Downton Abbey, Season 3

The Martyrdom and Sweet Revenge of Thomas Barrow
Talking television.
Feb. 10 2013 11:00 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 3

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Forget Matthew’s modernization scheme; they should turn Downton into a swank B&B.

 Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley.
Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley.

Photograph courtesy of © Giles Keyte/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, you look so dashing in your cricket whites. Still, I'm not quite sure what the takeaway from that episode was. That revenge is complicated? (After all, Thomas and Jimmy both got promotions as a result of O'Brien's excruciating plot, and while Alfred got some unwelcome attention from his lordship, he's no worse off than he was before his aunt began her machinations.) Is it that Tom should forget his political convictions just as easily as he cast aside his Hibernian disdain for the game of cricket? That footman, lord, and left-footed lefties are all equal in the eyes of the umpire? The group hug at the end of the episode felt way more kumbaya than the two hours that preceded it.

Seth Stevenson: The co-opting of Branson is now complete. I am glad he's found peace within his extended family, and even found a calling as Downton's operations manager. But the group hug among the dudes in charge was, as you note, a bit much. I thought the director was going to ask them to leap in the air and then do a freeze-frame/fade, like on an episode of CHiPs.

O'Brien's scheme accomplished zero, except to cause lots of pain and to shove Thomas' sexuality into the spotlight. What did you think of the way various characters reacted? Lord Grantham seemed to deem it no biggie. Mrs. Hughes was all understanding and good wishes. And while Carson made it clear he found Thomas "foul" and "revolting" and due to be "horsewhipped," he also noted that he thinks being gay is bestowed by nature and not something one chooses. Has he been listening to that noblewoman Lady Gaga?

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Thomas: I was surprised by how moved I was by Thomas' plight—proud of him, even. He didn't deny his gayness, and he stood up for himself when he told Mr. Carson, "I'm not the same as you, but I'm not foul." And I loved Lord Grantham's admission that "If I screamed blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I'd've gone hoarse in a month."

I think Julian Fellowes did a good job of finding credible reasons for the servants to stand up for Thomas: Mrs. Hughes didn't want to see a man who'd been wounded serving king and country ruined by a vain, flirtatious young whippersnapper like Jimmy. Bates thought Jimmy was being a "big girl's blouse" (a phrase that seemed anachronistic since I knew it as the catchphrase of the great Northern comic Hylda Baker); and the rest of the downstairs crew were appalled at the thought of one of their number being dismissed without a reference.

At the same time, Thomas seems doomed to a life of loneliness at Downton. I suspect that, like Ethel, he'd be happier in a place where no one knows his story.

Stevenson: Thomas' story was all the more moving because it transformed a character I disliked into a character I gained tremendous sympathy for. That shift in my own perceptions drew me into the show. I couldn't have been happier when Thomas whacked a six over the boundary line. (Is that proper cricket talk? And am I right that Carson appeared to be a spin bowler?)

Thomas: Carson was bowling a googly all right, and Lord Grantham showed tremendous pluck in taking his position as wicket-keeper. (The way he's been acting recently, I expected him to line up at silly mid-on, but I suppose that would be a bit subtle for viewers in the colonies.)

Have we really seen the last of Ethel, do you think? The dowager countess' scheming was particularly brilliant this week. I confess that for a minute or two I thought young Rose had outsmarted old Violet, for which I should be whipped. Cousin Shrimpy's girl was put in her place good and proper, but only after we'd been subjected to TV Trope No. 473: a night in a decadent jazz club, complete with African-American musicians and flappers doing the pelvic thrust.

Stevenson: June, have you learned nothing? You must never doubt the dowager. As she herself notes, when she promises to admit her mistakes should she be found mistaken: "That is an easy caveat to accept, because I am never wrong." I’m not sure how they would rope Ethel back into the show at this point, as I think we've pretty well resolved her story.

But poor Shrimpy. How you gonna keep 'em on the farm when they've seen thrusting flappers? For a few minutes, it looked like Downton had turned into Gossip Girl—bright young thing in the city, gabbing on the phone, living too fast, wearing ridiculous outfits.

I must admit I greatly enjoyed Molesley's part this week. An hourlong set-up for a single joke, and we knew exactly what was coming. Yet when the moment of his inevitable humiliation arrived, I found it totally satisfying.

Thomas: What do you make of Lady Edith's situation? Is she being set up to become a complete rebel, whose offenses against propriety will put Lady Sybil's Catholic Communist-marrying ways in the shade? I liked the cut of the Sketch editor's jib—though he looks disarmingly like a younger, two-armed version of Sir Anthony Strallan—but is a lunatic wife from whom he can’t get divorced an insurmountable problem?

It was when she phoned the Daily Telegraph to ask about Mr. Gregson that I became unequivocally #TeamEdith, however. Milady figured out how to get someone else to do her research decades before Google. A natural-born hack if ever I saw one.

Stevenson: Edith has exhibited in the past a certain, shall we say, moral flexibility. She seemed almost unmoored when she reported Mary to the Turks and then snogged that married farmer. But she's taken her lumps and learned some lessons, and I think she's a more centered person now. So, yes, #TeamEdith. I can imagine her quite happy in London with her editor beau. A prototype Tina Brown and Harry Evans, perhaps. I do love that she basically Google-stalked him.

And Edith, it's all well and good that you've got a column now, but do not neglect to develop your personal brand. What is the 1920s equivalent of building a Twitter following?

Thomas: Never fear, if Lady Edith becomes Mr. Gregson's constant companion, she'll find herself embroiled in a scandal that will bring the kind of attention that in our times can only be generated by an active and occasionally candid Twitter feed.

Stevenson: We haven't gotten much into Bates' newfound freedom. Praise Fellowes that we needn't spend another moment in that dreary jail. Let us never speak of Bates' trial or imprisonment again.

Thomas: I'm relieved that the tedium of Bates' incarceration is over, but the process of modernizing the Downton estate has the potential to take over as the show’s most snooze-inducing story line. It shouldn't be—tenants being turfed out so that their small holdings can be consolidated into a larger farm has tons of dramatic potential—but we viewers don't know any of those tenants, which is a problem. Well, we know Mr. Mason, but given his connections with the Big House, surely he would be spared?

Stevenson: I confess I don’t fully understand Matthew's modernization scheme. Is Downton to become a giant agricultural collective? I would advise them to instead transform the estate into a cheesy tourist B&B. "Live like a lord" could be the slogan. Mrs. Patmore cooks up room service on demand. Carson hands out pamphlets for local day trips and hikes. The dowager zings guests in the drawing room, to their delight.

What did you make of Mary's reproductive health? The show was elliptical. (Though I enjoyed the "Do you like pina coladas?" twist when Matthew and Mary run into each other at the doctor's office.) Though the dowager remains ambivalent about parenthood—her main recollection is "the on and on-ness of it"—Mary seems pretty ready to be a mommy.

Thomas: Early 20th-century fertility problems are another topic I don’t care to spend too much time with, so I hope Mary delivers a little prince into the new kingdom soon.

I realize that I am forestalling quite a few potential story lines. Basically, I'm up for dowager countess scheming, movie reviews from Ivy after the 10:30 servants' screenings, a food-related feud between Mrs. Patmore and another local cook, and not much else. Perhaps my plot fatigue is a sign that I'm relieved the season is almost over. After tonight, we have just one more episode to look forward to: the one that was the Christmas special in Britain. I can't wait to find out what Santa will deliver.

Stevenson: Get back in the knife box, Miss Sharp! It has been a long journey, but we are nearing the end. And last year's Christmas special was the best Downton episode ever. I've high hopes for next week.

What possibilities am I intrigued by? The possibilities of love, June. Sweet love. For Edith and her editor. For Thomas and some dashing village chap. For Branson and some kind gal who'll pick up the pieces of his life. Maybe even for Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Snow will be falling, carolers will be caroling—it's the most wonderful time of the year, even if it's February.

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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