At last, the night I've been waiting for ever since the last episode of season two ended: The American television premiere of Downton Abbey season three! And it included Mary and Matthew's wedding -- which I wanted to Instagram the moment I saw those little ringleted flower girls flouncing out of the great house. Damn you, reality! I wasn't actually present at the wedding so I couldn't.
But this being Downton Abbey, there was far more than the perfect wedding happening in this first episode. The house is in turmoil! The family is in transition. And dear god, Cora's terrifying mother, Martha Levinson, has arrived!
This was a two-hour episode, which means -- oh bother, where do I even begin with this recap? The big fight between Mary and Matthew that almost ruins the wedding? Nah. We weren't fooled by that fake fight for a minute, though I did love the kiss-and-make-up scene. (Mary peeking, FTW!)
Okay, so let's deal with Anna and Bates right away. Since he's in for life she has all the time in the world to work on his case for him. She's going down a long list of contacts of his ex-wife to find someone who knows if she was in a suicidal state before her death. Meanwhile, Bates' cellmate is a sinister thug who tries to bully Bates, but Bates pounces back and practically strangles the guy. I think Bates will be able to take care of himself in jail just fine. Also, does anyone else harbor the teeniest suspicion that maybe Bates did murder is ex-wife, after all? Not that we'd blame him.
So that's one prison. The other prison -- dare I say it? Is Downton Abbey itself. Remember that it was Cora who brought all the money into the Crawley family? Well, that money's all gone to shit. Apparently some jackass financial advisor (or was it Grantham himself?) invested almost all of it in ONE company, which failed. Oh Grantham, everyone knows you MUST diversify your investments!
But now he can't afford to keep Downton. So. That's kind of a scary thought.
And here we arrive with the big theme of the night -- actually the whole series: Tradition vs. modernity and change. If the Crawleys give up Downton Abbey, they'll be just fine. They'll just live their grand lives in somewhat smaller homes. Big deal. Get with the times.
But it's not so simple as that. In small and large ways, you see what that big house supports -- a whole "family" of employees who depend on steady work AND health care. Notice Mrs. Hughes with her doctor who treats her like an adult? What would she do about her breast lump otherwise? What would Mrs. Padmore have done about her cataracts? Did you notice how crestfallen poor Mr. Mosley was when Matthew refused him as a valet? And what a chaos there is when the servants are understaffed -- and especially when Mrs. Hughes isn't feeling well.
(And about that -- it's heartbreaking to see Mrs. Hughes stoically working through all of that with Carson bearing down on her. What a relief when he finally gives her some appreciation and lets her know he's noticed something's up -- while also accepting her face-saving denial that anything is wrong. It's all deeply humane and also excruciating.)
Martha Levinson floats in on a breeze of American modernity, pooh-poohing the English abject addiction to tradition. And she's right about a lot of that -- but, you know, what I said about the house supporting people's livings and all that. It ain't so simple, Martha.
Meanwhile, her nemesis, the Dowager Countess, turns out to be a lot more forward-thinking than Martha gives her credit for. Everyone is surprised when Sybil shows up for the wedding with her former-chauffeur/socialist husband Tom Branson. Guess who invited him? Violet! And guess who strong-arms Tom into getting fitted for a proper morning jacket? Violet again. But really, underneath what seems like a modern mindset could also be seen as traditionalism. She just wants all of her family at the wedding. "We Crawleys have to stick together," she says. And so, tradition and modernism turn into a möbius slip, opposite sides of the same thing.
But some things never change. I was furious with how Tom wanted Sybil to bend over backwards to make sure he could "be Tom" at Downton Abbey no matter how uncomfortable it made Sybil. I guess you can be a selfish chauvinist and a socialist at the same time. And Matthew's refusal of Lavinia's fortune even though he could use it to save Downton Abbey -- what the hell is wrong with that man? These guys and their fucking misplaced INTEGRITY! When will they ever see what's most important?
Okay, so there's all that. (And the delicious cat fights between Martha and Violet.) Then there's poor Edith chasing poor "old" Anthony, the one-armed man literally and figuratively over the hill, and also apparently the only eligible bachelor left in England. You'd think he was Jef Holm the way Edith throws herself at him. Edith and Anthony -- a story of enduring love adequate feelings of mutual appreciation. Sigh. Somehow they end up engaged by the end of the episode. But we're a far cry from Matthew's "won't be happy with anyone else as long as Mary is walking the Earth." Who cares if Anthony dies 10 years from now, Edith got her MAN with money and position. TheEnd.
But back to Operation Saving Downton Abbey: After Mary and Violet's scheme to get Martha to rescue the old house, Martha (who saw through it all) admits she can't. The money is all tied up and she can't touch the principal. She tells Mary, "These houses are built for another age," and that she should look on the bright side of losing Downton. "Bitch, please," Mary shouts, and runs out of the room. No, not really. But that's what that stony look Mary gives her says.
Martha tells Grantham basically the same thing: "The way to deal with the world these days is to not ignore it." Just before she trots back to America and her fat cushion of money like that's what we can all just do. He needs to adapt to a changing world. What's at Grantham's core? A traditionalist, someone who is strong enough to change, a bit of both?
And now my favorite lines:
Matthew to Tom: "We're brothers-in-law with high minded wives. We'd better stay together."
Violet, when offered pre-dinner cocktails: "They look too exciting for so early in the evening."
Violet again: "When I'm with her [Martha] I'm reminded of the virtues of the English." Matthew: "But isn't she American?" Violet: "Exactly."
Grantham: "I feel like a Chicago bootlegger." Violet: "I don't even know what that means but it sounds almost as peculiar as you look."
Mary in her wedding gown: "Will I do, Carson?"
Mary to Matthew: "Now shut up and kiss me before I get angry with you."
Mary to Matthew just before they're married: "I wouldn't ever want to be predictable."
Lord Grantham, LOL understatement of the night: "Thomas, are you not popular downstairs?"
Dowager Countess: "Nothing succeeds like excess."
Carson, quoting Samuel Johnson: "When a man is tired of style, he is tired of life." (Actually, Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.")
Do you think Mary will find a way to save Downton Abbey?
Image via PBS