Downton Abbey, Episode 3.1
Written by Julian Fellows
Directed by Brian Percival
Downton Abbey ended its ignominious second season with a Christmas special that seemed to redeem all the unnecessary melodrama of its sophomore year and revived a confidence in its faithful viewership that the show could move forward on surer footing. Last night, season three of the period drama finally premiered on PBS, and the American fan base at last had their opportunity to judge if the series will live up to the promise of that Christmas special or revert to the soap opera antics that spoiled it in the past.
The season opener launches with a reminder of what was good about season two. Star-crossed Matthew and Mary at long last got together. So why not begin the episode at the wedding rehearsal? Upon reflection, this first scene seems even more apropos, considering the entire episode isn’t much more than a rehearsal for greater conflicts and, hopefully, greater triumphs yet to come.
The magic word for this installment of the Downton saga appears to be “change.” Good or bad, it’s inevitable, a message touted loudly by newcomer Shirley MacLaine in the role of Cora’s outspoken American mother, Martha Levinson. Martha provides the perfect verbal sparring partner for Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, though their exchanges never quite reach the heights of witty excellence that the Dowager and Cousin Isobel have achieved in their many face-offs. The major point of contention between these grandmothers appears to be the American ideal of progress versus the English affinity for tradition. Martha goes so far as to accuse Europe’s inflexible adherence to tradition as a major contributor to the world war everyone is still recovering from.
This costume drama has preoccupied itself with the theme of inescapable change in one way or another from its very beginning. It is integrated in the flipside of the nostalgia upon which it relies so heavily for its appeal. From a present day vantage, we all know that the heydays for houses like Downton are numbered, and the fate of families like the Crawleys will most likely be decided by how they respond to the sweeping changes in store for their aristocratic lifestyle. However, last night’s season premiere elevated this theme to even greater prominence and studied it from various angles.
Nearly every character on the impossibly long roster of Downton’s ensemble cast confronts some kind of change. Some welcome it. Others resist it. While one or two insist upon it. Anna endeavors steadfastly to change the situation of her wrongly convicted husband. Carson must deal with an undesired addition to his staff when O’Brien finagles a position for her untrained nephew as a footman. And in probably the most adorable subplot ever, kitchen maid Daisy engages in a quiet protest against Mrs. Patmore for failing to promote her as she was promised.
The biggest change threatening the Crawleys is the imminent loss of the family fortune due to bad investments on Robert’s part. Despite all his worrying over the family and employees he’ll no longer be able to support, it remains abundantly clear Robert’s biggest concern has more to do with his pride and the protection of his legacy than the people he may disappoint. It’s the same pride that almost prevented his daughter Sybil from attending her sister’s wedding. What other more dire consequences might Robert’s tragic flaw have for his household over the course of the third season if he continues to respond to change with prideful defiance?
A walking, breathing example of unimaginable change enters the story in the form of Sybil’s new husband and former chauffeur, Tom Branson. Their marriage acts as an uncomfortable signal of the breakdown of a class system the Crawley family depends on. The staunchest traditionalists, represented by Robert and his mother, find themselves confounded by their own rituals when it comes to addressing their newest family member, forgetting on several occasions to call him by the more familiar Tom and continuing to reference him as Branson as if he were still their servant. No doubt, lowborn Branson reminds Robert of the looming change ready to befall them all. Branson’s reappearance even has a disconcerting effect downstairs as the servants struggle to adapt to his new station. Even the typically unwavering Carson finds his concentration disrupted when he witnesses Tom’s informality and brazen interactions with people the butler considers his betters.
Of course, at Downton, like in real life, some things never change. Daisy still takes Thomas’ rotten advice. Matthew experiences a second unexpected and incredibly fortuitous windfall. Edith is as awkward and as envious of her elder sister as ever. Thankfully, new faces and the return of beloved characters long absent promise different character dynamics and intriguing possibilities. O’Brien and Thomas have a falling out when the valet refuses to mentor her fresh-faced nephew. Bates senses something menacing about his new cellmate. And Matthew and Tom forge an auspicious kinship, and Matthew even asks Tom to be his best man. Tom returns the favor by brokering a reconciliation between the bride and groom when an ominous dispute threatens their nuptials the night before the wedding. Perhaps Tom’s contribution to the episode’s happy ending intimates a hopeful future for the Crawley clan if issues of station and uppity manners can be set aside in the interests of family unity.
Fortunately, the best things about the show have not changed. Dialogue is still sharp and quotable. Performances are still top notch. The fashion still stylish and the writing inspiring. While Downton’s characters brace themselves for major transitions they are powerless to control, the new direction the show is taking appears to be exactly as it should be.