R.I.P. Cora’s fortune! It’s been fun! You had a good run. Those darn Canadian railroad line investments sure are a big gamble, huh? Such a total shame, and it’s not even like Cora herself lost all that sweet, sweet moolah. Sure, Robert and Cora are happily and sincerely in love with each other now, but back in the day, that marriage was practically a business transaction—Cora got the title, Robert got the cash. Still, all things considered, Cora took the news of her lost fortune rather well. Mary too, despite the potential bridezilla action just waiting to burst forth from those gorgeous art deco almost-flapper-but-not-quite period costumes.
Marriage and class dynamics came into heavy rotation in Downton Abbey’s Season 3 premiere, colliding with the revelation that the Crawleys swiftly dropped a few spots on the financial food chain when a poor investment singlehandedly managed to wipe out most of the family nest egg in the biggest “oopsie” moment since Kemal Pamuk dropped dead after deflowering Lady Mary. Class has played a role in Downton Abbey since the very first season simply by giving noble characters and working class characters mostly equal screentime. The series could have very easily been about one or the other—though it wouldn’t be half as interesting if it was. Downton weaves its upstairs and downstairs stories seamlessly, careful to acknowledge the sensibilities of its modern audience without necessarily imprinting those beliefs on its dramatis personae. In the case of Sybil and Branson and their initial inability to travel to Mary and Matthew’s wedding due to financial constraints, it was easy to understand why Robert was initially relieved to receive the news that they wouldn’t be in attendance. When the Dowager Countess sent them the money to cover their travels, it still didn’t take too much brainpower to comprehend why the rest of the family squirmed in the couple’s presence, with some members outright dreading the potential for scandal.
What was less easy to understand was Branson’s former co-workers showing just as much displeasure and unease toward the cross-class marriage. The concern that Branson would return to his former workplace and suddenly be “too good” for his former peers is an attitude that still crops up today. I worked at a restaurant in high school where one of my fellow burger-flippers ended up marrying the franchise owner’s son and absolutely, whenever she visited, our grease-coated ranks buzzed with what was most certainly jealousy-driven blah blah about how she “probably thought she was better than us now.” That’s standard. Unfortunate, but standard.
No one ever questioned her right to marry the guy, though, or his right to marry her, so while O’Brien and Thomas grumbling in their usual miserable manners seemed entirely within the norm upon Branson’s return to Downton, Carson’s attitude was much more jarring for its implications about the class divide and the deep internalization of sentiments about which class is “better.” Carson sincerely believed that the Crawleys were better people than their staff simply by the fortune of being nobility and that everyone was perfectly correct and in the right to be embarrassed by Sybil’s marriage to the chauffeur. Or course, Branson comparing the King of England to the German Kaiser in the wake of World War I probably didn’t help much. That was kind of a dick move, B. Just sayin’.
People and sentiments can change, though. Case in point? Not only did the Dowager Countess send Sybil and Branson the money to attend Mary’s wedding, but she also stood up for the couple on several occasions, implying that even given Branson’s low class roots, he joined the Crawley family when he married Sybil and as far as Violet was concerned, that was that. And the world in which Downton Abbey plays out is evolving, too. Season 3 picks up in the spring of 1920, the year women received the right to vote in the United States. The U.K. would follow that trend by the end of the decade while also taking steps to grant Ireland its independence. The system in which a house as large as Downton and a family like the Crawleys are able to operate had been eroding for years, and we’ve already heard of similarly esteemed families as the Crawleys being forced to downsize in past seasons. I don’t know about ya’ll, but when we covered that part in history class, it was generally presented as a good thing: equality and closing the income gap and all that. Yet Downton Abbey manages to convey the Earl’s dismay at potentially losing his heritage and livelihood without turning the family’s lament into “Oh noes, we’re going to have to move to a smaller mansion! Woe is us!”
The term “servant” has some downright Dickensian connotations, and yet, in the reality of Downton Abbey, the house staff seems to have it pretty good. It’s a job. Sometimes it blows, but the Crawleys don’t appear to be particularly unreasonable or demanding, so we have every reason to assume that it’s an okay enough job. In the premere we learned, through much of Robert’s and even his mother’s vocalizing, that given the family's rank in the community, they see themselves as job providers and so does the rest of the town. The most tragic part of losing Downton isn’t necessarily that Mary might have to figure out how to do her own hair, it’s that Anna and the rest of the staff could end up unemployed. In a cynical mood, we could write off the Earl and the Dowager Countess’s remarks as inflated egos or classist blather, but the argument is a logical one and much of the staff seems to share it. The money problem isn’t just a Crawley problem.
But there is hope! Maybe! If Matthew can get over himself for like five minutes! Remember when he was going to marry Lavinia Swire? Poor Lavinia Swire. Well, apparently Lavinia’s papa never got around to taking Matthew out of the will after Lavinia bit it last season, so when he joined her on the other side of the veil, Matthew inherited the Swire fortune... which is apparently a pretty awesome fortune. Matthew, of course, decided to get all guilty and emo about it because he broke Lavinia’s heart and then she died, so he didn’t even really want the inheritance and refused to keep it for himself, much to Mary’s horror. There’s that tantrum we were all waiting for.
I get Matthew and personally, I’m not sure what I would do in his situation, but really, the whole thing feels needlessly complicated for the sake drawing it out over several episodes. I mean, let’s be honest: You can’t have Downton Abbey without Downton Abbey (can you?), and how else are they supposed to save the place? Play it off as a big misunderstanding? “OH, you thought you were BROKE? LOL. Sorry, my bad, paperwork is a bitch, right?”
Side note: I’d also be happy if Matthew would stop making racy comments to Mary. I know he’s trying to be sexy, but it’s actually really awkward and it just keeps making me giggle. “I’m looking forward to all sorts of things.” *eyebrow waggle* OMG STOP IT. I didn’t think it was possible to make Dan Stevens not sexy, but apparently cheesy pick-up lines are the way to go. Also unintentionally amusing: all the talk of “getting to know” one another. They’ve been courting on and off for the better part of a decade, but then again, they almost called the whole wedding off on the eve of the ceremony after Mary’s inheritance-inspired tantrum, so, I guess they still have some work to do. Mary said that she would “hate to be predictable,” but deep down inside, she and Matthew are predictable. They really, really are. Note that no one seemed particularly shocked or horrified by their spat, even Branson, when he talked Matthew into apologizing, didn’t have to make much of an argument outside of, “OMG YOU TWO BELONG TOGETHER. STOP BEING A DUMBASS.” Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Branson—voice of the fan.
Anyway, I guess they could always ask Cora’s mom for more dough. Actually, that’s exactly what newlywed Lady Mary and Grandma Dowager did, buttering up Grandma Martha with tea and a schmancy dinner and clearly, the woman could see through their antics the entire time. However, regardless of what Martha would have liked to do with the money, the decision, ultimately, wasn't hers to make. It seems that her late husband tied up most of the capital and while she could entertain everybody back in the States or make sure they all continued to rock the latest fashions, she couldn’t fork over enough cash to run Downton Abbey in the manner the Crawleys were accustomed to, even if it were her dying wish. Honestly though, she didn’t seem to really want to. Like her daughter, Martha also took the news of the lost fortune rather well and encouraged Mary to take advantage of the freedom that being relieved of running a large household offered her. Cora pointed out that as dramatic as “losing everything” sounded, the Crawleys were hardly penniless, and it’s not like Mary would have to start actually, you know, earning her living or anything.
Mary’s response was basically, “STFU STUPID AMERICANS!” I love it.
So I guess that whole wedded bliss thing—yes, Matthew and Mary DID get married, of course—ended pretty quickly for the Crawleys. Martha dashed Mary’s dreams of squeezing some money out of the Bank of Grandma and the Earl tried unsuccessfully to talk some reason into Emo Matthew regarding the whole Swire inheritance thing. It was also time for Edith Crawley: This is Your (Miserable) Life when, in the spare time allotted to Edith when she wasn't scheming to get more money from her American counterpart, the Dowager Countess teamed up with her son to break Edith and Sir Anthony’s not-a-courtship courtship. He’s old, he’s a widower, he has a bum arm—nevermind that Edith adores him and, like she pointed out, all the prime marriage candidates her own age died in the war (they don’t call it the “Lost Generation” just because it sounds cool and mysterious)—they simply had to break things off because Sybil used up all the Get Out of Scandal Free cards when she ran off with the help.
Strallan took Robert’s “nothing personal, just GTFO” rather well, mostly because as complicated as the motives for his relationship with Edith can get if you like to overthink things as much as I do, he is more willing to fall back on the idea of tradition and what’s “proper” to guide his actions. Robert and Violet’s concerns weren’t entirely image related. There was—and still is—the question of whether Edith is simply settling for Sir Anthony. She has a long history of suffering terrible luck with the menfolk and then along came Strallan who is awesome and has all of those bonuses like a title and a house and money. If he was twenty-five years younger, there would be no issue of their possible marriage. Strallan gets that, and whether Edith is actually “settling” or not, he cares enough about her that he’d rather call everything off and hurt her in the present than drag it all out and contribute to a possibly greater unhappiness in the future.
But even though Martha couldn’t help tame the biggest of all the elephants in the room (the one eating all the money), she managed to assist at least one of her granddaughters, and now it looks like we’re gearing up for another Downton wedding already... if the servant warfare downstairs doesn’t end up, like, burning the place down first.
Joining the downstairs cast this season is Alfred, a new footman, and O’Brien’s nephew. Alfred is too tall and he was trained in a hotel which makes Carson look down his nose at the lad, but he’s eager to please, which means Thomas quickly took advantage of him. Then Alfred flirted with the American maid that Martha brought over, so Daisy got mad at him and I’ve worked in a few offices in my day, but those politics seriously have nothing on downstairs at Downton Abbey. Hey, at least the Downton staff’s antics are way more amusing than posting passive-aggressive Facebook statuses about how much you hate the temp who shares your cubicle. In retaliation for sabotaging Alfred’s duties with Matthew, O’Brien stole the Earl’s dinner shirts before Thomas could dress him for the big Get Rich Quick (Again) Dinner Party that Mary and Violet put together for Martha. As a result, neither Matthew nor Robert were dressed “properly” for the event, though in the end, it was fine because the oven broke and everyone ended up eating cold cuts around the piano anyway. Everything is ruined! Again!
What did you think of Downton Abbey’s season 3 premiere?
– Awkward family dinner count: 2
– Dowager Countess Sass of the Night: On Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson: “When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” Matthew: “Isn’t she American?” Dowager Countess: “Precisely.” ZING.
– Shameless leering at the wardrobe: Sybil’s silk robe. OMG. Want.
– Downton Abbey’s opening credits are so classy. Even the freaking feather duster manages to look better than a typical feather duster.
– The Adventures of Detective Anna, Super Sleuth: Anna found a book of Vera’s contacts and gave it to Bates so he could explain who everyone is, where they live, their relationship to the late former Mrs. Bates, and other detective-y stuff. I’m actually already over this storyline and I’m hoping Bates’ sucky new roommate gets shanked in the shower. #FREEBATES
– “Weddings can be reminders of our loneliness.” Wow, Sir Anthony, that was cheerful. Now go hook up with Edith. Go on, shoo.
– “Alfred has embarrassed the family.” Carson overreacting to the new guy accidentally burning a hole through Matthew’s coat. I love it when he overreacts.
– I will, however, probably overreact myself if Mrs. Hughes’ cancer scare ends up being anything more than a scare. DON’T YOU DARE, DOWNTON ABBEY.
– Am I the only person who didn’t miss Ethel and honestly doesn’t care that she’s a prostitute?
– What do you think: Could Downton Abbey take place anywhere but Downton Abbey? If the Crawley’s DO lose everything and downsize, can the show go on or is the sprawling setting half the appeal?
– With all the talk of taking sides, whose side are YOU on?