Like so many of its ardent fans, I have enjoyed every (almost) moment of the last two seasons of Downton Abbey. They say that the third season of a hit television series is the most challenging to write and produce. After being hooked in the first season by the very British characters, the glamor, ambiance and prestige of an English grand manor house during the Edwardian-era; enthralled with some of the resolutions, new characters and harrowing plot developments during WWI in the second; can they really keep the momentum rolling during season 3? That was the big question in my mind when I viewed the first episode of the phenomenally popular series. Will it be as fresh and engrossing as the last two seasons? We shall see…
If you want a sneak peek of the entire season check out my preview, then sit back with your cup or tea (or port) and get ready for your bonnet to be blown off.
Many of the original all-star British cast is returning including: Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Maggie Smith as the redoubtable Dowager Countess of Grantham, and Dan Stevens as the handsome, but reluctant heir apparent Matthew Crawley. There are also a few new faces to liven up the party, namely, the esteemed American actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Countess Grantham’s freewheeling American mother. Just the thought of the two formidable grandmothers, Violet, the Dowager Countess, and Martha Levinson, in the same room together engaging in fiery repartee (and you know with those two strong personalities that it’s going to be a fireworks show) that the first episode has a very promising premise. Having seen the entire season in advance, I can tell you that they are not the only eyebrow rising, laugh-out-loud scenes in the new season—there are plenty—and some real shockers too. Here is a brief description of episode 1 (includes some spoilers).
Recap of Episode 1 (spoilers)
In the spring of 1920 the wake of WWI is deeply felt at Downton Abbey as change is in the air for England and the Crawley family and their servants. Long standing traditions die hard, and many members, upstairs and downstairs, are determined to resume their pre-war style of life. As guests arrive for the wedding of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary Crawley (Michele Dockery), they bring with them a touch of the outside world to this isolationist enclave of English society. Lady Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) American mother Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) descends on her English in-laws with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop; her brash American manners and customs are in direct opposition to the other grandmother of the household, Lady Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith). Other family members traveling from afar are a pregnant Lady Sybil nee Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and her new husband, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the former family chauffeur whose marriage to the daughter of an Earl has caused quite a stir in the county.
Love is in the air and Lady Edith Crawley ardently (and doggedly) pursues neighbor Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst), causing grave concern by her father Lord Grantham and his mother Lady Violet. Money becomes a critic issue for the family when a surprise reversal of fortunes requires creative solutions causing conflict between Mary and her mother Cora and her fiancé Matthew. The fate of Downton’s future lies entirely in his hands when he learns that Reggie Swire, the father of his deceased fiancé, has made him his heir to a large fortune. His reluctance to accept money from the woman who died because he broke her heart, causes a riff between him and Lady Mary shortly before the wedding. When Mary sees Mathew’s implacable honor will not save Downton from ruin, she and her grandmother Violet scheme to put pressure on the other rich grandmother, Martha Levinson, to supply the funds to save the estate from bankruptcy.
Downtstairs, Carson the butler (Jim Carter) and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) try to keep the grand manor house running to pre-war standards with a reduced staff. A new kitchen maid, housemaid and footman are needed and Lady Cora’s lady’s maid O’Brien’s (Siobhan Finneran) suggest her nephew Alfred Nugent (Matt Milneis) who is hired against the opposition of her former partner-in-crime Thomas (Rob James-Collier). This causes a riff between the two evil-ones of the downstairs staff. Kitchen maid Daisy, whose promised promotion to assistant cook has not materialized, goes on strike while her boss Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), deals with a more serious medical issue with housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. Lady’s maid Anna visits her husband John Bates in prison determined to find the evidence to free him from an unjust murder conviction.
“An aristocrat without servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer.” – Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
I look forward to Violet’s bon mot’s more than anything — more witty wisdom from Downton Abbey whisperer…
“Mary, dearest Mary. You tell me all of your wedding plans and I’ll see what I can do to improve them.” – Martha Levinson
Grand-mama arrives from the colonies with all her lovely comments and tacky clothes. Will Downton ever be the same?
“How can I possibly allow myself to profit from her death? Dine in splendor because I took away a woman’s will to live?” – Matthew Crawley
“Don’t you see what this means? Don’t you see what a difference this make? It mean that you’re not on our side Matthew!” – Lady Mary
Oh my. This is serious. Not even married yet and they are at odds with each other!
“I see what you’re doing you know.” – Daisy
“What is that then?” – Mrs. Patmore
“Not responding to my protests.” – Daisy
LOL, go Daisy! Demand what they promised. #CrankyDaisy
“This is Thomas’ doing. Don’t you fret. I’ll make him sorry.” – O’Brien
The evil-one is out for revenge Thomas. Watch your back. #EvilOBrien
“How can you not like him because of his age when almost every young man we grew up with is dead? Do you want me to spend my life alone?” – Lady Edith
My heart goes out to Edith. Of course she is correct. So many eligible men died in the war that there are few left as possible beaux. Personally, I wanted grand-mama Levinson to swoop her up and take her back to Newport. She would have been a big hit in America, and the irony of the Crawley’s now needing the social assistance of the Levinson’s would have been a brilliant touch. Oh well.
“Both of our husband’s tied the money up tight before they were taken.” – Martha Levinson
Didn’t they, and how it has changed so many lives.
“Have you done something jolly with your hair?” – Sir Anthony Strallen
We all need to do something jolly with our hair in Edith’s honor, don’t we? :-)
So Edith and Anthony are an item again. This has me worried.
“One day I will die and so will he and you and every one of us under this roof. You must put these things in proportion Mrs. Patmore, and I think I can do that now.” – Mrs. Hughes
Is this an omen of what is to come this season? It ends on such a dark note that one can only wonder what trouble is ahead.
Writer Julian Fellowes has set up the new season superbly—lots of conflict, drama and romance/heartbreak in the queue. On first impression, there seems to be a less melodramatic air this season which I rather like. But it is early days, and I will only allude to the fact that there are plenty of twists and surprises in store.
It was a stoke of brilliance to bring on Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, who added the perfect counterpoint of the uncouth American brassiness to Maggie Smith’s elegantly staid and traditional English Lady Violet. MacLaine’s stark make-up and flashy clothes were just so over-the-top, almost theatrical. When she took over during the failed dinner party and turned it into a cold buffet/picnic, and then broke out in song after, I howled with laughter at the reaction by her English relatives and the guests. When the stalwart Butler Mr. Carson agreed (amazingly) that in the nontraditional party was a success with the locals and family, I knew that change was indeed in store for us this season.
In stark contrast to this charmed life of privilege is the miserable existence that the incarcerated Bates must endure while locked up in York prison. Anna is working hard to discover evidence of his innocence. And, what of the financial crisis? Will life as the Crawley family has known it for hundreds of years end soon?
Images courtesy © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE; text © Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com