Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ghastly tragedies, marital bliss, flying zingers, and a dash of intrigue: Downton Abbey: Season 3 Recap

Violet, Cora, Robert, Mary, Matthew, Tom, Sybil, Edith, and Isobel
In 2012, Downton Abbey became the most nominated British TV series in the history of the Emmys. It is now a worldwide phenomenon, adding viewers exponentially with each successive season (17 million in America alone). The acting, the story lines, and the production values are exceptional (it costs an average of one million pounds per episode to produce, and it shows). Below is a mini-recap to whet your appetite for Season 4, debuting Sunday.
Unlike Season 2, which was consumed by “The Great War,” Season 3 concentrated on the individual tales of writer Julian Fellowes' multifaceted characters. Both Lady Mary and Lady Edith lose their beaux, the former in a tragic accident after the birth of their son and the latter after being jilted at the altar. Edith bounces back with a yen for the newspaper editor she's been writing for, but there's a major snag in that he has a mentally ill wife who is in an asylum. Dash it all! Season 4 will tell how Mary deals with the anguish of what seemed like a perfect life partner  (no thanks to Dan Stevenson, who opted out of renewing his contract—along with Jessica Brown Findlay, who played the third sister, Lady Sybil. Bummer! ).
As Lady Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Dame Maggie Smith continues to be a fount of bon mots and scathing observations. Of course, they are rendered diamond-like by Smith's sublime timing and bone-dry delivery. According to Julian Fellowes, the parts played by Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Brendan Coyle (his manservant Bates), and Maggie Smith were written especially for these actors. Here are few of the Dowager's more memorable ones from last season.

Robert: "Can I tempt you to one of these new cocktails?" Violet: "No, no, I don't think so. They look far too exciting for so early in the evening."

Tom: "They turned everyone out of the castle. Lord and Lady Dromgoole, their sons and all the servants. And then they set fire to it." Edith: "What a tragedy." Violet: "Well, rather yes and no – that house was hideous. Of course, that is no excuse."

Carson: "Hard work and diligence weigh more than beauty in the real world." Violet: "If only that were true."

Matthew: "Edith has had an invitation to write a newspaper column." Violet: "When may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?"

Violet: "Robert, people like us are never unhappily married." Robert: "What do we do if we are?" Violet: "Well, in those moments, a couple is 'unable to see as much of each other as they would like.'"

"I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there."

“What is The Scarlet Letter? … It sounds most unsuitable.”

“I was right about my maid. She’s leaving – to get married! How could she be so selfish?”

“I will applaud your discretion when you leave.”

“Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.”

“Lie is so unmusical a word.”

Turning to the downstairs crew, lovebirds Bates and Anna are reunited at last, with him out of jail and cleared of his wife's murder (for which the evil Jezebel framed him). Footman Thomas and Cora's maid O'Brien continue to be more or less "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," as someone once called Lord Byron.  (Thomas does garner a bit more sympathy, however, after he's outed as homosexual and  Carson calls him "foul," declaring huffily "“I do not wish to take a tour of your revolting world.”)
Scullery maid Daisy demands some R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and sasses head cook Mrs Patmore, who in turn begins to rival Lady Violet with some of her ripostes. To wit:

“Do I look like a frolicker?”

“Daisy, I said you could go for a drink of water, not a trip up the Nile.”

"I’ll have no swear words in here, thank you very much. Unless I’m doing the swearing."

“The problem with you lot is that you’re all in love with the wrong person.”

On food rationing after the war: “Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I wish I had a sow’s ear. It would be better than this brisket.”

“It sounds like the cry of the banshee… I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole” (re the newly installed telephone).

In other Season 3 highlights, Cora's mother (Shirley MacLaine) arrives from America in style and trades barbs with Violet for two episodes. Wild cousin Rose then comes on the scene; her drinking, clubbing, and youthful abandon epitomize the Jazz Age that will figure prominently in Season 4. Oh yes, the family fortune is lost by Paterfamilias Robert on Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway. All that lovely money that Cora brought to the marriage is gone up in a puff of useless shares. To her credit, she doesn't bat an eye. Robert is at a loss as to how he can keep the estate going, but Branson (er, Tom, his ex-chauffeur and now son-in-law) seems to have some ideas up his plebian sleeve.
Cousin Rose
Season 3 also finds the family and selected servants traveling to the Scottish Highlands for some hunting, fishing, and traditional dancing. Both the castle interiors and the outdoor scenes are spectacular.
Look for the Season 4, Episode 1 recap, coming January 6—the day after the premiere! In the meantime, let us know who your favorite characters are and any other thoughts on the series so far. (Below, more shots of the Downton cast.)


  1. Cannot wait! Why is this era so fascinating. Perhaps because disparity is back?

  2. What a lovely summary of the show, and I do really enjoy the collage of character photos. Thank you! Here is food for thought. The TV series Rome, to me, was exceptional. However, after two seasons it was forced to end because it cost too much to produce, between the elaborate sets, costumes, and so forth. Do you think Downton Abby could face the same fate? How long can a high cost show last?

    1. I loved Rome and was so sorry it was cancelled for the reason you mentioned. They put so much authenticity into it, and it showed. Downton is coming back for a 5th season, but I don't know after that. It's so popular, it must be a moneymaker (the DVDs alone).

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