Reviewer: Charity Bishop
After being criticized for his "soapy" second season of the British television series, Julian Fellowes takes us back to a much slower pace in Downton, full of the lovely little things that made the first season so delightful. Then, he throws two unexpected deaths into the mix and absolutely ruins it.
The wedding day of Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) rapidly approaches and the house is in a dither, preparing for the ceremony. But just when it seems happiness will be theirs at last, devastating news arrives for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). His investments have gone south and the family money with it, leaving him with a mountain of debts, an enormous responsibility to the locals, and a mother-in-law soon to descend upon them. Meanwhile, Edith (Laura Carmichael) continues in her single-minded pursuit of Lord Strallon, an older widower in the district flattered but somewhat intimidated by her romantic overtures. Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) is married, pregnant and living a live of impoverished socialism in Ireland, with her chauffer-husband Tom (Allen Leech).
Below stairs, the kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) is perturbed that she's still doing the same chores as she was before. Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is dogged in her determination to get her husband (Brendan Coyle) released from prison. Carson (Jim Carter) is frustrated that they still haven't hired two new footmen. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) is determined to get her nephew hired in the position, which brings a new level of romantic tension to the house -- Alfred is over six feet tall and socially awkward. Then comes dreadful discoveries for Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan)... and a disagreement between Mary and Matthew that threatens the wedding and... it's another season of Downton Abbey.
Criticisms of this series' predictability and tired plot twists notwithstanding, this season is less problematic with its twists than previous ones. But we still can't escape the never-ending drudgery of poor Edith, who is thwarted at every turn. I sincerely hope the writer gives her a break someday! Just when one possibility of future happiness turns up, Fellowes throws in a plot twist right out of a Bronte novel to further complicate her life. There's also a redundancy and lack of clarity in certain plot twists (such as Anna's sudden realization of Vera Bates' motives, which were obvious to us all last season). I never did figure out what the prison guard and Bates' cell mate had against him. And don't even get me started on the awful death in the final episode, two minutes before the end. Is it too much to ask for a happy conclusion? I'm not even sure I'll return for a fourth season.
As always, the acting is magnificent and this season there's a lot to work with emotionally, from two horrific deaths to near financial disaster and the arrival of a newborn to Downton. Maggie Smith is given all the best lines but the flirtations between Matthew and Mary are delightful to watch. In fact, there's one sneaked kiss in the first episode that is particularly fun. But in spite of its strengths, modernization does rear its ugly head in the handling of Thomas's homosexuality, in the final episode. For a time period in which that was a prison offense, almost everyone downstairs (and up) is surprisingly forgiving. If it is an attempt to inform the audience how unfair society was to homosexuals at that time, it somewhat undermines its message by making Thomas the "victim." After three seasons of hating him, when Thomas denies that he is "vile" to Carson, we can't help but shake our heads. He's been vile from the start -- and it has nothing to do with his sexuality.
Innuendo between an engaged/married couple; a reference to an extra-marital affair; conversation refers to a woman working as a prostitute; a gay man kisses another man awake (episode 7); references to homosexuality being a prison offense.
Mild abuses of deity and a few profanities.
Prison scare tactics (threats, rough-housing); we see a dead man under a totaled car.