Downton Abbey, Season 3

Downton Abbey’s Saddest Day
Talking television.
Jan. 27 2013 10:00 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 3

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Lord Grantham takes another step on the path to supervillain status.

Jessica Brown-Findlay as Lady Sybil and Allen Leech as Tom Branson
Jessica Brown-Findlay as Lady Sybil and Allen Leech as Tom Branson

Photograph by 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, I'm so sorry for your loss. I know you had a special bond with Lady Sybil.

Seth Stevenson: It is a dark day in the Stevenson household. June, you are right, I was smitten with Lady Sybil's modern outlook on class, gender, and religion, and with her voluptuous lips. Why did it have to be her? She brightened up the show for me every time she appeared onscreen. Couldn't they have killed off O'Brien, or Mrs. Bird, or Lord Grantham? This one hurts.

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Thomas: Yes, indeed. Mrs. Hughes was right when she called Lady S "the sweetest spirit under this roof." She was good and open-hearted and treated even Thomas with kindness. It's a brave—and possibly foolish—move to kill off the nicest character in the show. It's odd to think that Edith is now the best-natured of Robert and Cora's children. Mary is such a daddy's girl, she's been rather a pill of late.

Stevenson: Mary's charm was always her independence of thought—that has disappeared as she's become a full-time Lord Grantham apologist. And what was up with her churlish rejection of Edith's sisterly overtures? Was it really necessary to state that they would never get along, even as they stood inches from a dead body? Couldn't Mary have just let that slide for a moment?

Score one for Dr. Clarkson, at last. And minus a billion for Lord Grantham. Always wrong, never in doubt—a true profile in leadership.

Thomas: I wish there was a little more nuance in the creation story of the supervillain formerly known as Lord Grantham. Next we'll discover he's entering Isis in dog fights. He's been wrong—absolutely, totally, unequivocally wrong—about just about everything so far this season. I'm even wondering if Bates might be guilty. After all, if Lord Grantham is convinced he's innocent ...

Stevenson: Let us not speak of Bates. I use his scenes as an excuse to check on my deflating kidney soufflé.

Speaking of, let's talk downstairs for a bit, shall we? Thomas is starting to put the moves on Jimmy, and it appears it will not end well. Is there something wrong with Thomas' gaydar? As our resident expert on the evolution of gay bars, June, perhaps you can tell us where Thomas might have found better luck mingling back in the 1920s? And what's O'Brien's angle? Is she scheming to get Thomas booted for "unseemly" behavior just so her nephew can get a promotion?

Thomas: I’m sure at least one of the village pubs welcomed confirmed bachelors into the saloon bar on certain nights of the month, but those faces would be all too familiar to Thomas, who has always had a taste for trying new things. That's the genius of my girl O'Brien's evil plan. Her own gaydar is so finely attuned that she sees that while Jimmy's hair and abs whisper gay, his eyes and dangly bits scream straight. She knows that Thomas will assume he has a chance with the new footman if Jimmy doesn't object to his lingering touches, so she's manipulating him into putting up with Thomas' handsiness in hopes that he'll say nice things about him to Lord Grantham. We all know that Thomas is cruising for a bruising, but it's still fun—in a slightly homophobic way—to watch.

O'Brien's strategic smarts make me wish that Matthew's farm-modernization plan could be implemented immediately. If O'Brien were in charge of maximizing the estate's assets, she'd have all the red ink in Downton's account books as black as her soul in no time.

Stevenson: Good point about O'Brien. She would have sent that malingering old farmer packing without a moment's hesitation. They should have put her in charge of Lord Grantham's investment portfolio, too. And Bates' defense. She couldn't have done worse.

Alfred was pretty deft with that Hollandaise sauce. Will we see a gender-role reversal? A pioneering male kitchen maid?

Oh, and poor Ethel. She means well, but she can't even make a proper cup of tea. How long will Mrs. Crawley live in denial? (Nobody portrays curdling liberal guilt like Penelope Wilton.)

Thomas: I suppose anxiety is the enemy of a good cuppa as well as of fertility; after all, the Bryants praised Ethel's tea-making skills just last week. Isobel's willingness to brave other people's small-mindedness—albeit people well below her social station—to welcome a former prostitute under her roof is heart-warming. She's really making a difference. And she's being punished for her good intentions. I suspect Mrs. Hughes is right: It's just a matter of time before Ethel's terrible kitchen skills end cousin Isobel's adventures in rehabilitation.

Stevenson: We've neglected to note the budding journalist in our midst. Edith has been offered a weekly column! Edith, take nothing less than two guineas a word, demand copyright retention, and see if they'll work a couple of longer reported features into your yearly contract. I know a lot about freelancing—come talk to me if you ever need advice on dealing with editors or finding health insurance.

But now I'm back to mourning Sybil, again. I think she'd become my favorite. Poor Branson, a single dad in the wrong country. Who will swoop in and save this widower?

Thomas: You know, journalists often pair off with other journalists. And I believe that in certain societies, back in the day, a man was expected to take on his deceased brother's widow. What's good for the gander is good for the goose. All I’m saying is, such an arrangement could provide Lady Edith with some excellent material for her new column. I'd subscribe to the Sketch to read it.

Stevenson: I like Branson and Edith as a Jazz Age Woodward and Bernstein, blowing the lid off village controversies. I won't pay to subscribe, but does the Sketch have a website with free content?

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.

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