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Return to Downton Abbey: Who's who — and what to expect — in PBS's most addictive show

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With the New Year here, it’s time for PBS to open the doors of Downton Abbey once more. Public Broadcasting’s hit period drama is one of our two favorite shows about British people struggling under antiquated inheritance laws while attempting to define their precarious place in a world going through immense change.

This is the one without dragons.

 Here’s a CultureMap primer to familiarize you with the characters and plots of Downton. 

Almost a year has passed since we last checked in with the Crawley family, so if you’re new to this addictive, sprawling soap opera that, when it’s at its best, contains a fascinating look into the rigid restrictions of class and society, or if you just can’t remember where we were left off in Mary and Matthew's on again/off again cousin romance, here’s a CultureMap primer to help you familiarize yourself with the characters and plots of Downton.

Upstairs

Downton Abbey patriarch Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and his American wife Countess Cora Crawley rule the vast roost. Both are definitely flawed, but their comfortable love for each other and acts of kindness towards the staff illustrate that nobility can be noble. Still, we wish Earless was a title because that would be hilarious. 

The Crawleys have three children, Mary, Edith and Sybil, and their relationship dynamic mimics pretty much every American family sitcom with three kids.

The oldest is beautiful and self-absorbed but will fight for family or against social injustice, as long as that injustice affects her personally.

The middle child is probably the smartest but is usually overlooked by her parents and the show’s creator/writer, Julian Fellowes.

 Like all good soap writers Fellowes manages to find various plot devices to keep Mary and Matthew apart for two seasons. 

The youngest is the cutest and therefore gets away with her rebellions like wearing pants, learning how to boil water, and marrying the Irish, communist chauffeur.

Many of the plots of the previous two seasons revolved around the daughters’ lack of a Y chromosome, making them ineligible to inherit Downton Abbey nor their mother’s American money which has been tied to the estate. The land, title, and money will instead go to their nice and occasionally sanctimonious, middle class lawyer cousin, Matthew. Luckily Matthew and Mary find themselves falling into a prickly sort of love.

Like all good soap writers Fellowes manages to find various plot devices to keep Mary and Matthew apart for two seasons, including a hot Turkish ambassador’s death-by-sex scandal for Mary, a drippy fiancée for Matthew, a blackmailing, new-money fiancée for Mary, a bout of paralysis for Matthew, a miracle cure of Matthew’s paralysis for Mary, and World War I for everyone. 

Various other Crawleys run around the estate causing trouble, but the real star of the show is the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, played by Dame Maggie Smith. She doesn’t steal every scene she’s in so much as wryly raise an eyebrow so all the other actors figuratively throw their acting jewels at her and scamper away in terror.

Downstairs

Benignly presiding over the servants are Carson, the butler and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper. They tend to be smarter, wiser, and more knowledgeable about the household intrigue than the Crawleys.

Trouble makers and smoking buddies Thomas the footman and O’Brien, Cora’s maid, were the villains of season one, but O’Brien spent most of season two feeling guilty for causing Cora’s miscarriage.

Meanwhile Thomas’s evil, but inept schemes never really harm anyone, so his ability to survive his debacles have turned him into pretty comic relief. However, Americans still haven’t forgiven him for locking the dog in the shed.

 It’s the relationships and loyalty between the characters of the vastly different classes that keeps Downton Abbey from being all soap opera dressed in beautiful fashion.  

The other great love story of the series is between valet John Bates and lady’s maid Anna Smith. They are both good, honorable and spend their days essentially being nannies to grown adults who have never learned to dress themselves. They’re perfect for each other, so of course their honorable natures, Bate’s evil wife Vera, and the murder of Bate’s evil wife Vera were sent by Fellowes to keep them apart.

Many of the upstairs and downstairs stories do intersect. Mary’s night of passion and death with the Turkish ambassador became a kind of plot flu that infected the whole household more than the actual Spanish Flu did. Even Vera’s death and Bate’s wrongful conviction for her murder were somewhat connected to Mary’s affair.

Yet it’s the relationships and loyalty between the characters of the vastly different classes that keeps Downton Abbey from being all soap opera dressed in beautiful fashion. 

Season 3

Here are our unspoiled predictions and hopes for the coming season arranged from most likely to least likely to occur. 

During last year’s Christmas episode, Mary and Matthew became engaged because cousin love always triumphs, and no one wants to have to change the monogram on Mary’s handkerchiefs. Yet, we feel safe in betting Fellowes will find ways to drag the wedding out several episodes and write additional plot devices to keep the happy couple unhappy. We know this because we’ve watched television before.

We feel safe in betting Fellowes will find ways to drag the wedding out several episodes and write additional plot devices to keep the happy couple unhappy.  

We also predict Vera’s murder will be solved because Bate’s series of unfortunate noble self-sacrifices have reached an annoying tipping point. There’s a fine line between honor and stupidity, Bates, and you crossed it in season two.

While we feel the odds are very small that as Downton roars into the 1920s the Dowager Countess will become a flapper, with Shirley MacLaine due to guest star as Cora’s mother, we do expect some Oscar-caliber throwdowns of haughty insults between our girls Shirley and Maggie.

We are less secure in predicting Thomas finally gets a hot boyfriend and some onscreen gratuitous snogging (British for making out). But we feel viewers deserve to be rewarded after having to watch Bates and Anna, and the 20-year age difference between them, in bed together last season.

Season three already aired in the UK months ago. The rest of the world has already seen the 2012 Christmas episode, and the status of various actors’ contracts for the fourth season has been all over the entertainment news, so finally we give it about a thousand-to-one odds you will be able to get through the entire season without being spoiled. 

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