Downton Abbey, Season 3
Come Sunday, law-abiding American viewers can finally stop feeling like chumps.
Posted Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, at 7:30 AM
Photograph courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for Masterpiece.
Editor’s note: For the benefit of American readers who haven’t yet seen Season 3 of Downton Abbey, please do your best to avoid spoilers when commenting.
June Thomas: Seth! I’m so glad to be wandering the halls of Downton Abbey with you for another season.
Seth Stevenson: June, I can’t wait to dance the black bottom with you again.
Thomas: As Sunday’s Season 3 premiere approaches, we law-abiding Americans can finally stop feeling like chumps for waiting for PBS to give us our fix. The long delay since ITV aired the show in the U.K. means that I’ve been spoiled on a couple of plot points, and I confess this causes me some dowager countess-level aggravation.
Stevenson: Somehow, I’ve managed to avoid all spoilers. (So far! Commenters, please preserve my maidenhood, and that of my fellow law abiders. I know there are major plot points floating around out there.)
Thomas: I was all set to take that aggro out on the show until I watched a 5-minute catch-up video on the PBS site, and now I'm once again pure of heart and excited to see what ridiculous adventures Lord Fellowes has in mind for us this time around. What about you? Feeling crabby? Breathless with antici …. pation?
Stevenson: I, too, watched the catch-up video. And rewatched last year’s Christmas special. So I’m currently floating on a snowy cloud of marriage proposal bliss. Part of me feels like Downton should have ended right there, with the Matthew-Mary saga seemingly resolved. That’s always been the heart of the show for me. But I’m still looking forward to some dowager disses. To finding love for long-suffering Edith. To catching up with Sybil, her Irish hubby, and their baby—the “Fenian grandchild,” as Lord Grantham so charmingly referred to his forthcoming kin. And don’t forget, Shirley MacLaine is on her way to Downton. I anticipate fireworks as she and Dame Maggie Smith attempt to out-battleax each other.
Thomas: A common theme of our discussion last year—and one I'm sure we'll return to this season—is how Julian Fellowes manages to win us over. Why is this show different from all other shows? When Homeland took a few turns toward the ridiculous everyone shrieked, but outrageous plot twists are what we come to Downton for. That's part of the appeal, anyway. It's the combination of the predictable (the Crawley girls will squabble, the dowager countess will zing, Thomas and O'Brien will plot, Anna will be loyal, Bates will be boring) and the bat-shit crazy (P. Gordon returns from the dead, Matthew loses sensation below the waist then miraculously regains it) that keeps us glued to our sets.
I agree with you, though, that for all the other folderol, the romance between Mary and Matthew is what makes the show special. Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery have wonderful chemistry together. One look across a crowded room, one ridiculously romantic gesture, one lovely snowflake-frosted kiss is all it takes to make me forget boring Bob Crawley, his oddly spacey wife, and all the other stuff that I don't much care for.
Stevenson: Downton has always been a soap opera, so I think we forgive it the occasional outlandish development. Or we at least tolerate its absurdity. I confess I have been tempted to fast-forward through a few of the sillier storylines. And, despite my admiration for Carson’s nobility and Mrs. Hughes’ humanity, I’m beginning to lose interest in the entire downstairs crew. Is it wrong that I sort of hoped Mr. Bates would be hanged so we could stop following the progression of his never-ending martyrdom? Perhaps the arrival of another new, fetching ginger housemaid will shake things up among the servants.
For me, the show’s true appeal—in addition to my personal fantasy of wooing Lady Mary and making a life with her in an enormous manor house—lies in its Jane Austen construction. Daughters of marriageable age, in mild economic peril, seeking suitable husbands. That’s a proven recipe for narrative success. But now we’ve safely delivered Sybil and Mary into matrimony. (Or so I assume. I suppose some soapy intervention could ruin Matthary’s nuptials.) So we’re left with Edith’s struggle, or with one of the existing husbands suddenly dying or turning into a fiend.
Thomas: Ah, Seth, your charming fascination with the Crawley girls proves that you are, at heart, an American. I am drawn to the servants hall. The Brit in me knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that that's where I'd live if I were part of the Downton menage. And so, although I have a Pavlovian response to the swell of Downton Abbey's romantic music and feel my heart flutter when Matthew whispers sweet nothings in Mary's ear, it's Thomas and O'Brien and poor dopey Daisy that I really relate to. It's them who I want to find true love.
Stevenson: Lest you think me a snob, June, I assure you that I identify more closely with, say, Branson the chauffeur than with cosseted Lord Grantham. It’s just that most of the downstairs players are so dang boring and/or unlikable. I can’t find it within me to cheer on the evil exploits of Thomas and O’Brien. I rooted for sweet, levelheaded Anna to make things work with Mr. Bates—until I began rooting for Mr. Bates to just disappear and stop bumming me out. I loved the plucky maid who learned how to type, but she was gone too soon. I really do hope that an appealing new servant or two will reinvigorate this flagging bunch.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.