'Downton Abbey' recap: A wedding and changing times

'Downton Abbey' returned for its third season, and things were – of course – not all well in the world of the aristocrats and the servants. The new season of 'Downton Abbey' kicked off with a super-sized two-hour episode.

Nick Briggs/PBS/AP
'Downton Abbey' stars Maggie Smith (l.) and Shirley MacLaine (r.).

Did you remember that “Downton Abbey” is now taking place in the 1920s? Because if not, the characters saw fit to mention it at least half a dozen times. It’s the 1920s and women’s hairstyles have changed (middle Crawley sister Edith fixed her hair a different way to try to catch the attention of neighbor Sir Anthony Strallan), etiquette is loosened (Mary’s fiancé – now husband – Matthew pointed out that it didn’t matter as much as it did before the war if he didn’t go down to dinner in the right shirt), and morals are looser (one American maid used the new decade as an excuse to kiss the valet she had a crush on).

“Downton Abbey” returned for a third season with a super-sized two-hour episode, which opened with will-they-or-won’t-they couple Matthew and Mary, who became engaged in the season two finale, standing in a church. Don’t get too excited yet – this was just a rehearsal. It was the spring after the Christmas celebration at which we’d left the “Downton” masters and servants, and the wedding was coming soon, but Mary was disappointed because her sister Sybil, living in Ireland and married to their former chauffeur Tom, had written to say she couldn’t afford to come for the wedding. Mary and Sybil’s father Robert, the Earl of Grantham, was still getting used to the idea of a chauffeur as a son-in-law and didn’t seem to entirely mind that the newly married couple would have to stay away for the festivities.

Matthew’s mother Isobel felt that the entire thing was silly and seemed to be on the verge of sending Sybil the money herself. “I suppose you agree with Robert,” she commented to Robert’s mother Violet. “Then not for the first time, you suppose wrongly,” Violet snapped. Yay for Maggie Smith being back as the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess!

But soon, pregnant Sybil and her husband Tom arrived. "Please tell me you sent the money," Sybil says to her father, Robert, but he was nonplussed; he’d done no such thing. (In a truly touching later development, it was revealed that Violet had sent the money to enable them to make the trip.)

But not everyone was happy Tom was there, and during one dinner, a snobby neighbor named Larry Grey slipped something into Tom’s drink that made the Irishman act drunk and start loudly spouting his politics. When caught, Larry couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. “He’s only a grubby little chauffeur,” he remarked. Robert, Larry’s father, Lord Merton, and Matthew all stood simultaneously, ready to defend Tom, but it was Matthew who went over to Tom and announced that his future brother-in-law would be his best man as well.

And even more drama was brewing before the actual wedding between Matthew and Mary could take place. Robert went up to London to look into financial matters and discovered that railway investments he’d made before the war had gone badly and wiped out most of his wife Cora’s fortune. If something didn’t happen to save them, the Crawley family would have to give up Downton Abbey.

Mary was aghast to hear the news, but thought she saw a solution when Matthew received a letter informing him that he was in line to receive an large inheritance from the father of his former fiancé, Lavinia, who died of the Spanish influenza. When it was discovered that the first two heirs were dead, it seemed all but certain Matthew would receive the money, and Mary told him it would solve all the family’s financial problems. Matthew, however, was stubborn – he said that because he had been named as the heir for his relationship with Lavinia, he couldn’t use the money to save his new fiancé’s home. (This seemed a little convoluted and over-dramatic, much like Matthew’s certainty last season that he and Mary could never be together because their love had caused Lavinia to die of grief, but I recognize the show needs some problem to keep tension between the couple.)

Mary told Matthew that his unwillingness to save her home made it clear he wasn’t on their family's side and fled the room, an act witnessed by sister Edith.

When Mary later burst into tears and had to leave the dinner table, Edith decided it was okay to reveal her sister’s business to everyone and told the family what she’d heard. Sybil’s husband Tom decided to talk to Matthew as his best man.

After talking things over with Matthew, it was Tom who brought Matthew to the house to speak with Mary – outside the door, of course, so there’d be no seeing the bride the night before the wedding. The two worked things out, and the wedding seemed to be back on.

Meanwhile, Cora’s free-spirited American mother, Martha, arrived for the wedding and sparred a bit with proper Violet. Middle sister Edith, meanwhile, invited older neighbor Sir Anthony Strallan to the wedding, hoping to rekindle a romance. He replied with one of the most awkward segues of all time, “Weddings can be a reminder of one’s loneliness, can’t they?,” but he agreed to go.

The wedding went off without a hitch, with the entire village turned out to cheer Mary’s arrival. In an adorable moment, both Mary’s father and her second father-figure, the butler Charles Carson, were waiting at the bottom of the stairs when she descended in her dress. "Will I do, Carson?" Mary asked him. “I think you’ll do quite nicely, milady,” Carson told her.

More change was afoot when Matthew and Mary returned from their honeymoon: they were riding in a car, not a carriage! What is the world coming to? The new couple seemed blissfully happy, but the topic of the Swire inheritance still rankled Mary.

In the servants’ world, a new face arrived on the scene when the Crawleys hired Alfred, maid O’Brien’s nephew, as a footman. It was apparently a scandal that he was over six feet tall, since it was mentioned at least three times over the course of the episode. Because of the financial problems, Robert was loath to hire more staff, despite the fact that the servants were shorthanded, and Matthew sided with him in his desire to “live more simply.” Writer Julian Fellowes showed both sides of the debate with Matthew and Violet’s viewpoints: Matthew said he didn't need someone to wait on him, while Violet pointed out that it was an aristocrats’ responsibility to employ servants, providing work for the village.

O’Brien wanted her nephew to work his way up in the world and supported him when he became valet to Matthew. But Thomas, a former footman and currently Robert’s valet, was incensed that Alfred has risen so far so quickly. After promising Alfred he would help him get a stain out of one of Matthew’s jackets, he purposely gave him the wrong stain remover so Matthew's jacket would be ruined. In revenge, O’Brien, who is usually Thomas’s favorite partner-in-crime, stole Robert’s dinner shirts and hid them so Thomas would get in trouble. Martha’s American maid Reed later told Alfred where O’Brien hid them, and Alfred restored the dinner shirts to Robert’s room.

Long-suffering Bates, the former Downton valet who was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for the supposed murder of his wife, was still in jail, visited regularly by his new wife, Downton maid Anna. Anna, who was determined to prove his innocence, gave him papers belonging to his former wife that contained names of her acquaintances. Anna thought that if she were to track those people down, one of them may have a clue that would help them. 

Anna told her husband that she declined to join Mary on her honeymoon, but Bates urged her to go, telling her that she was living life for both of them now. There was also trouble between Bates and his new cellmate, who provoked Bates into hitting him. “I forgot I was sharing a cell with a murderer,” his cellmate told him afterward. “And don’t you forget it,” Bates replies.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, discovered she had a lump on her breast and went to see the doctor. (Cook Mrs. Patmore accompanied her and provided welcome comic relief, exclaiming, “Oh my God!” every time the doctor said something new. "Mrs. Patmore, will you please leave the hysteria to me?" Mrs. Hughes asked.) The test the doctor performed proved inconclusive, and Mrs. Hughes would have to wait two months to find out whether it was cancer.

Also, in the least interesting subplot of all time, kitchen maid Daisy was angry that she was promised someone else to help her in the kitchen and decided to go on strike. Then she decided not to be on strike anymore.

Mary and Violet decided that the surest way to get the money to save Downton would be to ask Martha, resolving they must show her how important Downton is to the community. The best way to do so? Throw a grand dinner and invite all the neighbors. One person who wouldn't be coming, at least at first, was Sir Anthony Strallan, who Robert had previously asked to stay away from his daughter. Edith was incredibly upset and asked her father to invite him back. Robert finally broke down and gave in to her request.

Things got off to a rough start when Matthew’s coat, damaged by Alfred and sent up to London for repairs, didn't arrive in time. Matthew had to (gasp) go down to dinner in a more casual jacket. Robert’s dinner shirts were still missing, so he was forced to wear a less formal shirt as well, leading to one of the night’s best moments when Violet absentmindedly asked him for a drink. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she told him when she realized her mistake. “I thought you were a waiter.” (Violet’s judgment on “these new cocktails” earlier in the episode: “They look too exciting for so early in the evening.”)

Improper shirts were as nothing when, despite repeated warnings from Daisy, the stove was discovered to be broken. The Crawleys were stuck without any dinner to serve their guests. Martha suggested rounding up all the food available and serving it picnic-style in the parlor. It actually seemed to go well, but Mary and Violet’s hopes were dashed when they asked Martha for the much-needed money and Martha told them that her money was tied up and could not be used to save Downton. 

However, one person was happy – Edith and Sir Anthony appeared to have become engaged by the end of the party. 

Will Edith, who’s gotten depressing plot line after depressing plot line, actually find happiness? Only time will tell.

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