up, offended, and Matthew suddenly announces that Branson’s going to be his Best Man at the wedding. Matthew points out that men who are willing to take on the Crawley girls have to stick together, and it’s all very sweet and cute and ra ra family solidarity. (This actually leads to my favorite scene of the episode when Lady Violet forces Branson to deal with the fact that he’s going to be properly dressed for the wedding whether he likes it or not. Lady Violet is amazing.)

Introducing Martha Levinson. Well, we’ve all known it was coming – Cora’s mother Martha, played by the indomitable Shirley MacLaine, arrives at Downton for Mary’s wedding. Her entrance is fairly sweeping, marked by that particular brash superpatriotic pushiness that people who aren’t Americans always seem to assume every American displays. Martha runs the reception receiving line at Downton, informing Sybil that childbirth is done better in the States, insisting that Edith could take some dating tips from her modern American self, and noting that whatever Mary’s wedding plans might happen to be, she’ll doubtless have a way to improve them. She also vaguely manages to imply that Carson and Mrs. Hughes have gotten old and insults the British resistance to change, all in her first couple minutes onscreen. Her first encounter with Lady Violet is, unsurprisingly, full of barbs and snark and Smith and MacLaine are certainly well-matched. Martha is, in short, a force of nature.

She’s also incredibly, well, crass is a strong word, but compared to the highly polished world of Downton – everyone seems to be vaguely embarrassed by her presence most of the time. She has terrible table manners and she’s forever making off color comments to the servants about a variety of topics. MacLaine is incredibly fun in this role, but Martha toes the line of caricature very closely a lot of the time.

Matthew and Mary’s Relationship Has Grown Up a Bit. (But Just a Bit.) There is, of course, an inevitable pre-wedding roadblock when Mary breaks the news about Robert’s financial crisis and Matthew once again goes into his song and dance about being unworthy to keep the money because of his treatment of Lavinia blah blah blah retread. Mary throws a temper tantrum about his refusal to even consider using his newfound Swire inheritance to save the estate she and her family love so much. I generally am Team Mary in this particular argument, primarily because Matthew’s logic makes no sense. However, this does not excuse her incredibly childish and over-dramatic outburst (complete with throwing letters on the ground) wherein she declares that because Matthew doesn’t immediately do what she wants him to do, that means he’s not on her side and therefore they probably shouldn’t get married at all. [Insert foot stomp here.]

However, what’s actually lovely about this subplot – and I say this even though I think this last minute mini “will they/won’t they” panic is both ridiculous and unnecessary – is that we see that Matthew and Mary both have changed the way they’re willing to interact with each other. The version of this couple from last season would have pouted and hid and run away – and while this does happen to a small degree, it’s not all that happens. Matthew has a bro-tastic heart-to-heart with Branson who reminds him that he’ll never be happy with anyone but Mary. The engaged couple then actually has a very sweet conversation through a door – so they don’t tempt tradition by seeing each other – and talks out their issues a bit, admitting that they really don’t agree with each other about this issue but that they love each other anyway. They realize that it’s okay for them to not see eye to eye on everything because disagreeing doesn’t mean they love each other any less, and they can work on learning how to compromise. Maturity! Hurrah!

The Wedding We All Wanted. Armed with this new ability to vaguely behave like adults, Matthew and Mary tie the knot. Shocking, isn’t it? In the first episode, even! Admittedly, I expected this plot to at least drag through the halfway point of this season, so the surprise is extra pleasant. It’s lovely that the show’s committed to this relationship, and watching the two of them standing at the altar is a wonderful payoff for fans who’ve been rooting for Matthew and Mary’s relationship since the show’s very first episode. (Did anyone else get a bit teary at Mary’s “Will I do, Carson?” on the stairs? Asking for a friend.)

It would have been nice though – just as a gift for the fans – to see the whole of Matthew and Mary’s wedding service. But, maybe that’s not as important as the fact that the two of them grew up enough to get to the altar at all.

Oh, Edith. Really. Edith spends most of the premiere pushily chasing after Sir Anthony Strallen, forcing herself into his company whenever she is given the chance and being ridiculously, laughably forward whenever the two are together.  After the drugged up dinner disaster with Branson, Edith walks Sir Anthony out to the car and very pushily informs him that she would like/hope/expects that they’ll be seeing more of each other after the wedding and the whole thing just seems sort of sad. While Edith managed to transformed herself into a mostly sympathetic character during Series 2 (miracle of miracles), there’s something increasingly desperate about her behavior here. (The scene at Mary’s wedding when she says “he’s almost family” when forcing him to sit up front? Total. Creeper.) Last year, her interactions with Sir Anthony were very sweet – but it would seem her declaration that she wasn’t going to give up on someone who called her “lovely” really meant that she was going to become his stalker. It’s a bit confusing – are we meant to see Edith as growing increasingly desperate now that both her sisters are married? Are we meant to see Sir Anthony as a pushover? Their relationship is certainly a triumph of Edith’s will and perseverance (and her ability to simply say, straight out, you will stop pushing me away and shut up about it), but it’s hardly what you could call romantic.

Robert has a man-to-man talk with Sir Anthony and encourages him to break it off with his daughter. Anthony writes Edith a goodbye letter, but this lasts for about five seconds because Edith starts crying and convinces her father to invite him back because she’s in love with him and all the young men they knew died in the war. This outburst is really horrible, not only because Edith’s very forlorn and that’s sad, but because it seems so desperate. Yes, Edith’s facing a sad lack of eligible men in the county, but it’s certainly not flattering or attractive for her to fall apart quite in this way. (They aren’t awful together, but really have they had time enough to even get to know one another?) By the end of the episode, Edith and Anthony have decided to get married and it all feels very rushed and strange, but well done Edith, I suppose.

Mary and Violet Join Forces (Or, Team Awesome is Born). Once back from her honeymoon, Mary decides to take matters into her own hands regarding the future of Downton. She and Lady Violet take to plotting after dinner and determine that the obvious solution is for Martha to provide the estate with another cash infusion to keep it going. (Martha apparently is swimming in vaults of gold, Scrooge McDuck-style, back in America.) The two of them are completely adorable as they come up with ways to try and teach Martha about the value of tradition and show her the worth that British great houses can provide their communities. They also put together a huge swanky dinner party, to show off what the house can do. It’s interesting how much this subplot illustrates the fact that Mary’s comment to her mother – that she is English while Cora is American, despite her being a child of mixed heritage – is completely true. If anything, Mary is Violet’s child, not Cora’s. She is her grandmother all over again, from her steel will and occasionally sharp tongue to her utter certainty that she will get her own way – if only given enough time. It’s easy to picture Mary, many years from now, growing up to be her exactly like her grandmother Violet.

 Cora, ever American, reiterates that it’s not the end of the world if the family has to move to a smaller house, and insists that it’s not fair to make her mother and brother pay for the estate’s mismanagement. She’s sad about it, but it doesn’t seem to hit her personally, the possibility of Downton’s extinction, not the way it does the rest of her family – well at least Robert, Mary or Violet. I can’t see Edith or Sybil being as affected by this, but I’m also not sure they’ve been told the news yet either.

Of course, the swanky dinner party is a total failure, complete with wardrobe malfunctions, kitchen disasters and forced indoor picnics. Martha breaks the news to Mary that she couldn’t give them any more money, even if she wanted to, because her husband had their accounts locked up tightly and she can’t access the capital to do anything about the problems on the estate. Now what? It’s anyone’s guess.

Downstairs Doings. There’s a lot going on amongst the servants this week, but nothing that’s huge on its own. O’Brien convinces Cora and Robert to take her nephew Alfred on as a new footman. Daisy goes on a brief strike in the kitchen because Mrs. Patmore hasn’t had another kitchen maid hired yet. Thomas and O’Brien have a falling out over Alfred’s future in the house and start sabotaging each other. Mrs. Hughes goes to see the doctor because she’s afraid she has cancer. Daisy has a crush on Alfred, but he’s got a really awkward flirtation going on with Mrs. Levinson’s very American maid. Carson seems to be existing in a permanent state of shock about various failings of class and decorum all around the house.

Onward! Whew, what a lot to digest before next Sunday! What will happen to Downton? What of Mrs. Hughes and her cancer? The newfound animosity between former besties Thomas and O’Brien? And Edith’s getting married! Also, what of Sybil and Branson? They sort of seemed to vanish from the back half of this episode and who knows where they’re going to fit into all this.  But, that said, it’s already been a pretty wild ride and we’ve barely started.

Allright, folks, have at it – what’d you think? What did you like most and least about this episode? Are you excited for the Crawley story to continue? Let’s dish in the comments!


Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Twitter at @LacyMB