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Downton Abbey Season 3 Episode 1: Shirley MacLaine, a Wedding, and a Whole Lot of Love

Going from the twinkle light evenings of late December to the joyless mornings of January can be tough for even the most unfailing of optimists. However, if you watched the season premiere of Downton Abbey Sunday night, you might have woken up today feeling that the world is one big twinkle light and it's the color of Dan Stevens' eyes. The two-hour love fest was one of the most uplifting installments of a TV show that is profoundly good-natured. Even while the family is threatened with financial ruin, the relationships under that gigantic roof are as strong as ever. Warning, spoilers ahead.

When a TV show works, it’s because there is something beyond actors, plus scripts, plus setting that brings it to life. Downton has this magic ingredient in spades and, in my opinion, it’s all down to the detail. Each character, from the Earl of Grantham to the lowliest kitchen maid, is drawn so lovingly and so convincingly that everyone’s motivations are clear. Unlike Mad Men (another show with the special ingredient), Downton Abbey can make you feel better about humanity without sacrificing credibility. No small feat.

Sunday night’s episode was like watching your favorite band play only the hits: the Dowager Countess’ tongue was sharpened to a rapier edge, Edith laid it on thick with the bunny-boiler behavior, lots of Mrs. Patmore harrumphing in the kitchen (God bless that woman). If Carson’s awe-stricken expression at the sight of Lady Mary in her wedding gown didn’t make you melt, then you should have your heart examined. Mary and Matthew got married with trademark flair and drama. Our knees buckled when Matthew said, “I could never be happy with anyone else while you walked the earth.” Boys, if you’re listening, jot that one down for later. Surprisingly, as I’ve always admired Mary’s emotional detachment, last night I was hoping that she would soften a bit for married life. She has an excellent example in her own mother — Cora is always a tower of strength and love without being wilting or subservient. The only subplot that dragged in last night’s episode was the ongoing Bates sturm and drang. How long can this one-note misery carry on?

In case you missed the message that was about as subtle as sky-writing, Downton is in turmoil and not just because Mrs. Hughes forgot the pudding wine glasses. Last night, the line was drawn in the sand between the characters that are embracing the post-war realities and those that cling to the old order even as it’s disappearing. In Season 1, when Lord Grantham was going to lose the house because he had no male heir, it was unthinkable. Now, we know that this family can weather anything. Here’s to hoping! 

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