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‘Downton Abbey’ recap: For richer but mostly for poorer

Oh, “Downton Abbey,” it’s good to have you back.

Fans – at least those with a healthy respect for copyright law -- have waited patiently since March for the return of the embattled Crawley family. It’s been a long hiatus, but on the bright side, this is not a show that wastes time getting into the action. True to form, Sunday’s Season 3 premiere introduced close to half a dozen new plot developments in less than the time it takes Mrs. Patmore to whip up one of her famed soufflés.

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In quick succession, we learn that Lord Grantham has lost Cora’s fortune in some botched Canadian railroad investments and that – wouldn’t you know it? – Dear Cousin Matthew, the world’s most accomplished accidental heir, may just be in line to inherit a vast sum of money from Reggie Swire, father of poor, dead Lavinia. Despite his talent for stumbling into great wealth, Matthew also expresses his hopes to live a simpler life once he and Mary are married. He’s just a middle-class lad after all.

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Cora, who has apparently been popping on the 1920s version of Xanax (sherry?), is surprisingly unfazed by the news of her family’s impoverishment. Mary, however, doesn’t take it well, nor is she happy about Matthew’s reluctance to accept Reggie’s (possible) inheritance. No more saintly bedpan emptying for our Lady Mary. She’s back to her feisty, prewar ways, and for that we can thank god (or Julian Fellowes). The truly miraculous thing about Michelle Dockery’s performance is that she somehow makes Mary’s money-grubbing entitlement seem not just sympathetic but somehow right.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it is. “Downton Abbey” appears to have returned to form after an excessively soapy second season, largely by rehashing plots from the first. Even Martha Levinson, Cora’s brash American mother (played by Shirley MacLaine) in some ways is just a more extreme version of Isobel. Her main purpose is to serve as a foil for Violet, which she does quite well: Though Martha doesn’t crackle yet as a character, she certainly brings out the very best in the Dowager Countess, whose tongue has never been sharper. (My personal favorite Violet zinger was her bewildered response to Grantham’s black tie ensemble, “I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter.”)

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Like Isobel and Matthew before her, Martha is here to constantly question the lavish and increasingly antiquated Downton Abbey lifestyle, but she is different from Isobel in two fundamental ways. She’s both obscenely wealthy and American, which means she gets far more leeway to say and do exactly what she wants – even calling Lord Grantham “Robert.” She’s also nobody’s fool, and doesn’t fall for Violet and Mary’s spectacularly failed plot to get her to give her money to Downton.

The conflicts below stairs also have a familiar ring to them: Thomas continues to sabotage his fellow servants; Mrs. Hughes has a health scare and decides to keep it from Carson, leading to chaos (a la Mrs. Patmore’s Season 1 vision problems); and Daisy’s got a crush on the new guy, Alfred (who even looks a bit like William). But there are enough new twists to keep things interesting. For reasons we’ll probably never completely understand, Thomas is now on the outs with his one-time BFF, O’Brien. While I miss their conspiratorial smoke breaks, it’s fun to see these two consummate schemers butting heads. Then there’s Martha Levinson’s maid, Reed, who is every bit as brassy and forward as she is. Hey Daisy, you might want to start taking notes.

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In one of the few Season 2 throwbacks, Matthew pre-emptively refuses to accept his inheritance from Reggie because he’s still haunted by the ghost of Lavinia. Guilt-ridden Matthew was a bit of a bore last season, and even though I recognize his reappearance this year provides much-needed conflict, I do hope he’s sent packing soon.

Poor Anna and Bates also find themselves in the same narrative limbo as last year. Though I think we’d all prefer to see this story line come to a swift resolution, at least this time around they’ve been given something to do other than tearfully proclaim their devotion to each other. Anna has taken to investigating the case on her own, methodically tracking down Vera’s correspondents. Meanwhile Downton’s kindly valet appears to have adjusted all too easily to life on the inside – did anyone else expect him to whip out a shiv and finish off his pesky cellmate? Let’s just hope that when Bates finally gets out of prison, Anna doesn’t find him a changed man.

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Despite – or perhaps because of -- its familiarity, the premiere episode is jolly good fun, and at times rather moving. Who among you didn’t swoon a bit at Mary and Matthew’s forbidden kiss, or enjoy Martha’s impromptu American-style picnic, or get a bit verklempt at the look on Carson’s face as he caught sight of Mary in her wedding ensemble?

As the episode winds down, Martha and “Robert” share a terrific scene together, one that neatly sets up the themes of the season ahead. As they swill glasses of whiskey, Martha suggests that rather than going after her money, the family ought to adapt to fit the changing times. “The way to deal with the world today is not to ignore it,” she advises, and she’s right. The question for “Downton Abbey” fans is whether the show will follow suit. Lady Mary can surely survive without Carson and Anna at her beck and call, but can we?

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Stray thoughts:

-- On the morning of Mary’s wedding, Cora tries to talk to her daughter about the birds and the bees. Sex is “the most terrific fun,” she says, conveniently forgetting the time she helped drag a dead Turkish man out of Mary’s bed in the middle of the night.

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-- I know “Tom” and Matthew are buddies now, but Branson should probably cool it with the casual references to blowing up his wife’s family.

-- Things are looking up for Edith, finally. She’s got a fiancé, and the decade’s new shorter hairstyles do her more favors than they do poor Sybil.

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-- “Are you not popular downstairs?” Grantham, the world’s most oblivious employer, asks Thomas.

--After his, ahem, difficulties least season, Matthew appears to have regained a healthy libido – or maybe he’s just been possessed by the spirit of Mr. Pamuk.

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--When it comes to fashion, Mary really doesn’t have any competition so far this season. Between all the gorgeous red gowns and embellished headpieces, she continues to give her sisters plenty to be jealous about.

--“I’m never sure about Americans and offal.” Nor should you be, Mrs. Patmore.

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Next recap >

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