Downton Abbey: Season Three, Episode Two

Martha: “Besides, Mary, the world has changed. These houses were built for another age.”

The episode opens with Mary and Matthew returning from their honeymoon, in a new car no less. I guess the money situation is not all that bad. As we know that they were going to the South of France for a month, I place this episode around April 1920.

As much as I hate to admit it, this episode I found to be much less exciting and much less compelling than the earlier seasons. In the first season, we witnessed the end of the Edwardian age, with its large houses and staffs. In the second, we had the grandeur and drama of the war. The time between the wars was one of huge change for these large estates and I believe that the change could have provided some exceptional conflict for our characters. What we see, however, is muted conflict and stories that have already been told.

The exception is Martha, who is still at Downton. While a six week visit may sound excessive, she is Cora’s mother. Because of the time and expense involved in sailing back and forth across the Atlantic, these two have probably not spent a great deal of time together since Cora’s marriage. Martha does, however, appear to be annoying everyone in the house. She is not English and couldn’t care less about English customs and manners. She says what she thinks, acts as she wishes and carries on exactly as she chooses. The comedic highlight of this entire episode is Martha singing to Lady Violet who couldn’t be more uncomfortable. I said in my previous review that MacLaine and Smith together are acting gold; this scene may even raise them to platinum.

Martha is the one who looks at Downton’s financial situation with clear eyes. She is not emotionally invested in the estate; in fact, she thinks the whole idea is one whose time has come and gone. While she is willing to support the family to a degree, she is not willing to give them any more money. Although she uses the excuse that the money is tied up, I’m not sure I believe her. I do agree with Martha, however, that Downton has had more than enough of the Levinson fortune. The fault is not hers that it has been so badly managed.

There is a real continental divide in this episode. The Americans are sanguine about the loss of Downton. Even Cora, who will lose her home if Downton is sold, understands that they will hardly be on the dole and is willing to accept their fate, whatever it may be. The English, however, cannot bear the thought of the estate going and plot and scheme to keep it. Mary’s conversation with her mother is telling; she doesn’t care how it happens, she wants to be the Countess of Grantham and she wants to do so from Downton.

Mary and Matthew are still bickering about where Matthew’s inheritance should go and where they should live. While it is nice to see them happily married, it is hard to believe that Mary feels that strongly about the money and saving Downton when, every time she snipes at him, they instantly start making out. It must be difficult to write a conflict for this couple as compelling as the will-they-won’t-they of the past two seasons, but I believe that the money, as well as the idea of Mary having to leave Downton, could have created a much stronger and more interesting conflict than we see here.

Likewise, it is hard to take the idea of Downton going very seriously. Of course something is going to happen to save the place; otherwise, what will be the name of the series be next year? Again, I can understand the difficulty of writing a series after a year of ships sinking and diplomats dying followed by a year ravaged by war, but this particular conflict feels forced and I struggle to invest in it. It may have been interesting to use this story as a time for Robert to do some serious soul searching, to accept the responsibility for what has happened and to grow as a character. Alas, he is leaving it to his mother and daughter, not to mention his new son-in-law, to bail the family out of the mess he has made.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Edith and Anthony story, either. He has made it perfectly clear that he thinks he is too infirm and too old for her, but she refuses to listen. While there is something charming about Edith standing up for herself and taking control of her life, she also comes across as a tad desperate. I understand why she may feel that way, but she was so strong and self-assured when she was working. I wish she could find some of that inner strength again. To be fair, she does look genuinely happy when Anthony proposes to her.

Robert, placing himself in the middle of this romance, feels like a story that has already been told. He seems to believe that his daughters are incapable of deciding for themselves whom they will marry and gets involved in the romantic lives of all three of them. We have seen him bring Mary and Matthew together and try to keep Tom and Sybil apart. It might have been interesting to see him take a back seat for once, come what may. It’s all for nothing anyway as, again similar to Tom and Sybil, Edith and Anthony are now engaged.

Removed from much of the worry about the estate, Isobel, meanwhile, has become involved in a charity that helps prostitutes. Through this lens, we see that Ethel has had to become a member of the world’s oldest profession, to survive I presume. What we don’t see is why. Has Mrs. Hughes stopped feeding her from the house? This would seem odd to me considering how invested Mrs. Hughes was with Ethel and Charlie only a few months ago. Another storyline that feels forced and out of sync with what has come before.

Thomas and O’Brien have moved from being partners in crime to full-on antagonists. Thomas is miffed that Alfred has become Matthew’s valet so quickly; O’Brien is doing everything she can to ensure her nephew’s future. Of course, Thomas goes out of his way to make Alfred look bad and succeeds. In a direct juxtaposition to O’Brien’s relationship with Cora, Thomas is now using his relationship to Robert to get exactly what he wants. By copying and pasting this story onto another master/servant relationship, I believe it is making the people upstairs look a bit too trusting and naive. When Robert asks Thomas if he is unpopular below, I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t all that long ago that Robert didn’t even want Thomas in the house, let alone as his valet. Does he really believe that the people downstairs are unaware of Thomas’ problems?

Mrs. Hughes has found a lump in her breast and is understandably upset. I cheered when she shouted at Carson. His insistence that things continue to be done “properly” when they are so short of staff is beginning to border on the absurd. This is a theme that has been running since the war and the fact that Carson is still harping on about the most trivial things is beginning to make him look ridiculous.

Bates is still in prison and Anna is still trying to get him out. There is a bit of excitement when Bates attacks his cellmate after he has been threatened. This is not the first time we have seen Bates’ temper and, although it might be a bluff, it sounds to me as though he admits to the man that he murdered Vera. Now that would be an interesting twist to an otherwise lackluster start to the season.

Bits and Bobs:

-- AC Cars, Ltd. is a British specialist car manufacturer. It was one of the first English car brands.

-- “Pas devant les domestiques” translates as “not in front of the servants.” The phrase was used in French, the idea being that the educated members of the house could speak French while their servants could not. It’s the idea of not speaking of something that will then be repeated downstairs.

-- “Steady the Buffs” is a phrase that originated in the British Army, but was popularized by Kipling. It means slow down and remain calm.

-- Two months for the results of a cancer test? Thank goodness medicine has moved on.

-- “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” was first published in 1910 and was instantly popular. It always brings a tear to my eye as my father, who spent his life singing every chance he got, used to sing it us when we were little.

-- Tom Mix was an American film actor during the early years of Hollywood. He was the first Western movie star and helped define the genre as we know it today.

-- The quote from Samuel Johnson that Carson borrows is, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” To which I say, amen.

Well Said:

Violet: “No guest should be admitted without the date of their departure settled.”

Isobel: “Well, first we like to send [the prostitutes] away. To rest”
Martha: “I should think they need it.”

Martha: “So, you want me to contribute?”
Cora: “You don’t have to give money after every conversation, Mother.”
Martha: “No? Isn’t that what the English expect of rich Americans?”

Mrs. Patmore: “If you must pay money, better to a doctor than an undertaker.”
Mrs. Hughes: “If that’s an example of your bedside manner, Mrs. Patmore, I think I’d rather face it alone.”

Martha: “You mean you needed the Levinson cash to keep the Crawleys on top.”
Mary: “I’m not sure we’d put it that way.”

Lady Violet: “I’m quite sure we would not.”
Mary: “But, I hope you do feel that Mama’s fortune has been well spent in shoring up an ancient family.”
Martha: “Well, you gotta spend it on something.”

Lady Violet: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Robert: “I feel like a Chicago bootlegger.”
Lady Violet: “I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds almost as peculiar as you look.”

Lady Violet to Robert in his black tie: “Do you think I might have a drink? Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought you were a waiter.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

11 comments:

Juliette said...

I didn't think Ethel' story felt forced - sure, Mrs Hughes had been helping her out a bit, but she can't have paying for the upkeep of a woman and a baby.

I still totally think Bates did it though :)

Anonymous said...

"Through this lens, we see that Edith has had to become a member of the world’s oldest profession"

Either that's Ethel, or this episode was much more interesting than I remember having watched ;)

ChrisB said...

Anonymous -- thank you! I have a real issue with those two names and keep getting them mixed up. All fixed, but you're right. Edith in that situation certainly would spice things up! :-)

a.m. said...

I've been suspicious of Bates since Vera first died. I didn't want to believe it, but it just seemed so curious to me that the writers didn't show us the scene of Vera's death or the last scene when they were together. If they wanted the audience to be really upset about his wrongful conviction then they should have shown her plotting the whole thing. I'm really intrigued about where this storyline is going to go...but I don't want it to drag on for the whole season:)

I also was really mad that Robert got involved with Edith's love life, especially because for a while he and Cora lamented that she would never marry AND they are about to be kicked out of Downton. With Sir Anthony, she is actually in a safer situation than any of them. When so many young men died in the war, let her go off and be happy!

Great review, ChrisB!

Yong Yong said...

Thanks for the review; I really enjoy it. Regarding your comment on Robert and Mary take Downton and money issue too seriously, just wanted to point out that for people from the background they did, it is very logical and indeed a very big deal. I come from a family in many ways similar and I can tell you that it's as big a deal to lose your family home. On a personal level it is as serious as a world war.

Billie Doux said...

Maggie Smith's face as Shirley Maclaine was singing to her was absolutely priceless. The other thing I found delightful, and it may have been more in the previous episode (but I saw them together and am getting them confused) is Matthew and Tom as friends and bonding as brothers in law. They were good for each other, and I just thought it was touching.

Chris, you're so right that Matthew's inheritance just doesn't work well as a plot point. It was like, so Robert lost all that money and he's going to lose the estate and five minutes later, no wait! More money! All the same, Matthew catching the "too noble for words" bug from Bates was annoying. Geez, take the freaking money! Lavinia's father won't know or care.

Did Bates kill Vera? The first thing I thought when she was killed was that he had done it, but then I thought, no, Bates is way too noble for that. But wouldn't it be interesting if he did?

Suzanne said...

Great review, as always, Chris. I enjoyed this episode more than you did, though. I liked seeing Mary and Lady Violet paired together and in their finest scheming mode. I also liked the parallel of Edith and Martha together in the scene with Robert since it seemed that Martha was in Edith's corner in a way no one else had ever seemed to be. As for Mary and Matthew, I appreciated that they were still loving to each other even with a major disagreement between them since it reminded me of Robert and Cora's relationship. It is a type of marriage that I find to be realistic unlike so many others on TV, with the exception of Coach Taylor and Tammi Taylor on Friday Night Lights.

As for Edith looking desperate, I agree that in some ways it looks like that; however, they truly seem to love one another, which makes me admire her determination. I have been rooting for them for awhile, so I hope it works out in the end.

Even though the war was very dramatic, I have to say that my daughter and I are really enjoying seeing the story focus on the drama within the house again. Martha really adds an interesting twist, too, and I can't wait to see if her presence uncovers some depth in Cora's character.

Lastly, I don't know what to think about Bates. There is certainly something there we aren't seeing yet.

sunbunny said...

Matthew is driving me crazy with his stupid honor. Just take the money. Lavinia and her father were both lovely people who truly loved and were truly loved by Matthew. Stop being so freaking noble!

Edith and Anthony's romance is actually the first time I've liked her. I like that she stands up to her father and to Sir Anthony and goes after what she wants. I don't think it's desperate, not if she truly loves him. If she were just doing it to get married to anyone I would agree.

Martha really reminds me of Kathy Bates' Molly Brown in Titanic. :)

CrazyCris said...

Edith and Sir Anthony... first time she truly stands up to her family, bravo! Won't be the last. She's finally getting a bit of a backbone!

I understand Matthew, but he's still exaggerating a bit! I remember when watching this that they were trying to drive a permanent wedge between him and Mary...

Anonymous said...

I thought Cora's reaction to the potential loss of Downton was very unrealistic. After all, there was an implicit but very definite contract in those (by no means unusual) marriages of a rich American woman and a titled man. She brought the money, and in return got the prestige of the title and the grand house to go with it. I suspect that in real life Cora would have been as upset as Robert if not more.

Can't comment on the Bates thing as I fast forwarded every time I saw the prison:). That seemed to drag on forever.

Gavrielle

M said...

Matthew's "honor" is really annoying. He was with Lavinia's father when he died and was pretty much the only one at his funeral. That's love. Take the money, Matthew! If he really feels the need to donate the money, he could "donate" it to the estate for the benefit of all the employees of the home.

On the other hand, I hope the writers come up with a more interesting solution, since Matthew's inheritance occurring simultaneously with the bankruptcy is a little obvious. We didn't even have time to worry about where Daisy would go!