Americans have long held a special fascination with Great Britain's royalty and class-structured society, and the latest example of this fetish is the huge ratings racked up by British import, Downton Abbey. The show, which focuses on the interplay between the landed gentry Crawley family and their retinue of servants at their country estate, the namesake Downton Abbey, during the early part of the 20th century. PBS just finished airing the third season of the series this week and dealt viewers several shocking turns; here are five of the biggest.
Spoiler Alert! Okay, it should go without saying that the following article will reveal some of the biggest plot points of season 3, so if you haven't finished the season yet, but still plan to and want to have a few surprises, then bookmark this for reading later. Don't say I didn't warn you.
1. The Death Of Lady Sybil
The youngest of the Crawley daughters seemed to be playing out her own version of Romeo and Juliet, taking off for exile in Ireland with her would-be revolutionary lover, Downton's former chauffeur Thomas Branson, at the end of season two. The return of the now-pregnant Sybil to Downton, with husband Branson in tow, provided one of the more interesting storylines in the first half of Season Three as the Crawley’s tried to adjust to having “Tom” as a member of the family, and Branson dealt with the odd separation he now felt from the household staff.
Writer Julian Fellowes ratcheted up the tension as Sybil's delivery day approached, with Lord Grantham bringing in a rigid upper class doctor, Sir Philip Tapsel, who butted heads with venerable local physician Dr. Clarkson over a treatment for potentially dangerous medical condition that Sybil may or may not be suffering from. Her delivery of a baby girl seemed to provide a welcome relief to the fight between the doctors. And then Sybil went into a violent convulsion – as Dr. Clarkson warned she would – and died. It was an absolutely stunning turn of events that robbed the family, and the series, of one of its most endearing characters.
2. Everyone Was Surprisingly OK With Thomas Being Gay
It was a scene straight out of a romance novel: after months of flirtation, Lord Grantham's valet Thomas Barrow burst into the room of the cheeky new footman Jimmy Kent to consummate their relationship. Unfortunately for Thomas, Jimmy wanted no part of it. While Thomas' homosexuality was an open secret among the downstairs staff at Downton, the encounter with Jimmy thrust it into the spotlight. And by and large, everyone was surprisingly OK with it. Yes, there was the scandal that threatened Thomas' job, but this was manufactured by Thomas' confidant-turned-rival O'Brien who agitated Jimmy into trying to get Thomas fired (initially Jimmy was pretty blasé about Thomas' solicitation).
Thomas told head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes that she would be “shocked” by his depravity, she wasn't; nor was his long-time rival Mr. Bates, who helped him to save his job; Lord Grantham even had a hilarious line about how if he got into a fight every time someone made a pass at him at Eton [the famous British boy's school], he'd never get anything done.
3. Matthew, Branson, and Lord Grantham Get Down to Business
Lord Grantham's failure as a businessman and his subsequent bankrupting of the estate dominated the early part of season 3. The storyline echoed the fate that befell many of Britain's great houses – like the fictional Downton Abbey – which found themselves to be anachronisms of an earlier time in post-WWI Great Britain, and expensive white elephants that the landed gentry could no longer afford to maintain. Downton was saved by Matthew's well-timed, and unexpected, inheritance.
But Matthew insisted on reforming the way that Downton was run, which led to this conflict scene in Episode 7. What made the scene so significant was the juxtaposition of Branson and Lord Grantham: Branson, the avowed socialist, backed Matthew's plan to make Downton profitable, even if that meant displacing some of the estate's tenant farmers; meanwhile Lord Grantham, a confirmed member of the 1%, advocated for the estate's role in providing financial support to their tenants, even if this came at the expense of profit for the estate. It was an odd reversal of roles and one that made this scene so memorable.
4. The Death Of Matthew Crawley
By the time season 3 aired in the U.S., it had been well-publicized that Dan Stevens, the actor who played Matthew, did not want to return for a fourth season, so we knew that Matthew would have to leave Downton by the end of the season. Early on, it seemed like Matthew's exit could simply be through a divorce from Lady Mary as their relationship steadily eroded. But by mid-season, they had patched things up, which indicated that Matthew would be meeting a bad end.
Having killed Lady Sybil off just a few episodes earlier, staging the death of Matthew posed a challenge for writer Jullian Fellowes – how do you handle the death of another main character? The final episode of the season concluded with the beaming Matthew driving his roadster down an idyllic English country lane from the hospital where Lady Mary had just given birth to his son, back to his adopted home Downton, and then straight into a delivery truck cresting a hill on the one-lane road. The viewers saw a close-up of the now lifeless face of Matthew, cut to black, see you in season 4. It left the viewer, to use a British idiom, feeling utterly gutted.
5. The Battle Of the Grandmothers
Heading into season 3, much was made about the upcoming appearance of actress Shirley MacLaine, who would do a turn as Cora Crawley's American mother Martha Levine, and who would share the screen with Maggie Smith, the renowned scene-stealing, acid-tongued matriarch of Downton, the Dowager Countess Crawley. The reality was fairly mediocre. MacLaine appeared as a guest star in only the first two episodes, and had few scenes with Smith. Much of their storyline revolved around the Dowager Countess and Lady Mary's attempts to lay their hands on Crowley's fortune to prop up the bankrupt Abbey. MacLaine and Smith did have a few golden moments, but on the whole, the Battle of the Grandmothers failed to live up to the pre-season hype.
So what's next for Downton? We'll have to wait at least a year to find out, filming of season 4 only began earlier this month. But Downton Abbey proved this season to be one of those rarities in television, where season 3 was better than season 2, so it will likely be worth the wait.