February 18, 2013



The gap between British and US airings of DOWNTON ABBEY gives rise to some dislocations.  The series airs each fall in England, but PBS holds it for January-February because it doesn’t want to compete with the start of the new network season here.  (Although at this point the Downton audience is so large and loyal, it’s hard to believe they’d desert in favor of Revenge.)  By the time episodes reach PBS, key plot turns tend to become open secrets (however, SPOILER ALERT for those who’ve managed to remain uninfected till now).  Also, the British season airs as a block of consecutive episodes, and then after several weeks of hiatus, a semi-standalone “holiday special”.  So the episode that aired here last week was the conclusion of Season 3 proper, which explains why plotlines were mostly wrapped up there.  Last night’s final 90 minutes (followed by an extended PBS pledge break) was the epilogue, taking place a year later and set off-grounds at a (splendidly photographed) estate in Scotland.

The major lesson of Season 3:  beware of childbirth.  Even if the rigors of labor don’t kill the mother, as they did Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), a random automobile accident may smite the father after he’s barely managed to see his beloved Lady Mary (Michele Dockery) and meet his new son.  That was what befell Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), which sets the stage for yet more mourning in the already-ordered Season 4.  (In real life, both Findlay and Stevens wanted out of the show, and British TV contracts–which pay far less than the American kind–tie actors up for a shorter period of time.)   It may be best for everyone that Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) seems about to embark on a (technically) adulterous relationship with her newspaper editor, husband of a hopelessly deranged woman who can’t give him a divorce, and will presumably do whatever she can to avoid pregnancy.  However, one must fear for Rose (Lily James), the wild child daughter of Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) cousin, who’s about to fill the need for nubile daughters at Downton by becoming a surrogate offspring while her parents endure a diplomatic posting in India. If this were an American high school TV show, Rose would absolutely be Most Likely To Become An Unwed Mother.

Overall, Season 3 of Downton (the finale, like most of the season’s episodes, was written by series creator Julian Fellowes himself) was sturdier than Season 2.  There were no egregious plot missteps like last year’s Canadian fake cousin, and the show’s focus stuck to its core, concentrating on the family and staff.  The long, not entirely comprehensible struggle to free Bates (Brendan Coyle) from his prison sentence for murder felt extraneous more often than not, but at least in this finale episode, we were able to see Bates and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) happy for the entire 90 minutes, possibly the longest those two have gone without hardship or tragedy in the history of the series.  The show successfully humanized the previously odious Thomas (Rob James-Collier), by making him the victim of O’Brien’s (Siobhan Finneran) long con that Jimmy (Ed Speleers) returned his forbidden affections.  The story arc of Branson (Allen Leech) was also effectively played out, as he shifted from left-wing chauffeur to Sybil’s loving husband, then from her stunned widower to the Downton estate manager, and while he was taken aback by the romantic interest of short-term maid Edna (Myanna Buring) in the finale, it seems safe to assume he’ll be back on the romantic market next season.

It was a particularly strong season for Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern).  Cora had much more substance than she’s had in previous years, particularly in the episodes concerning Sybil’s death, and McGovern and Bonneville played beautifully together.  Maggie Smith, of course, is Maggie Smith, and if Fellowes sometimes leans too often on the Dowager Countess’ snark to put the neat button on a scene, well, who can blame him?  Fellowes does a masterful job juggling a huge numbers of players throughout the season’s hours, giving just about everyone a chance to shine at one point or another, whether it’s Mrs. Hughes’ (Phyllis Logan) health scare, Mrs. Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) failed romance or Carson’s (Jim Carter) intolerance of Thomas’ homosexuality (surprisingly contrasted with the Earl’s easygoing attitude) and his bond with Lady Mary.  Dockery, happily married all season, was subdued compared to prior years, but will undoubtedly have stronger material in Season 4 as a newly-widowed mother.

Downton Abbey is the highest-class comfort food of current television, the aristocratic equivalent of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Assuming the whole cast doesn’t demand the death of their characters en masse, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t provide content for many PBS pledge drives to come.  All one would ask, in this age so much more technologically advanced than that of Downton itself, is that PBS and the British producers figure out a way to air the series more synchronously in the future.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."