Audiences certainly had plenty to look forward to. We had the promise of a smack down between Lady Violet and Cora's American mother, played by veteran actress Shirley McLaine. We had the teaser that there would be two wedding and that Sybil and Branson would be returning to bring the first grandchild to Downton Abbey.
The question is: did it deliver? In many ways it did not.
The first and second seasons had very different atmospheres which to some degree was appropriate, it showed the way the world was drastically changing. To compensate (sometimes over-compensate) for the gritty war element, sometimes the stories became a bit over romanticized on the home front. Still, it was so well woven that audiences were riveted and engaged on the whole.
This season seems to struggle with finding its footing. In a post-war world everything can't go back as it was. For the first few episodes, there isn't much of a driving plot. We have the news that Downton is in some financial trouble. We have the wedding of Mary and Matthew, we also have Edith reaching for her own love story. Downstairs, there is a new footman and Mrs. Hughes fears she may be seriously ill. There is an awkward love polygon between some of the younger servants as well. None of this really seems to coalesce at first. We randomly shift between these disconnected plots.
I had expected the interaction between Shirley McLaine and Maggie Smith to really take center stage in these first few episodes, but it didn't. It fell a bit flat. McLaine's character felt like set dressing more than a necessary character. Even Maggie Smith's dowager countess felt underwritten this season. Her famous quips and subtle manipulation were in short supply.
Another character that felt like a prop for most of the series was Sybil. She was one of my favorite characters in the first two season, but when she returns pregnant from Ireland, her only job seems to be bringing back Branson so he can clash with the family.
Finally in the last few episodes we seem to be moving toward something resembling a through-line to the story. They make many character damaging missteps along the way though. Downton Abbey is still of higher quality than many shows on television, but this season it loses some of its luster, and indeed, breaks some hearts.
I felt that Edith's marriage plot was especially badly handled. I defended the program last series when some said it was turning to a soap opera or melodrama. The war setting made it somewhat acceptable to have larger and sometimes unbelievable stories. It didn't feel too inappropriate. Having Edith jilted at the alter and experience such a grand scale of humiliation felt cheap.
Another unbelievable element of the story telling was Matthew's inheritance. It was neatly and conveniently tied in a bow and placed in his lap just when Downton needs cash. And of course, being a deus ex machina as it is, it comes with a letter absolving Matthew of all guilt about Lavinia.
The most serious misstep in my opinion, however, was how they killed off Sybil. As I said before, she drifts along in this series without a plot. Fiery, opinionated Sybil does nothing much but have a baby. And that kills her. For a light Sunday night drama, her death was unnecessarily graphic and horrific. Even when showing death in wartime, the series has never showed that level of horror. It seemed like a cheap attempt to make the series grittier at the expense of its viewers.
Sybil becomes a plot device to bring Branson to Downton and facilitate some sort of alliance between him, Matthew, and Lord Grantham. I think the alliance worked well in the last few episodes, but it was a cheap way to do it and unfair to the character. A character who has been so strong and known her own mind was left helpless with men talking over her, deciding her fate.
I thought this season was very weak compared to the previous two.