This post discusses plot points from the first episode of the third season of Downton Abbey. If you’ve seen subsequent episodes aired in the UK and want to discuss events that happen in them, please flag your comments as such.
Much of the discussion of the residents of Downton Abbey, the great house at the heart of Julian Fellowes’ series of the same name, is whether things ought to change. Much of the tension of the series comes from the fact that, no matter what anyone might wish on the subject, change is coming anyway. And after a season of Downtown Abbey that felt stuck, and in some cases silly, I’m glad to see change, both much-desired in the form of Mary and Matthew’s wedding, and greatly feared in the form of the loss of Cora’s fortune to a bad investment, come to the characters and the series itself.
One of the most intriguing new additions to the show in this episode was the discussion of Downton’s role in the larger economy of the region. It’s telling, of course, that the characters themselves have never really discussed their larger obligations as job creators until they’re faced with an existential threat to the continuation of their own privileges — much like the billionaires who found themselves deeply aggrieved by the tone of the latest presidential election. And it’s even more intriguing that Downton Abbey itself, despite its continual feints in the direction of class, has avoided this obvious source of both personal and societal drama until now.
But it makes sense that we’ve gotten there, even by a belated way. If life at Downton Abbey seems feudal, that’s because in a fundamental way it is. Robert may not be directly renting land grants and cottages to villagers in exchange for silver pennies and chickens, passing some share of the profits up to the king in the form of wax candles, grain, and coin, as his ancestors would have done. But he’s overseeing an estate that is meant to be a linchpin in the local economy, and an economic intermediary between the people and their government. And in his meeting with his banker in London, it’s clear he feel that responsibility powerfully. “I refuse to be the Earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out,” he insists. “The estate must be a major employer and support the house, or there’s no point to it. To any of it.” That’s not to say that he’s solely concerned for the welfare of the poorer people in his orbit. But without the ability to generate jobs, Downton isn’t just economically unviable — it will come to be seen as morally indefensible to the people who have previously accepted its paternal influence on the region.
Or as Violet puts it at dinner with the family, her bluntness in service of a useful honesty, “It’s our job to provide employment. An aristocrat without servants is as much use of the county as a glass hammer,” a beautiful, profoundly stupid object. I’d argue that Downton Abbey is a relatively conservative show, one that likes to set up radicals and reformers like Branson, and to a lesser extent, Lady Edith, as naive and ineffectual. Even Branson finds himself pulled into another way of seeing things as he’s absorbed into the family, telling Matthew the night before his wedding “It’s strange I’m arguing about inherited money and saving estates. The old me would like to put a bomb under the lot of you.” But this episode mounted as effective a version of the job creators’ argument for the maintenance of their privilege as it’s possible to make, largely because we actually like someone like Lady Mary vastly more than we like Charles and David Koch, and thus are more receptive to her insistence that “I shall be Countess of Grantham one day, and in my book, the Countess of Grantham lives at Downton Abbey.” I doubt that Downtown Abbey will explore this idea in a sustained way — it’s already too big a cast, and it has too few episodes to actually blow out the show to include the entire economic environment beyond the household staff. But it’s intriguing to watch the conversation be posed at all, especially given the conservativism in American television is largely limited to expressing the idea that wealth is aspirational, or to making a tough foreign policy seem exciting. I’d love to see more of the kind of intricate domestic storytelling that Downton represents on American television, but if I was a sophisticated conservative in the entertainment industry, I’d be studying it for pointers of a rather different kind.
Speaking of intimate domestic dramas, there are fewer things that have given me more pleasure in a long time than watching Lady Mary and Matthew finally tie the knot. Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, probably because their characters have had a relatively chaste relationship, have more sexual chemistry and heat than almost any other couple on television, and it was an enormous amount of fun to watch them flirt their way towards their wedding night. A line like Mary’s remark that “After tomorrow, all things are permitted,” may sound awfully portentous, but it does capture the sense of a genuine threshhold.
And it’s particularly interesting given the implication in the show that she — even if it’s by a slim margin and by dint of a bizarre event — is more sexually experienced than her husband-to-be. That certainly seems to be the suggestion of Robert and Matthew’s exchange when the former asks “How was the honeymoon?” and Matthew explains “My eyes have been opened.” “Don’t I know it,” Robert tells him. There’s a tenderness and tentativeness to Matthew and Mary’s earlier, and veiled, conversations about the impending inception of their sexual life. “I doubt I’ll get used to taking you to bed with your father watching,” he told her, walking the estate. Mary’s response is flip, but also spoken from the perspective of someone who can joke about sex in the way her future husband can’t yet: “He’s so relieved we’re getting married he wouldn’t mind if you carried me up naked.” Even after they’re married, Matthew’s a bit shy, telling Mary, “I’m sorry, but it still seems very odd to be found in your bed,” when Anna comes to open their curtains in the morning. It’s exceedingly rare in pop culture to have a female character who’s even marginally more experienced than the man she’s with — Anna Faris in What’s Your Number? being a possible exception. And it’s equally rare for a show or movie to capture unconsummated desire with the same frisson or sweetness it has here. I don’t think the argument is relative in any way, but it’s a rare depiction and consideration of the interaction of sex and love — as Cora puts it, “When two people love each other, you understand, everything is the most terrific fun,” something that was probably particularly true for women prior to the sexual revolution — and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
It’s also fun to see Mary move into an understanding of what it may mean to be Countess, an idea that’s informed by her experiences both upstairs and downstairs. It’s telling that, when Mary comes down the staircase in her wedding dress, the show puts both Robert and Carson, her biological father and her surrogate one, in the same frame. And though Carson stands behind Robert and a little off to the side in the shot, it’s to him that Mary addresses her first words, asking “ Will I do, Carson?” Carson’s sense of what is correct has informed Mary’s worldview deeply, whether she’s worried about Matthew wearing black tie to a formal dinner where everything goes wrong, or her sense that downsizing her way of life with Matthew is neither morally necessary nor prudent even if economics demand it. Just as the residents downstairs cling to a social heirarchy that seems like they’d want to rebel against because a position in a great house is preferable to uncertainty elsewhere — witness Mosley’s hope to valet in the big house, rather than serve as a butler in a smaller one, or, as Thomas puts it of the arrival of O’Brien’s nephew and her hopes for his rapid promotion rather than regimented rise, “Young Alfred is to make the leap in one bound?” — Lady Mary knows the world would be a much less secure place for a woman of her education and capabilities without the promise of the title and the house to manage along with it.