If you want to know why I love Downton Abbey – and let’s be honest here: I love Downton Abbey – its third season premiere has you covered with a single kiss.
The staging was impeccably considered. Dark-suited, blond-haired Matthew talking over his own shoulder on the left side of the frame; pale-skinned, white-clad, raven-haired Mary huddled to the right side – a yin-yang shot composition swirling you toward the imagined center where they’ll meet at last.
Filling the frame behind them are the warren-like spaces of Downton Abbey, all dark wood and lamplight; the show is brilliantly careful to populate virtually every shot of its vast setting’s rooms and corridors with both warm light and warm bodies, visually linking the house, the human beings who live and work there, and the literal and metaphorical light that guides them.
The visual contrast echoed the emotional one: Mary, her hair down, her face drawn and darkened by crying, dressed in a diaphanous nightgown, using the cold logic of their presumed incompatibility to push Matthew away; Matthew, clean and crisp and sparkle-eyed in his jacket and tie, repressing a smile because the emotional truth of his love for her is so undeniable. “I would never be happy with anyone else as long as you walked the earth,” he tells her, expressing the essence of love as clearly as I’ve ever heard it done (although Daniel Clowes came very close).
Symbiotic to the last, Matthew’s confident reserve breaks down right at the same time Mary’s builds back up: “Can I kiss you?” he asks, tilting his head and eyes upward in lovestruck desperation. “‘Cuz I need to. Very much.” Mary objects, citing the bad luck of seeing the bride before the wedding; Matthew finds a loophole, suggesting they both keep their eyes closed the whole time; Mary, back in charge, relents with a tilt of her head and the funniest reluctant-romance sigh of “all right” since GoodFellas’ R-rated variation on the theme.
With the atmosphere of intimacy – the lighting, the characters’ posture, their vulnerable and desperate and sugar-sweet dialogue, Michelle Dockery’s pillow-soft voice – already so tangible you feel like you could reach out and stroke its hair, the run-up to the kiss itself enriches it even further. We watch from behind Mary’s turned back, waiting for Matthew to emerge from around the door, a big open space on the right side of the frame calling attention to where we know he’ll pop out any second, like a romantic remix of a slasher-movie attack. With their eyes closed their approach is even slower than normal, slowing time to a standstill and heightening all the remaining senses.
Finally, the strings swell, Mary tentatively finds Matthew’s smiling face with her fingers, and they kiss. *Swoooooooon.* I melted, I’m telling you, melted. I felt like society tells us that girls feel about these things. I understood why Lady Mary disobeyed her own command not to cheat and opened her eyes, so that she could record and preserve the moment in her mind – so that she could verify that it was actually happening. It was the most romantic kiss I’ve ever seen on screen. I never wanted it to end.
These are the pleasures of Downton Abbey, writer/creator/Tory member of the House of Lords Julian Fellowes’ superswanky soap opera: the pleasures of the sensual world. The volume of acclaim directed at the show in its first breakthrough season could lead you to believe you were getting ready to watch a rigorous examination of class and gender in early 20thcentury England: The Wire UK, with masters and servants replacing cops and gangsters, or Before Mad Men, with the aristocracy replacing advertising. What you get instead is a soap opera, and this episode is soapy as all get-out: Bates is imprisoned, Sybil brings home the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Father conspires to keep Edith and her true love apart, Mrs. Hughes has a cancer scare, Thomas and O’Brien sabotage one another, Robert loses his fortune again, various grand dames get catty with one another, and so on.
Yeah, soap opera it may be. But it’s the most meticulously and beautifully crafted soap opera ever made. The craft, the casting, the performances, the attention to detail, the ability to get to the heart of its relationships when it counts – they elevate the rapid-fire reversals and overheated emotion of the story to the level of Great Television by sheer dogged workmanship.
Going through the episode, you can list specific emotion and sensation after specific emotion and sensation that they got exactly right. The romance is a big part of it, and the aching dependence on another person beneath the romance: the way Matthew and Mary lounge in bed wrestling with their disagreements because no one else’s opinions outside that bed really matter, say, or the way the villagers lining the streets and cheering for Mary on the way to her wedding are reflected in her beatific smile, because joy has a way of transforming the entire world into your cheering section.
On the flipside, I loved how the show portrayed the Crawley’s self-conception as Romneyesque “job creators.” There’s no possible way for them to see themselves as anything less than essential to everyone they know. Mrs. Patmore’s take on being “essential” is far more sanguine, and more familiar to the 99%: “We’re all essential, till we get sacked.”
That’s just one of several genuinely sad elements of the episode; Branson’s admirable inability to derive any pleasure from his improved station in life, and the tension that causes between him and his former coworkers as well as his new family, is another. I’ve been a bit squeamish about how the show plays the conflict between England and Ireland for laughs – not that I wasn’t laughing myself as Branson screamed comparisons between the King and the Kaiser across the dinner table, or at Lord Robert’s “yeah, that’ll work” facial expression when Cora tries to change the subject by asking about the diversity of Irish gardens – but kudos to actor Allen Leech for playing the guy as someone who knows his life would be easier without his personal and political conscience, but also much poorer.
Similarly honest about its underlying melancholy is the story of Edith’s love for Sir Anthony. In part, it’s genuine affection between two good-hearted but overlooked people, but a pair of powerful lines underscore the trauma underneath: “Your daughter is sad and lonely, Robert,” says Shirley MacLaine as Lady Cora’s richer-than-God American mother Martha Levinson, pointing to the life of aimless boring leisure to which Edith is confined by England’s hidebound class and gender system. This is followed by Edith’s own unanswerable demand, “How can you not like him because of his age when almost every young man we grew up with is dead?”, giving rare voice to the unspoken horrors the country just emerged from. Complain if you want about the sudsy storylines, but there’s rock-solid writing beneath those tiny bubbles.
That’s why MacLaine/Martha was a minor but definite disappointment: She simply hit notes the show had already nailed. Her hamfisted attempts at bon mots and putdowns – when she said to Mary, “You tell me all of your wedding plans and I’ll see what I can do to improve them,” you could practically hear the “pause for laughter” stage instructions afterwards – paled in comparison to the Dowager Countess’ ruthlessly funny rearguard action against anything that threatens her family’s way of life. (My favorite in this episode: a tie between her refusal to try the new cocktails because “they look too exciting for so early in the evening,” and the way she reacted to Martha’s serenading by bugging out her eyes and rearing back her head like a startled housecat.) And Martha’s opposition to tradition felt less like progressivism and more like trolling: As opposed to, say, Sybil or Isobel, who are genuinely interested in improving lives by casting off restrictive conventions, Martha’s constant invocation of her Americanness was more like lame stand-up comedy – you know, “English people be like this, but Americans be like this.“ It’s a rare example of over-broad character work on a show where the plot gets all rollercoastery but the people keep their arms inside the vehicle at all times.
I said minor, though, and I meant it. In the main, from the opening swirl of the theme music forward, this is just such a fun show to watch, a you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry cocktail exciting enough for any time in the evening. Downton‘s not a meal, it’s a dessert – one of the tastiest. And this two-hour premiere was a delicious, diabetes-inducing double helping.