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After months of waiting, Downton Abbey fans in the US were finally rewarded Sunday night with a two-hour premiere on PBS of the highly anticipated show.
The third season began with drama and humor and set up a wide range of plot lines to be played out. As is typical of the show, attention was given to the Lords, Ladies, maids, and butlers alike. Although there are very clear societal distinctions, creator Julian Fellows gives equal weight and drama to all characters’ lives. The season begins in 1920, and the turn of the decade is already bringing change, some resisted and some embraced by the Crawley family. The women embrace the new clothing and hairstyles, and the family enjoys newly invented cocktails, but for the most part the Crawley family refuses to let go of the traditions they value.
It is nearly impossible to give a complete overview of the jam-packed premiere, but the simplest way to cover the main events is by first discussing the Crawley family and then moving on to their employees. The episode begins with Downton’s intense preparations for Matthew and Mary’s upcoming wedding ceremony. The society wedding is the focus of the entire first half of the premiere, but soon becomes a point of tension as the audience learns of the problem that will surely propel the action of this coming season. Lord Grantham is urgently called to London where it is revealed that he made bad investments, placing almost all of his wife Cora’s family money on a now bankrupt railway company. He essentially has lost all of the money used to maintain Downton Abbey and now has to find a way to support the “family home” and their many employees.
Fortunately, Matthew soon learns that the father of his ex-fiancé has passed away and left him a lofty inheritance, which would be enough to support the Crawley clan and their assorted footmen, maids, and butlers. However, Matthew entirely resists the idea of keeping the money and supporting Downton because he sees it as disrespectful towards Lavinea, his ex-fiance who died suddenly from the Spanish flu. He feels Lavinea died of a broken heart, since she knew he still had feelings for Mary, of which Lavinea’s father was unaware before his subsequent death. Mary is very upset that Matthew refuses to help the family, and nearly calls off the wedding the night before. Tom, the Irish journalist and socialist now married to Cybill, tells Matthew, “you won’t be happy with anyone else as long as Lady Mary walks the earth.” Matthew realizes that the wedding must go on, and convinces Mary to keep with the plan. She agrees to marry Matthew because she loves him, but it is evident that she will continue to hold the money troubles against him – bringing it up many more times as they begin their lives together. Edith, the third sister, is shown to have love troubles of her own, as she wants to be with Sir Anthony Strallen but her father and Strallen himself believe he is too old to make her happy.
Just before Matthew and Mary’s wedding, Cora’s mother, Mrs. Levinson, arrives at Downton for an undetermined amount of time. Representing the more “progressive” American lifestyle, Mrs. Levinson - wonderfully played by actress Shirley MacLaine - constantly questions Downton’s resistance to change. Although Lady Mary and Dowager Countess attempt to show Mrs. Levinson the value of Downton by throwing an elaborate party, Cora’s mother says she cannot support Downton financially because the family money has been securely tied up. Cybill’s husband Tom and Mrs. Levinson are two characters who bring tension to the otherwise like minded family values, and their presence at Downton will likely continue to be an important part of season 3. As the Dowager Countess complains, “(Mrs. Levinson) is like a homing pigeon…” always finding their weak spots.
Although the Crawleys certainly face their share of drama in the two-hour premiere, the employees of Downton confront just as many, if not more, issues of their own. O’Brien manages to have her friend Alfred hired as a new footman, sneaking through Lord Grantham’s newfound frugality. Carson is suspicious of Alfred’s capabilities, as he is much too tall and only previously been trained in a hotel. Alfred makes some rookie mistakes but for the most part proves he is hardworking. O’Brien wants him to continue to climb the ladder and be appointed valet, but jealous Thomas says that he can’t “learn to run before he can walk” and a series of sabotaging efforts occur between the two. Meanwhile, Daisy is upset that she hasn’t received the promotion she was promised, and attempts to go on strike. Ms. Patmore cheerfully ignores Daisy’s refusal to work, and eventually she comes around. The employees are unaware of the troubles Downton faces, and throughout the episode Carson pushes Lord Grantham to hire more staff, much to Lord Grantham’s frustration.
Anna visits her husband Bates in prison several times, where he is serving a life sentence for murdering his ex-wife. However, Bates has been wrongfully sentenced and Anna is looking for any possible way to prove Bates’ innocence, and asks him to go through his ex’s contacts for people she may have told about her plan to commit suicide and frame him. Bates encourages Anna to live her life to the fullest for the both of them, telling her to stay with Mary on her month long honeymoon in Paris and describe it to him upon her return. Another character, Mrs. Hughes, finds herself in an equally stressful situation when she finds a lump in her breast. Ms. Patmore humorously tries to support Mrs. Hughes and encourages her to see a doctor, who by the end of the episode says it may be months before they know if the lump is cancerous.
Downton Abbey will continue to keep audiences hooked, as these many plotlines develop throughout the season. Without any money, how will Downton survive? The war may be over, but the family’s troubles and uncertainties are not. Although much remains unclear, what we can be sure of is that the issues will be confronted during Season 3 in only the most entertaining of fashions.