It’s no reputation-ruining secret that Downton Abbey is a glorified soap opera. Even during its exceptional first season, you couldn’t help but feel like you were watching Desperate Countesses. The writing can be predicable, plot points are frequently too tidily resolved while others outstay their welcome, and co-creator and writer Julian Fellowes has a bad habit of recapping context via dialogue, often about things that just happened in the previous episode. But there’s also an economy of language that feels satisfyingly authentic, particularly with dialogue that ostensibly captures the period decorum of aristocrats living in the early 20th century. And the ensemble elevates what might otherwise be archetypal caricatures into fully formed—and fully flawed—human beings.
Maggie Smith, as Lady Violet, the Dowager of Grantham, refuses to let one syllable of Fellowes’s dialogue go to waste, deliciously delivering a minimum of one laugh-out-loud quip per episode. As Mrs. Patmore, the titular estate’s head cook, Lesley Nicol likewise savors her zingers. But several of the other cast members are content to offer subtler readings of their characters: Siobhan Finneran smartly doesn’t overplay her hand as scheming lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien, keeping the motives behind her spite for almost everyone around her close to the chest, while Michelle Dockery, as Lady Mary, valiantly shoulders the burden of representing both the pre-war and post-war clash of values that marks season one and three of the series. (That you never know which side Mary will come down on in any given issue is both her charm and her biggest character flaw.)
That battle between orthodoxy and progress has always been a core theme of Downton Abbey, but it defines every episode of the show’s latest season. While the tradition of married women eating breakfast in bed, for example, has been a curious class detail throughout the series, its silliness comes to the fore when middle child Edith (Laura Carmichael) gets jilted at the altar by her much older suitor and continues to dine with the men of the family each morning. Youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) blazed the progressive trail for the Crawley sisters, but Edith’s burgeoning feminism takes center stage here. She’s bolstered to take a job at a newspaper in London by her American grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, who, disappointingly, seems out of her depth as a worthy foil for Smith. (As Lady Grantham, Elizabeth McGovern better embodies the American influence, gently nudging her family into the 20th century, though she maddeningly delivers 90 percent of her lines with a pout, like she’s admonishing some invisible toddler that only she can see.)
Though the men certainly live up to their period-appropriate misogyny, the most striking display of sexism comes from the women themselves. After former housemaid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is forced into prostitution to support her fatherless child, everyone from Lady Violet to the other female servants shun her. Except, of course, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), who’s taken a job rehabilitating “women who degrade themselves” and who hires Ethel as her new housemaid and cook—much to the chagrin, of course, of Violet.
The series addresses gays less deftly. While footman Thomas’s (Rob James-Collier) homosexuality was revealed way back in season one, it’s been dealt with dubiously, if at all, until now. The character’s sexuality goes a long way in explaining his less than sunny disposition, but the reactions it elicits seem shockingly liberal. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)—at best, a man married to the conventions of the past, particularly when it comes to women—refers to his valet’s sexuality as a “choice” and goes out of his way to save the man’s job at Downton. Even butler Carson’s (Jim Carter) bigotry is oddly progressive for 1920: “You have been twisted by nature into something foul,” he says rather generously.
Downton Abbey thrives when tackling plotlines that are confined to the personal and social conflicts of the estate, both upstairs and downstairs. The politics of inheritance don’t exactly sound like the makings of an engaging drama, but juxtaposed with the scrambling for position among the hierarchy of the staff downstairs, it made for an incisive social critique during season one. Like Mad Men, historical touchstones provide an intriguing backdrop, but when those elements take over, like World War I did during the second season, it falls flat. Death abounded due to the war, but the subject is handled more thoughtfully late in the third season when it literally hits home for the Crawleys in a pair of harrowing and beautifully acted episodes.
John Bates (Brendan Coyle), wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife, has always been an insufferable martyr of a character (his prison cellmate rightly calls him “pious”), but thankfully that subplot now appears to be resolved. While previous seasons spanned three or four years, creating jarring gaps in time, season three takes place entirely in 1920, making for a more compact, linear storyline. The season begins with Lord Grantham losing his wife’s fortune to a bad railway investment and ends with, among other things, the family reluctantly being thrust into the roaring 20s when Violet’s great niece, Rose (Lily James), sneaks away to meet her married lover at a jazz club in London. The finale often feels like it was written by Marc Cherry (what Bates whispers into O’Brien’s ear at one point pretty much sums it up), but it’s a brave new world for the residents of Downton, and, luckily for us, some of them insist on being dragged into it kicking and screaming.