Downton Abbey, Season 3

Lord Grantham Is a Hopeless Twit
Talking television.
Jan. 6 2013 11:00 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 3

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Shirley MacLaine trades zingers with Dame Maggie Smith.

Upstairs and downstairs muster to greet a guest's arrival.
Upstairs and downstairs muster to greet a guest's arrival.

Photograph courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 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! At the end of Season 2, I said, “there’s no way Julian Fellowes will let Mary and Matthew settle down. There are 10 or 15 obstacles sure to crop up on their path to happiness.” Well, I was wrong. They tied the knot. But Fellowes has thrown up some other hurdles—specifically, money troubles, and once again, it all boils down to an inheritance.

Seth Stevenson: I thought for sure we wouldn’t get our wedding day until at least Episode 3. An American show surely would have saved the wedding for a series finale. But there it was, right out the gate, with Lady Mary looking heavenly. I enjoyed the divergence in worldviews between Mr. Carson (kvelling over Mary on this “proud day,” as though she were his daughter) and Mrs. Hughes (“I don’t know if I’m proud …”).

With the wedding out of the way, how are the central conflicts shaping up? I see two battles of wills: 1) The inheritance kind, in which Matthew agonizes over free money. 2) The stubborn personality kind, in which Shirley MacLaine trades delicious barbs with Dame Maggie Smith. Did you enjoy the arrival of our American grandmother?

Thomas: I did enjoy the addition of American acting royalty, but I was a little disappointed with the material that Dame Shirley was given to work with. Once the Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan pointed out that in Fellowes World "Americans must always refer to their American ways and must be somewhat uncouth if not intolerable," I couldn't get past that. I wish Martha's conversations with Violet had amounted to more than just: "The future!" "No, the past!"

What did you think of all the dirty talk—by Downton standards anyway—between Mary and Matthew? I was shocked to feel a little shocked by it all, somehow all the talk of propriety that we hear from Carson and his comrades in conservatism rubbed off on me. The excitement the two lovely young things expressed at the prospect of getting it on came across as rather vulgar, I thought.

Stevenson: I thought our favorite clairvoyant had some decent moments. Pairing her with the dowager means double the zings, and I’m all for that. But you’re right, the tiresome back-and-forth of British tradition versus Yank gumption was heavy-handed, even for Fellowes. He seems to tackle this theme more deftly when he employs Branson the Irishman as the voice of the ill-mannered and the casually dressed.

You were shocked by vulgar dirty talk like “I’m looking forward to all sorts of things” and “Don’t make me blush”? Perhaps you should leave your manor house and get out a bit more! Even practical Anna is wearing Parisian garters these days. To paraphrase that saucy new maid from across the water: I’m an American, June, and this is 2013—time to live a little.

For me, the shocking part of this episode was how little I cared about Mr. Bates’ prison scenes. They seemed completely incongruous. Glum and boring. I secretly hoped Bates’ cellmate would shank him so we could abandon this plotline forever.

Thomas: Perhaps it’s just that I didn't buy the particulars of Mathary’s saucy conversation. Whatever coy comments Mary made to her husband-to-be, she must really have been thinking, "I hope you don't conk out on top of me like the Turkish gentleman did." Say it, woman!

Let’s make a pact to ignore Bates and that whole dispiriting attempt to weld an unconvincing procedural onto a bubbly soap opera. Whenever the limping valet is on screen, I spend the time wondering what fabric those stylish prison uniforms are made from. But before we swear off it, here’s another reason to hate this story: It always makes me question how Anna gets so much time off and how she can afford all that travel back and forth to the prison and down to London—Downton Abbey spends a lot of time reminding us what a hard grind the servants’ life was, then it has a lady’s maid buzzing around Britain like an upper-middle-class housewife. (The vague mumblings about the income from “the house” don’t convince me.)

So far we’ve skated over the big crisis of Episode 1: Lord Grantham put all his—I mean, Cora’s—money into a Canadian railroad that went broke, and so Downton is in danger. Déjà vu, anyone? For a show that doesn’t air a ton of episodes (by the time Season 3 is over, it’ll still be fewer than you’d need for one U.S. network season), they sure do return to the same themes over and over: Downton’s in peril. Wills are complicated. Servants are sickly. Canadians are trouble.

Stevenson: Yes, we have leaned back on some familiar narrative crutches, haven’t we? Thomas is sabotaging another valet. Daisy is chafing at Mrs. Patmore. Downton’s future depends on the vagaries of some sort of complex estate codicil. We’re kind of back to square one, here.

And why can’t the Granthams find better service professionals? Their bumbling lawyer got Bates convicted. Their stockbroker let them bet the farm on a single Canadian railway holding. Their doctor botches everything he touches (which doesn’t bode well for poor Mrs. Hughes).

June, what are your feelings about Edith’s May-December yearnings? Would you have attempted to quash them like the Crawleys did? Sir Anthony seems a decent man to me, gimpy arm and all.

Thomas: I'm very fond of Sir Anthony Strallan. For all the talk of him being too old for Edith, he doesn't seem like a clapped-out crock to me. He's a war hero, he has a lovely home and a faithful retainer, and best of all he doesn't have a passel of plotting relatives scheming behind every houseplant. I honestly don't see what the problem is—the Crawleys don't need an heir from Edith (not that Sir A's senior status would necessarily affect that), he's obviously well off, and it's not like the rest of the gang are off clubbing every night. Let's remind ourselves of young Matthew's hobbies: reading and visiting old churches. Rock and roll! The heart wants what the heart wants, and if Edith wants Strallan, and Strallan wants Edith, everyone else should just stick to their knitting.

This episode got me hacked off at the patriarchy generally. Lord Grantham and Matthew both kept money matters from their other halves, because, I suppose, the world of business is no place for ladies. This when the money Grantham lost and the dosh Matthew may inherit comes (indirectly in the latter case) from the women in their lives. It makes me long to see more of Sibyl and Tom's marriage—does our thoroughly modern republican also fret about funds in private and only talk to his spouse when things reach a crisis?

Stevenson: Yes to more of Sybil and Tom. I was so pleased when charming, forward-thinking, full-lipped Sybil came back on the scene. And Tom has become my surrogate at the Crawleys’ dinner table—bewildered by their manners, bemused by their pretensions. I hope they’ll both return to Downton soon. (Or better yet, as you suggest, let’s go visit them in Ireland.)

Lord Grantham really is a twit. Needlessly squelching Edith’s budding romance. Indifferent to whether Sybil attends her own sister’s wedding. Making dumb investments without telling his wife. He frets he’ll be “the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out,” but he seems more like the earl who set everything on fire and then grumbled in the study while blaming his footman. I think the relationship between Tom and Matthew—the “brothers-in-law with high-minded wives”—may point the way toward better male behavior. They seem to keep each other honest and bring out one another’s best.

Well, June, I’d love to chat some more about this week’s episode, but I need to log into my E-Trade account and move all my savings into gravel. Until next week.

Thomas: All right, young Lochinvar. I'm off to investigate whether Irish gardens have more variety than ours.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.