'Downton Abbey' recap, Season 3 premiere

Mama knows best? Cora's mom, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) arrives to shake things up at Downton.
Mama knows best? Cora's mom, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) arrives to shake things up at Downton. (Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece.)

After a unique, very-informal-for-Downton dinner party, Carson poses an interesting question in this episode: "Where's the style, Mrs. Hughes, where's the show?"

"Perhaps people are tired of style and show," she responds.

Perhaps. Well, most definitely for a good portion of the estate. Sibyl and Branson are — yes!! — very happy with their more low-key life in Dublin. Cora is even pretty much done with all the frivolity. Same goes for her mother, the visiting Martha Levinson (guest Shirley MacLaine), who is blunt about everything but, most importantly, blunt about the way the world is changing.

Yes, it's spring 1920, but Lord Grantham is still very stuck in the formalities of the past. He has passed on that trait to his daughter, Mary, who reveres Downton as some sort of untouchable, majestic place (too bad her soon-to-be husband, Matthew, doesn't share his her enthusiasm).

Much of this two-hour (!) premiere focused on the struggle between the past and the ever-changing present. "Downton" has touched on this topic before, but a looming crisis forces Robert to finally put things into perspective. For good. 

You can basically hear the dowager countess grumbling through the entire episode. So Let's get things started (PS: Anyone else now distracted by "Homeland's" Nicholas Brody — er, Damian Lewis — in the "Masterpiece" intro? I expected Carrie to show up, too. And cry.).


We start things off in typical Downton style, at the rehearsal for Mary and Matthew's grand nuptials, which are, by my count, 34 years in the making.

Robert is in fancy-dad mode, fretting about what big-name religious figure will be there and trying to forget that Branson is now his son-in-law. Looks like Sybil and her beau might not be able to make it to the wedding, Mary tells him, because they can't afford it.

"Branson is still an object of fascination for the county," he tells his daughter, saying he's relieved the pair aren't coming. Because that's what matters: the county folks' gossip. Still, Mary desperately wants her sister to come (probably because her other sister is Edith).

Later, Isobel offers to send Sibyl the money, but Cora tells her no because Robert wouldn't want that (more on this later).

Still, Matthew and Mary seem very happy. He dorkily worries about "taking you to bed with your father watching" and there are lots of slow walks and longing looks. "I want us to get to know each other, to learn about who we are without everyone there," Matthew tells Mary. Which makes sense because they're getting married.

What can ruin these love birds' mood? Robert is called to London and gets some bad news from his lawyer. That money he invested in a Canadian railroad line during the war? Most of it is gone. And by it, I mean most of Cora's fortune.

Lesson learned: Never invest in anything Canadian. Ever.

"I won't give in, Murray. I refuse to be the failure, the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out," Robert says.

Matthew won't care (he tells Mary that he doesn't have any desire to live in he "big house" and even says he won't be needing a valet — what!!). But Mary will.

Coincidentally, Matthew gets a letter from a lawyer saying that he was named the third heir to the fortune of Reggie Swire, Lavinia's brother. The first one died before Reggie, and the second is missing in India ... and ... you know where this is going. It's a lot of money, a huge amount. Translation: Enough to possibly save Downton when he hears about Robert's financial ruin.

Matthew tells Mary about Reggie's money right before Robert tells Cora about what happened. He cries, but Cora seems OK with it, OK with letting go of the Downton burden. "Don't worry about me. I'm an America. Have gun, will travel," she says with a laugh. Robert even laughs a little British laugh and thanks the lord that he has someone like Cora in his life. It all almost makes you forget Robert lusting over that maid last season.

Right before the wedding, Robert tells Mary about what's going on and she wastes no time in trying to convince Matthew to save Downton. It leads to Dramatic Matthew and Mary Confrontation No. 1 of the episode.

Matthew: "I don't think you understand. Reggie put me int he will because he thought I was Lavinia's one true love. How can I profit from her death?

Mary: "So you're prepared to destroy us in payment for you destroying her?"


Later, Mary says that all of this proves that "God Matthew, you're not on our side. That deep down, you're not on our side. Dramatic throwing off a letter to the floor ... and scene.

Will this be another end to Matthew and Mary? It appears that way, as Mary has Dramatic Moment No. 2 of the episode, when she gets up in the middle of dinner and cries and runs away.

Branson (who made it to the house with Sybil — again, more on this later), goes to talk to Matthew and urges him to marry Mary because they're meant to be together.

"You won't be happy with anyone else as long as Lady Mary walks the earth," he tells Matthew. Aw Branson. When you're not all radically political, you're very "Notebook."

Matthew agrees and rushes to Mary's room where he says what Branson told him and that he believes Mary feels the same. "Can I kiss you? Because I need to. Very much." Yeah, I was a sap for this scene.

Mary agrees but holds on to the superstition that the bride and groom cannot see each other before the wedding. So, with both eyes closed, they kiss, though Mary takes a peek to make sure Matthew isn't cheating. He's not and she smiles.

Marriage on! In a very touching scene, Mary walks down the Downton stairs and her father and Carson watch her, with their mouths wide open.

"Will I do, Carson?" she asks.

"Very nicely, my lady," he says.

The town all makes it out to applaud the carriage as Mary rides to the wedding. I know Downton employs them all and feeds them and whatnot, but did they even know Mary? Did they meet her and like her? Oh well.

All this and — major bone to pick — we don't actually see the vows exchanged?! Sure, we get to see Mary walk down the aisle and Matthew smile at her, but you'd think they would have let fans see the actual "I Do's."

Flash forward and the couple are returning from their honeymoon in the south of France — and with a fancy new car.

"How was the honeymoon?" Robert asks

"My eyes have been opened" Matthew responds

"Don't I know it" Robert replies.

Kind of sweet, but kind of eww.

Matthew wastes no time in telling Robert that he has heard about the financial difficulties. He also tells Robert about the Swire will, but that he can't take the money. Robert seems to understand.

While Matthew decides to carry on and look for a home for he and Mary, Mary decides to scheme to keep Downton. She and the dowager decide to ask Grandma Levinson for the cash (just when Matthew finds out that he definitely is now Reggie's heir), and the dowager does whatever she can to suck up to Martha. She even praises America and goes on about how strong the bond is between the Crawleys and the Levinsons.

Way to lay it on thick, dowager. Cora, for her part, doesn't think her mom should foot the Downton bill. Plus, she seems pleased to live in a more modest estate, telling her daughter that more people live in smaller houses and it will be fine. Of course.

"In my book, the countess of Grantham lives in Downton Abbey," Mary says. You can hear Cora tsk-tsking internally.

Mary's weird plan is — wait for it — to create a very lavish dinner to show her grandma how great they are and make her feel as though she could never deprive her granddaughter of such awesomeness. I must agree with Cora when she calls this plan an "undignified campaign."

Unfortunately, nothing goes right with the dinner. Matthew and Robert don't have the "right clothes" (Robert says he looks like a Chicago bootlegger ... in his tuxedo ... while Martha says he looks like he's dressed for a barbecue. Oh rich people. So quaint.).

Martha takes charge, making it a modern sort-of potluck thing, calling it an "indoor picnic." One guest's wonderful response: "It's exciting, Lord Grantham. I feel like one of those bright young people they write about in the newspapers."

Lady, you're just putting bread, cheese and meat on a plate and sitting wherever you like. Settle down.

When the dust clears, Martha says she cannot save Downton. "It's a shame it has to go," but her late husband tied the money down in such a way that the Crawleys can have no more of it. She later tells Robert that she can't rescue the place.

Her sage advice: "Some animals adapt to new surroundings. Seems a better choice than extinction."

So we're left not knowing (until the next episode, perhaps) what will happen to Downton. It's their fiscal cliff! Must they be forced to live in a small estate?! Must they?!


When we weren't dealing with money issues, we were dealing with Branson clashing with the family. "He strikes me as a very interesting addition to the family," says Isobel Crawley.

And he is. I kind of love Branson. He's interesting, fiery and irish — and devoted to Sybil in a lovely way. He stands up to those damned stuffy Crawleys from the moment he arrives.

Cora pauses a moment before she calls him "Tom," while Robert doesn't know at all what to say and Carson won't utter words to him. Off to a good start! Thomas and Carson even refuse to dress him for dinner. Come on, guys. The dude can't go all irish naked.

The first dinner with the Bransons is tense. Tom goes on about his country fighting for independence and how the king/monarchy is evil and how he won't change to please anyone!

"Is it true that Irish gardens have more variety than ours?" Cora hilariously says to break up the tension.

Carson is further infuriated when Branson uses Mary's first name, as in "Mary keeps us informed about Bates." Get off it, Carson. He's good guy.

Branson's  done with it all (who can blame in?) and wants to move to the pub while he's in town. "Don't make it easy for them," is Matthew's advice. "We're brothers-in-law with high-minded wives. We've got to stick together."

But things don't get easier. At another Dinner With the Uber Upper-Class, Branson is introduced to Larry Gray, who we learn once tried to court Sibyl. Yikes, this won't be good. Larry is a clod. He says he never thought he'd meet Branson in person, to which Branson replies, "As opposed to what? Spirit?" Love me some Branson.

A few more insults, and Larry is off to spike Branson's drink with something that makes him angry and drunk. Did this exist in 1920? If so, what was it called? Was it common for rich folk to amuse themselves by going to a shabby bar and make lower-class folks seem drunker than usual? So. Many. Questions.

Thankfully, Anthony Strallan (Edith's sort-of beau) calls Larry out for spiking the drink and Larry's dad yells at his son for his evil faux pas. As they get Branson to bed, Matthew surprises everyone by naming him his best man. I mean, he's doing so because his best friend can't make it, but still — nice job, Matthew!

I loved the Branson Makeover, done under the guidance of the dowager and Isobel. It was very "Pretty Woman," minus the prostitution and adding a dash of Irish suppression. They want him to wear a nice morning coat for the wedding and have one for him to try. "I see them as the uniform of oppression," he says.

"Are you quite finished?" replies the dowager countess. I should mention that we learn it was the dowager who sneakily sent Sibyl and Branson the money to come to the wedding (she made her servant sign the letter to keep it a secret). That dowager is full of surprises!

I'm excited to see more from Sybil and Branson. Here's hoping they stay around for a bit to continue to shake things up. But I'm guessing the rebellion will be calling. Still, he looked good in that morning coat.


Shirley MacLaine is all sorts of free-spirited and modern and sassy. She also talks like the modern-day, but I'll leave that alone. What's an issue with speech pattern when the dowager finally has a saucy counterpart?

She's basically there as a representation of modern life (for the 1920s). "Oh those English and their traditions! So passe!" That's basically what she says every minute.

"Come war and peace, Downton still stands and the Crawleys are still in it!" she says upon arrival, not at all bitter or mocking.

I also loved her dietary requirements: "goat's milk in the morning, only boiled water (while in England), no fats, no crab and nothing from the marrow family." Really.

Seeing her with the dowager is great. They need a spin-off now, maybe set in a New York apartment in 1925. "The Really Odd Rich Lady Couple," perhaps? Example: When the dowager says that the groom never sees the bride before the wedding, Martha says that "Nothing alters for you people, does it?

The dowager replies that, "You Americans never understand the power of tradition," but Martha says, "Yes we do. We just don't let it have power over us."

I imagine Levinson was practicing that line for the entire luxury-ship ride over the Atlantic.

The best line of the episode, from the dowager, of course: "She is like a homing pigeon," she says of Martha. "She finds our underbelly every time."


Edith is not ready to let go of Sir Anthony Strallan, even though he clearly is apprehensive about the whole thing. He's old, wounded, wussy and ... she's Edith.

Oh, Edith. If you feel the need to always say, "They say he's too old for me, but he's not!," he really is too old for you.

But she pursues him. All. The Time. She invites him to every party, forces him to come to the wedding, calls him a member of the family (how so, Edith. HOW SO?!). Desperate. Robert thinks it's time to put an end to this, so, on the dowager's urging, he tells Strallan to back off, politely.

He does it in a letter (haha, poor Edith), and Edith sees it as her father's doing. She basically begs her dad to change his mind, so he relents. Hey, you've got to give Edith some love once in awhile.

Late in the episode, Edith jumps at the chance to marry the dude — she can even have it planned in a month! Great!

So she's happy, but I'm giving her a five because of the things people said to her this episode.

When she tells Strallan that she's exhausted from all of Mary's wedding planning, Strallan says, "Yes, weddings can be reminders of one's loneliness can't they?" HA!

When Martha Levinson arrives, she sees Edith and instantly says, "Edith, still no one special? Oh well, nevermind. You must take a tip from the modern American girl."

Edith is so deep-down sad that one her sister's wedding day, all she can say to Mary about Matthew is, "Love and position in one handsome package. Who can ask for more?"



Away from the drama is  Bates, still in jail after being convicted of murdering his wife. It seems like all Anna can do is visit him often and try to do a little detective work.

She finds Vera's journal, takes down some names of acquaintances and family members, anyone who might shed any type of light and does her very best to figure things out. She eventually finds one name who might help: a Mrs. Bartlett, who Bates IDs as one of Vera's closet friends.

Anna, you see, doesn't believe Mrs. Bates wouldn't have told anyone that she was going to kill herself (which is what she thinks really happened, so Vera could pin it on Mr. Bates to punish him forever). Maybe this Bartlett has some clues.

Meanwhile, let's just say that Bates is not getting along with his new cellmate, who cowers in the corner of the cell and hates on Bates for some reason. Later, Bates sees him take some money from a guard, and says he won't say anything.

But when the cellmate says he'll "cut" Bates if he does, Bates takes to opportunity to shove him in the corner and threaten him.

On the bright side, Anna bought a nice French garter for herself (and Bates) when she accompanied Matthew and Mary on their honeymoon. So ... that's nice.


No one seems to be happy in the servants' area. In an annoying subplot, Daisy is so fed up with not being named the cook's assistant that she does some sort of weird strike and refuses to help Mrs. Patmore.

Eventually, she stops. And helps out. Because she's Daisy.

Meanwhile, O'Brien brings in her nephew Alfred as the new Ginger Footman. He struggles — with everything. And when O'Brien asks Thomas to help mentor him, Thomas refuses because he, you know, hates helping people.

So Thomas decides to mess with Alfred. He deliberately "teaches" him how to mend one of Matthew's coat tails, which leads to him burning a hole in them. That Alfred shouldn't be able to work his way up so easily, according to Thomas. Because he's a sicko.

O'Brien figures out what Thomas is up to, so she gets revenge by hiding some of Robert's shirts (she has help from Levinson's maid, who's keen on Alfred), so the lordship gets mad at Thomas. Oh, snap. An O'Brien-Thomas war is brewing.


I love me some Mrs. Hughes almost as much as I do Branson, so it was heart-breaking to watch her find a lump in her breast.

Mrs. Patmore accompanies her to the hospital, where the Downton Doc says he'll drain some fluid to see what's going on. Later, he says the test was inconclusive. There's traces of blood in the fluid, but not enough to conclude that it's cancer, but he also can't exclude it. It'll take two months for lab tests to determine what's going on (can you imagine that wait?).

Meanwhile, the doctor urges her to sit down and put her feet up if she can. Riiiight.

Hughes refuses to tell Carson what's going on, and why she has slowed down a bit. She won't even let Mrs. Patmore tell him. She's selfless, that Mrs. Hughes. And so the episode ends on a down note.

"One day I will die," says Hughes. "And so will he. And you. And every one of us under this roof. You must put these things in proportion, Mrs. Patmore. And I think I can do that now."

She turns off the light. Sniff!


Understatement of the night: "Are you not popular downstairs?" Robert to Thomas.

Biggest surprise reappearance: Ethel, who was impregnated by a wounded soldier at Downton last year, visits Isobel Crawley, who's now working with prostitutes to better their lives. Anyone else tired of the Ethel subplot? I'm assuming everyone's hand is raised. Cool. 

Best Dowager Countess burn:

DC: [To Cora]: "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?"
DC: "Exactly."

NOT LIKELY SEEN ON THE NEXT SAT ENGLISH SECTION: "An aristocrat without servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer" — the dowager countess

BEST EXAMPLE OF FLIRTING, 1920S-STYLE: Mary: "Are you looking forward to the wedding?" Matthew: "I'm looking forward to all sorts of things." Mary: "Don't make me blush."


WHAT EVERY DAD SHOULD TELL HIS DAUGHTER ON HER WEDDING DAY: "I'm so happy, so very happy, I feel my chest will explode."

I'D THINK SHE'D WANT AN OLD FASHIONED: The dowager countess, when offered one of those "new cocktails": "No, thank you. They look too exciting for so early in the evening."

MOST DISTRACTING CAMEO: Mrs. Levinson's maid's weird eyebrows.