Home Featured TV Shows All TV Shows Movie Reviews Book Reviews Articles Frequently Asked Questions About Us

Downton Abbey: Season Three, Episode One

Lady Violet: “It is so encouraging to see the future unfurl.”
Martha: “As long as you remember it will bear no resemblance to the past.”

As we re-enter the world of Downton Abbey for the beginning of the third season, the title card tells us that it is Spring, 1920. It is still relatively cold and dark so it is early spring. I would venture to guess as early as March, which means it has only been about two months since Matthew and Mary got engaged. Their wedding was put together very quickly.

The war has been finished for just over a year, yet the world has changed enormously in that year. Although this episode is bookended by the wedding rehearsal and the wedding itself, this event is really only an excuse to bring everyone together again. The overriding theme of this episode is the dichotomy that was created by the new order of things. There are those who accept and even welcome it, and there are those who are desperately clinging to the past. Throughout the episode, various characters are brought together, playing off each other to show this new duality.

The most obvious example is Sybil and Tom and their relationship with the rest of the family. At the beginning, Robert is still convinced that their marriage is something of which to be ashamed; something to hide. While everyone else in the family tries to make Tom feel as at ease as possible when he arrives, Robert behaves very rudely. For someone so obsessed with family and good breeding, it strikes me as a bit hypocritical. Robert has, after all, let down the estate worse than Tom ever could. But, we’ll get to that in a bit.

It is the women who are trying to make this situation as pleasant as possible; Cora with her talk of gardens and Mary with her advice to Sybil about taking things one step at a time. It is Matthew, however, who truly helps Tom makes the transition. Of them all, Matthew understands best what it is that Tom is experiencing. It wasn’t that long ago that Matthew was the outsider, being insulted by members of the Crawley family.

What a change of heart when a guest in the house puts Tom in a bad position. All of sudden, the entire family rushes to his defense. It may be fine to be dismissive and nasty within the confines of the house, but it is important to present a unified front to the world. As a direct result of this incident, as well as Matthew’s invitation, the family thaws a great deal towards Tom. Everyone, that is, except Robert. It takes Tom’s saving Mary’s marriage to finally get through to his father-in-law.

Downstairs is a mirror image of upstairs. Carson is barely civil to Tom and goes so far as to refuse to dress him or to insist that Thomas do it. It is the women, Mrs. Hughes and Anna, who are polite and understanding of what he must be feeling. Like Robert, Carson refuses to move forward, to see that the world’s rules are changing. He stubbornly clings to the old ideas until he is forced to accept the change and then only grudgingly. He wants a footman, but only one that fits his standards. Alfred does not. He is too tall (Matt Milne, who plays Alfred, is 6’4’) and he has been trained in a restaurant, not a great house.

The others, however, are each trying to find their way in the new world. In a world in which footman are quickly becoming passé, O’Brien is trying to ensure that her nephew has a position that will give him some stability. Thomas will not help her. Stuck in the past and the memories of what he has been through in that house, he is not going to see someone younger pushed up the ladder ahead of himself. Daisy, who has been promised a promotion, is frustrated and angry that she is still a kitchen maid. I think Mrs. Patmore handles this situation brilliantly. Reminding Daisy that she has a new title and seven shillings more a month, she simply allows Daisy her time to sulk until she comes to her senses.

Bates and Anna are another example. Anna is going to do everything she can to help her husband; Bates is much more sanguine about their situation. It is he who keeps reminding Anna that the world is spinning, no matter where he is and it is he that convinces her that she must live her life by going to France when she has the opportunity.

Although one would expect the oldest generation to be the most opposed to change, the three grande dames of this episode, Isobel, Martha and Lady Violet all accept it, but to differing degrees. Isobel, of course, is the one who most embraces and welcomes the new order. She does not see class distinction the way the others do and so it is she who is pleasant to Alfred when he makes a mistake in the dining room and it is she who tries very hard to include Tom as one of their own. Lady Violet, while still wanting the old order, is willing to subvert the wishes of her son to help the family. We learn that she is the reason that Tom and Sybil have been able to come to the wedding. For Lady Violet, family is everything and she is willing to accept Sybil’s husband because he is now a member of that select group. It is not the first time we have seen this side of her, but it is the most important.

Martha, played by the irrepressible Shirley MacLaine, is a force of nature and she sweeps into the house blowing away all of the nonsense in front of her. As convinced that Lady Violet is that the English way is the only way, Martha more than meets her with the conviction that the American way is the only way. These two have each met her match and their scene in the hall is fun to watch. Smith and MacLaine show us what real acting is all about.

Of course, all of this discussion about a changing world may come to nothing as Robert has lost everything in a bad investment. Robert, raised in a very different world, will always see protecting Downton as his duty. It’s why he married Cora and why he made that investment. Had it been successful, he would have secured the future of the estate for the foreseeable future. It is no wonder the man is so shattered by the loss; he has lost millions. But even worse, he feels that his life’s work has now been for nothing. He will be the cause of the end of the estate and it brings this proud man to tears. Cora is simply wonderful in that moment. Keeping in mind that it is her money Robert lost, she does not throw blame nor accusations. She comforts her husband and assures him that all will be well.

And, it may be if Matthew will rescue it. Like so many others in this episode, however, Mary and Matthew are coming at their marriage from two different points of view. Matthew doesn’t want to live at Downton when they return from their honeymoon. He’s willing to stay in the village or on the estate, but feels that it is important that he and Mary start their lives together apart from the rest of the family. Mary, who has never lived anywhere else, can’t really understand why he would want to leave.

This difference in world views comes to a head when Matthew announces that he will not use Reggie Swire’s money to save Downton. Matthew’s pride and honor won’t allow him to take money from the father of the woman he is still persuaded he sent to an early grave; all Mary can see is the destruction of the family and, in her mind, Matthew is choosing himself over the family and, by extension, her.

Each is hurt and angry and each turns to a friend in which to confide. Both friends, however, are members of the working class and can see things a bit more clearly than our duty obsessed couple. Anna, although she doesn’t explicitly defend Matthew, makes Mary see that he is a good man and worth her love. Tom doesn’t explicitly defend Mary either, yet he makes Matthew see the other side of the argument and makes him face the fact that he loves Mary. As a result of all this common sense, our couple makes up and the episode ends as they stand at the altar together.

Bits and Bobs:

— Watching the scene where Isobel, Cora and Lady Violet are talking after the wedding rehearsal made me smile the second time through. Watch Lady’s Violet’s expression when Cora asks Isobel not to send Sybil and Tom the money to come over. Too late!

— I was trying to find what the perfect height for a footman was. No luck, but I stumbled across this article about life in an Edwardian house. I have discussed how hard life was below stairs, but this sums it up much better than I ever could.

— The Grand Trunk Railway operated in Quebec and Ontario, extending south into New England and Michigan. It’s history is a series of bad decisions and bad management that ultimately forced the company into being taken over by the Canadian National Railways, a Crown corporation in July, 1920. Robert was by no means the only English investor to lose everything.

— Robert Baden-Powell was the founder of the Boy Scouts. Their motto is still ‘Be Prepared.’

— The Man from the Prudential was a term coined by the Prudential Insurance Company for their agents who would sell insurance from door to door. Their business model was to sell very cheap insurance to the working class and their agents would dress the part.

— The Black and Tans were Englishmen who joined the Irish Constables to try to maintain order during the Irish fight for independence. They became infamous for their attacks on civilians and civilian property in retaliation for actions by the IRA.

— “Il ne manque que ca” translates as “The only thing that was missing.” In other words, Robert is commenting on what a farce the dinner has turned into.

— Lady Violet’s comment about Napoleon and the Bourbons is dead on. The Bourbons were the ruling class; Napoleon was the upstart who tried to take power from them.

— Lord Lochinvar is the hero of the poem Marmion by Sir Walter Scott. He was the most handsome, the most bold, the most, well the most everything.

— We finally learn how Matthew is connected to the family. His great-great-grandfather was a younger son of the third Earl of Grantham.

— The girls are all beginning to embrace the new fashions. I am not at all a fan of Sybil’s new haircut, but Mary has the perfect frame for the dresses. She looks stunning in scene after scene, but her wedding dress is glorious.

— Having been part of the crush at the most recent Royal Wedding, Mary arriving at the church reminds me of that day. Of course, it is important to remember that she is Earl’s eldest daughter and, one day, she will be the Countess. She is the princess of the county.

Well Said:

Robert: “You make it sound very serious.”
Murray: “I’m expressing myself badly if you think it is not serious.”

Lady Violet: “I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.”
Matthew: “But, isn’t she American?”
Lady Violet: “Exactly.”

O’Brien: “Oh yes, we’re all essential until we get sacked.”

Matthew: “We’re brothers-in-law with high minded wives. We better stick together.”

Robert: “Hello, Mama. Can I tempt you to one of these new cocktails?”
Lady Violet: “No, I don’t think so. They look too exciting for so early in the evening. Don’t you think so, Carson?”
Carson: “Better avoided, m’lady.”

Matthew: “I want [Tom] to be my best man.”
Isobel: “Bravo! Well said!”
Sybil: “Do you really mean it?”
Tom: “Honestly?”
Matthew: “I’ve told you before, if we’re mad enough to take on the Crawley girls, we have to stick together.”
Mary: “Thank you, Matthew. Thank you so much.”

Lady Violet: “You weren’t the first drunk in that dining room, I can assure you.”
Tom: “Only the first Republican.”
Lady Violet: “Well, you’ve got me there.”

Tom: “They’re forcing me into a morning coat.”
Matthew: “He has no say in it?”
Lady Violet: “No, he hasn’t. And, nor do you.”

Martha: “Nothing ever alters for you people, does it? Revolutions erupt and monarchies crash to the ground and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.”
Lady Violet: “You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.”
Martha: “Yes, we do. We just don’t give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.”

Anna: “What I see is a good man, m’lady. And, they’re not like buses. There won’t be another along in ten minutes’ time.”

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.


  1. Great review but, uh, that thumbnail from the episode is perhaaaaaaaaaps just a bit spoilery.

    Wishing we arrive at the Christmas Special already. A lot of us REALLY need to vent.

  2. Sybil's hair is truly terrifying. Edith's, on the other hand, is charming. Both she and Mary do have the perfect figures for 1920s fashions.

    I loved the way the whole village turned out for Matthew and Mary's wedding. It was so sweet and really stressed what an important part of the community Downton and the Crawleys are.

    My favorite part of the episode is Branson's return and his blossoming friendship with Matthew. I loved the dinner scene where Matthew stood up for his brother-in-law to be, past as a chauffeur be damned. They have so much in common, it's lovely to see them bonding. :)

  3. I'm with Anonymous about needing to vent... Fortunately you guys won't have to wait a couple of months for the "final" episode of the season.

    The encounter of the Grand Dames was sooooo much fun!

    And loved the new friendship between Tom and Matthew!

    I don't remember lots of the little details you mentioned... it's nice to have my memory refreshed!

    (when do they talk about Baden-Powel?)

    1. When Lady Mary says that Carson's motto is "Be prepared," Old Lady Grantham (no disrespect meant) mentioned that Baden-Powell has stolen it.


We love comments! We moderate because of spam and trolls, but don't let that stop you! It’s never too late to comment on an old show, but please don’t spoil future episodes for newbies.