The Best and Worst of ‘Downton Abbey: Season 3’

Poor Tommy...

Poor Tommy…

If you haven’t watched the season finale of Downton Abbey or read our recap of the episode, then do not keep reading y’all. DO NOT.

Just stop. Seriously. There are major spoilers ahead.

Still here? Then I guess you’ve seen it all, and honey, it’s time to talk.

It’s been a very strange year to be an American fan of Downton Abbey. Instead of just being able to sit back and enjoy the show, we Yanks have been forced to play a cat-and-mouse game. Since season 3 aired late last year in England and didn’t arrive here until several months later, those of us who are tech-savvy and/or aware of internet gossip had two options if we wanted to watch without spoilers. We could bootleg episodes and watch them in a dark corner, tucked away from Johnny Law, but that meant not discussing the show with our American friends for months, lest we spoil their fun when the show actually aired in America. Or we could do what I did: Watch the series as it aired in the States, and spend months carefully avoiding articles, tweets, and Facebook postings.

Magically, I managed to see the entire season this year without getting spoiled on anything major. I mean… I knew Dan Stevens wasn’t coming back, but I wasn’t exactly sure of the circumstances. And I didn’t know Sybil was going to die at all. 

Still, unless you’re not the kind of person who reads about TV online, it’s gotten harder just to innocently enjoy the show. All that extra bobbing and weaving is kind of exhausting, and it doesn’t help when the damn New York Times runs an article in December called “Dan Stevens Has Something to Say About ’Downton Abbey,” which basically tells you something’s up. In this climate, I’m especially glad I’m still a fan of The Office. Huge things are happening in its final season, but since online writers don’t care about that show anymore, it’s easy not to get spoiled. It’s bliss!

But back to Downton: Ultimately, despite all the hard work, Season 3 was worth the effort. Unlike Season 2, which got bogged down by endless distractions from WWI, a ludicrous subplot about Matthew’s possibly broken penis, and far too much snoozy stuff about Anna and Bates, this series kept things rolling with more surprising and thoughtful plotlines. Sure, Anna and Bates remained the most boring couple in history and all of that intrigue about the crooked prison guard added up to nothing, but to balance that, we had Thomas’ aching attempt to find gay love and the subsequent reactions from the rest of the house. I actually loved that Mr. Carson wasn’t just okay with it all: It makes sense for a man like that in a time like that—when homosexuality was illegal in the UK—to be disgusted. As creator-writer Julian Fellowes said, there was no point putting a modern attitude on it.

Meanwhile, Branson’s move through the social ranks, Sybil’s death, the fall and rise of Ethel the Former Hooker, the evolving awesomeness of O’Brien and Mrs. Patmore, Lady Edith’s love and writing, and the surprisingly engrossing struggle to make Downton a modern estate all felt fresh and alive. And naturally, the Dowager Countess was there to splash some sass over everything.

My only deep disappointment, really, was the handling of Matthew’s death. He kicked it in the very last scene of the season, after a terrible car crash, and I understand that Fellowes was kind of trapped, since Stevens didn’t want to renew his contract. But was it necessary to make everything so damn melodramatic? Did we need the pre-death scenes of Matthew and Lord Grantham saying, “I love everything! We’ve finally got some happiness!” Did we need it underlined like that? Because we’ve got it, y’all. Matthew’s death isn’t going to be fun for anyone. And did Mary really need to become such a Charisma Uniqueness Nerve and Talent in this episode, refusing to tell Matthew she loves him as he’s sitting there pouring his heart out over their new baby? Sure, that gives Mary more to feel guilty about next year—“Why wasn’t I tender when I had the chance?”—but was it believable? She’s never been that withholding with Matthew, even in the years when they weren’t allowed to date.

But really, my negative comments are small quibbles. By and large, this was a fantastic run of episodes that gave more meat and nuance to the show without sacrificing any of the lighthearted wit that sets it apart from your typical period piece. Even if I have to watch Season 4 via an illegal British satellite feed that I can only pick up on my toaster oven, I’m ready to do it.

Mark Blankenship wants to Thomas to get some booty next season, but he understands it may not be possible. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.