Downton Abbey: Season 3, Episode 3

It will be interesting to see how US audiences react to this season of Downton Abbey. The generally snarky tone of the internet and the slight downtick in UK ratings suggest that its moment of cultural dominance is waning; however, US ratings have never been higher, so it has mainstream momentum going for it. Also, every one of my friend’s moms is proudly announcing on Facebook that she “is finally checking out this Downton Abbey show” and “loves it!

As I mentioned last week, I give the season a general thumbs-up, though with a clear eye toward its many, and fairly major, faults. The third episode focuses on Edith and her improbable relationship with Sir Anthony, culminating in their failed attempt at a wedding. As a character, Edith is a fascinating creation, as are all three Crawley sisters, now that I think about it. Mary is, at first blush, the most conservative, as she wants to hold on to tradition and empire and all that; of course, running counter to that is her impulsive, reckless streak. Oh, and that time she had sex with the Turk until he died. There’s that. Sybil, on the other hand, appears rebellious, running away with the chauffeur, seeking gainful employment and meaningful participation in the war effort, and learning about the new possibilities opening up for women at that time. However, she is also more willing than Mary to embrace domesticity and to play the roles of wife and (soon) mother.

Edith fascinatingly teeters between those positions. As a minor character in Seasons 1 and 2, who shifts into clearer focus than ever during Season 3, Edith is rocking that weird-middle-child syndrome. She stands awkwardly in the background, looking for attention and mostly not getting it. What impresses me, in terms of her as a character, is that Fellowes just lets her continue down this path without making her too redeeming, or too not-redeeming. To this point, Edith has been the Nick Brody of Downton Abbey, there to stand around before being asked to leave the room so the important characters can discuss things of importance. But this season she is more like Dana Brody, as she rolls her eyes and pouts her way through a storyline of her very own.

Also in this episode we get the resolution of Mrs. Hughes’s cancer scare. It was great to learn that her tumor was benign, obviously, since she is a character who it would be impossible to dislike. The too-brief storyline led to some excellent scenes, particularly with Mr. Carson, whose reaction to her positive diagnosis struck the perfect note (groan… he was singing, get it?). Even better, though, was the scene between Mrs. Hughes and Cora. I often feel that Elizabeth McGovern isn’t given enough to do as Cora Crawley, but here you could see the benefit of having such a talented actress in that role, as she made clear, in no uncertain terms, that Mrs. Hughes would always have a place with them, whatever the status of her cancer. These scenes reminded me why this show has resonated so loudly in both in the UK and the US.

The last headline here is the resolution, for now, of the “how will we keep Downton Abbey?” storyline, with Matthew running out of excuses to keep Mary begging him for help and finally offering Lord Grantham the money to save their legacy, and with Lord Grantham making a suggestion that he will probably regret in letting Matthew become a co-owner of it. As the overarching narrative of the season, this is working far better than the WWI did last season, probably because it allows Fellowes to focus on the minor characters in a way that the galvanizing narrative pull of the war did not. Cutting jabs between Thomas and O’Brien seem far less appropriate, or even enjoyable, when they are intercut with that one poor dude getting blown up in battle.

Okay, snark? The scenes with Bates are like a British version of Oz, except without literally everything that made Oz a good show, and we make no progress toward the termination of that interminable storyline. It’s as though Fellowes thinks, perhaps, that this makes the show grittier, gives it some sort of edge, or perhaps broadens its scope beyond the walls of Downton. It really doesn’t. It is both the least fathomable storyline and the least enjoyable, which is a real sign that something is wrong.

Also, Ethel turns up again, despite the fact that we still don’t care what happens to her. I don’t know at what point revisiting that character seemed like a smart idea, but, if we’re going to go back into the vault, couldn’t we at least choose something juicy? Like that woman with whom Lord Grantham attempted to cheat on his wife? Where did she run off to, and why aren’t we ever bringing that back up?