So, if you've managed to avoid the "Downton Abbey" spoilers being tossed at you like exploding crumpets in a very refined video game, then this almost two-hour premiere was a welcome return to the hallowed halls of the grand estate. The good news? The soapiness of season two seems to have been (judging from this episode) set aside, and the plot seems character driven as opposed to being the fever dream of a crazed "Dallas" fan. Huzzah (clink glasses discreetly with second knife to your left)! 

Before we get started, I solemnly vow to you "Downton Abbey" fans -- no spoilers. Yes, these are recaps, so by their very nature they spoil the episode if you haven't seen it, but even as I watch ahead of air dates, I won't spill. Why not? Because this season has been halfway ruined for me by two spoilers I ran across, and I know how disappointed I am to know what's ahead -- and I won't do the same to you. 

So much happened in this opening episode, I'll just break it down by story lines. You can also read Alan's review (again, no spoilers) here

Sybil and Branson come out for Matthew and Mary's wedding… and Sybil's preggers!

Initially there is much whinging over the fact that Sybil and Branson, too poor as simple commoners to make the trip all the way to Downton from Ireland, will be missing out on Matthew and Mary's wedding. One person who isn't whinging, however, is Lord Grantham, who refuses to send the money for them to make the trip and expressly forbids Cora from doing it, either. Sigh. If you ask me, Robert is just being petty, but he claims he's just ensuring Branson (or Tom, but I'm used to Branson, aren't you?) doesn't stomp around screaming for a free Ireland at the wedding. 

Eventually, though, Sybil and Branson show up having received the cash from a mysterious source revealed to be the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith). Surprisingly, she puts family before appearances (at least in this case), and she isn't worried about Branson making a buffoon of himself. "If we can show the county he can behave normally, they will soon lose interest in him. And I will be sure he behaves normally, because I will hold his hand on the radiator until he does," she says in her arch, British way.

We also learn a bit later, when Martha (Shirley Maclaine) pops up, that Sybil is pregnant. And it is never mentioned again. I guess celebrating that sort of thing is horribly gauche. I wonder if Sybil will have to hide under a burka in public until she is deemed so obscenely pregnant (five months or so) that she must be stuck in a coat closet to deliver as quietly as possible. 

O'Brien gets her nephew a job, and starts a feud with Thomas in the process

Well, this is just a mess from the jump, but I'm not unhappy to see Thomas and O'Brien flinging barbs at one another as opposed to plotting against innocent victims for once. O'Brien sneakily convinces Cora to hire her nephew Alfred as a footman over Mr. Carson's protests that he has no time for "training young hobbledehoys." But Carson, who blusters and stomps his feet when Alfred makes mistakes, is of no concern. It's when O'Brien asks Thomas to give the kid some pointers on being a stand-in valet for Matthew while he lives at Downton post-nuptials when things really fall apart. Thomas is offended that she'd ask him to give some kid a jump start after he's struggled for years to be a valet, while O'Brien thinks he's being petty. And thus begins a spiral of mean-spirited pranks that starts with Thomas tricking Alfred into burning a hole in Matthew's jacket and O'Brien hiding Robert's dress shirts before a dinner party. It all seems a little childish, but I doubt it will stay that way for long. 

Anna and Mr. Bates continue their miserable prison slog

Oh, Anna. When she isn't working, she's dragging herself down to the prison, researching new avenues to prove Mr. Bates' innocence, protesting her love. Meanwhile, when Bates isn't making goo-goo eyes at Anna in the visiting room, he's snarling and growling at his new cell mate. For someone who seemed so Zen while working at Downton Abbey, it's clear that vile people -- like Vera, like his cell mate -- bring out his bad side. How bad is the question. 

Lord Grantham goes broke

The theme of season three is clearly change, as our stodgy Brits get shoved -- some willingly, others less so -- into the modern age. One inciting factor will likely be that Robert lost almost all of the family money -- mostly Cora's -- by investing in a railway that's going broke. "I refuse to be the failure, the Earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out," he says, stomping about his money man's office before going home to, much later, cry a little with Cora. If we ever had any doubt that Cora was worth more than her weight in U.S. dollars (all of which have been wasted at this point), the fact that she doesn't blink at the news Downton will likely have to be sold proves it. "I'm American, have gun will travel," she assures her possibly stupid husband, and it's impossible not to like her even more.  

Martha arrives!

Huzzah! Shirley Maclaine finally makes her appearance on "Downton" (and is introduced with a big, bright, "American" musical intro) and while Martha isn't so much a character than a stock plucky American and a plot driver, it's good to see the old gal nonetheless. Watching her trade barbs with Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess is simply fun. Cora's mom comes to visit, of course, at an opportune time -- with Downton circling the drain, both Mary and the Dowager Countess smell money. Too bad that once they finally get up the nerve to ask for it, Martha has to tell them it's locked up tightly. Her husband felt he'd given quite enough to Downton before he died, and Martha can't touch the principal. It's just another opportunity for Martha to irritate the crap out of her veddy proper English family members. They might not be sad to see her go, but I will be. Oh, best thing about Martha? She wants goat's milk, boiled water, no fats, no crab and nothing from the marrow family. She'd fit in perfectly in L.A.

Edith will not give up on Sir Anthony, dammit

Poor Edith. She finally convinces Sir Anthony to like her again (though he can't stop reminding us he's old and has a bad arm), and her British grandma (the Dowager Countess) has to go and convince Robert to break them up. Finally, American grandma (Martha) steps in, chides Robert for allowing his daughter to be lonely and sad, and urges him to get the two of them back together. Just like that, Edith and Sir Anthony are on the road to marriage. Could Edith really be getting a happy ending? Crazy!

Matthew continues to be annoying

Yes, Matthew is very noble and good-hearted and much like a prince in a Disney movie except for the weak chin, but man, is he annoying. He wouldn't leave Lavinia for Mary for the longest time because he had a bloated sense of both honor and ego, but now Lavinia is back (in a sense) to further screw things up between Mary and Matthew. Reggie Swire, Lavina's dad, has left a list of heirs following his death, seemingly to make this particular plot line far more complex and drawn out than it needs to be. The first two are believed to be dead, so that means all of it goes to Matthew. But Matthew can't accept! Sure, it could save Downton, but Reggie willed him that money because he believed he loved Lavinia! And he broke her heart! I don't think she actually died of a broken heart. It was the damn flu, Matthew. Anyway, Mary is rightly pissed, and almost cancels the wedding, but relents because he's just so fabulous from the chin up. Or she's getting old. Or something. 

Mrs. Hughes finds a lump

It's an interesting twist for Mrs. Hughes to have to turn to high strung, flappy Mrs. Patmore for help after she finds a lump in her breast. I guess she has to take what she can get, and she can't really turn to the one person who would actually be helpful -- Mr. Carson. Mrs. Hughes can't (really, won't) tell Mr. Carson about what's going on, won't let her work load be affected, won't suffer Mrs. Patmore's well-intended reassurances, but I wish she would. I am worried for Mrs. Hughes, and I wish she'd take a nap. 

The Grays come to visit and Larry makes a mess of everything

The Grays come over for dinner after Sybil and Branson arrive, and Larry thinks it would be such a lark to put something in Branson's drink so that he (sort of) drunkenly pounds the table and demands freedom for Ireland during dinner. Sir Anthony, who saw Larry slip the unnamed substance in Branson's drink, calls him out on it, Larry's dad chastises him, and everyone promises to forgive Branson his behavior. Well, I guess the show's writers get tired of writing boring dinner party scenes, too. As Branson is taken away, Matthew announces he'd like him to be his best man, a move that's noble (that Matthew, always noble!) and will later soften up Branson to put on fancy dress. We also now know that Branson and Larry are not going to be friends, like, ever. 

A love triangle pops up around Alfred for some reason

Daisy, who doesn't have a lot to work with down in the kitchen as far as crush fodder, takes an immediate liking to Alfred because he's male. But Reed, Martha's lady maid, also takes a shine to him. And she kisses him, unprompted, and Alfred rather likes this frisky American. Daisy is disappointed. Poor Daisy.

Mrs. Crawley is helping prostitutes -- and Ethel returns

I suspect this storyline will be returning quite soon, so I have to add it to this tremendously long round-up. Mrs. Crawley, who is just so very bored and has to save the world if at all possible, decides to help women in distress, i.e. prostitutes. And who should stop by but Ethel! You remember Ethel. She was the maid who had an attitude and screwed around with the officer and got pregnant and got fired and his family wouldn't acknowledge her and OMG, she had a bad old spiral going. Anyway, Ethel pops in, Mrs. Crawley recognizes her, and Ethel flees lie a frightened squirrel. She'll be back. 

Hard to believe, but a lot more happened than what I can cover here. Pithy lines were delivered, meaningful looks were exchanged, minor scandals bubbled up. There isn't much room for analysis, I'm afraid, but next week, I look forward to getting under the surface of these buttoned-up (and sometimes unbuttoned) Brits. 

Who were you most excited to see? Which storyline are you looking forward to most? Did you enjoy the wedding-free wedding episode?