As the Dowager Countess dryly observes, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
She may yet be proven wrong. If two seasons of Downton Abbey have taught us anything, it’s that money isn’t everything. The price to be paid for the trappings of great wealth can be vastly more complicated than just having unlimited access to great wads of cash.
Although that’s nice, too.
As Season 3 opens, in the days leading up to the long-awaited wedding of Mary and Matthew, Lord Grantham learns that the family is broke, the “lion’s share” of his wife’s former fortune irrevocably depleted, and once again the estate is in imminent danger. And all because of a bad investment in the Canadian railway business. Sorry about that Robert, old boy.
Granny (Maggie Smith) secretly pays for the scandalized Sybil to come home from Ireland, along with her husband, the former chauffeur, Tom, who carries a Blarney Stone-sized chip on his shoulder to exacerbate the family’s existing discomfort. This reaches critical mass when Sybil’s snotty former beau, Larry Gray, spikes Tom’s drink at dinner.
Potential spinster Edith, meanwhile, continues to moon over a reluctant Sir Anthony, who ultimately shares his misgivings with Robert, who paternally agrees. In attempting to end it, they only strengthen her resolve, and ultimately give in. Martha has something to do with that too. It would appear from the end-of-show previews that this will be a major plot thread next week.
In the meantime, there is very much made of the traditional dressing for dinner — or rather, not — from Tom’s inability and unwillingness to conform, to the accidental ruining of Matthew’s tails by the newbie valet Andrew, Mrs. O’Brien’s gangly nephew, to the mysterious (though related) disappearance of the Lord Grantham’s entire collection of dinner shirts.
But beneath it all is the ominous truth of the Grantham dynasty’s failing fortunes, which in an absolutely heart-wrenching moment Robert tearfully reveals to Cora. Cora responds with her usual sunny humour and optimistic all-American pluck.
But he has also had to share with her the grim financial situation, since she is the next in line, along with her new husband, Matthew, who as it turns out may well have had the solution handed to him in the form of a huge inheritance from the father of his late fiancée, Lavinia.
Which he feels too guilty to accept, much to Mary’s stated disappointment. Robert, on the other hand, seems to take it in stride. (This may ultimately prove to be a moot point, given the imminent departure of actor Dan Stevens.)
In the name of true love, Mary ultimately forgives Matthew his reticence. But she, having inherited more of her father’s aristocratic pride than her mother’s earthy practicality, is not about to give up. She and Granny hatch a plan to hit up Martha for her money, predictably perhaps for naught. Aside from upping her daughter’s dress allowance — clothing again — she isn’t about to kick in more cash.
Martha’s views on the archaic English class system are already well known, and she continues to make them known in an unrelenting stream of snarky asides. To the point where she — both the character and the actress — have started to become rather tiresome. You’re glad she isn’t in England much.
But she ultimately redeems herself when a massive dinner staged for her benefit is ruined by malfunctioning ovens, and she steps in to rescue the event by turning it into a boisterous (by Downton standards) and shockingly informal (again) indoor picnic.
Downstairs, not only are the ovens overheating. Scheming Thomas has targeted the aforementioned young Andrew, hence the war of the ruined tails and missing dinner shirts. Daisy sits in a corner, glowering over her non-promotion to assistant cook, while Mrs. Patmore busies herself with comforting Mrs. Hughes, who learns she may have breast cancer.
Anna, taking time out to honeymoon in France with Mary and Matthew, keeps fighting the good fight for wrongly jailed Bates by tracking down everyone who ever knew his ex-wife to find evidence that her death was actually a suicide.
It comes down, as it so often does, to a comically perplexed Carson and a stoically resigned Mrs. Hughes and the prevailing dilemma of the survival of the rich and its impact on the dependent working class.
“Where is the glamour, the style, the show?” bemoans Carson. “Perhaps people are tired of style and show,” sagely responds Mrs. Hughes.
She may be right about style. But nobody is getting tired of this show anytime soon.
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Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, talks Season 3