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Well, good, I’ve finally caught up to Downton Abbey, and am ready to watch tonight’s episode. This blog entry will have spoilers, so if you are behind on your watching, now would be a very good time to pass through.

Done? OK, good.

I was shocked and saddened to see that they killed off poor Sybil, my favorite of the Crawley girls (she looked like a Burne-Jones figure in death), but it’s good that some, er, life came back into the series, which really has slowed down this season. At The Atlantic, two writers are arguing over whether or not the fact that Sybil and Mary and Anna had married their beaux is to blame for the series loss of verve. Here’s Meghan Lewit:

My interest in the Sybil/Branson pairing had waned long before her death. Likewise, the great romance between imperious Lady Mary and heir to the estate Matthew Crawley—one of the central pleasures of the show in the first two seasons—has been reduced to endless marital squabbling about money and redecorating (although it was gratifying to witness a rare moment of tenderness between the two in Sunday’s installment.) Meanwhile, sweet maid Anna was finally successful in her quest to clear valet husband Bates of the murder of his ex-wife, but the only relief I felt was in being released from this excruciatingly dull storyline.

The problem is that we almost never see these couples interacting outside the confines of their designated post-marital storylines: Branson’s revolutionary zeal, Matthew and Mary’s differing opinions on how to run Downton, Anna and Bates vs. the evil murder-framing ex-wife. Whatever chemistry once brewed between the pairs has been squelched by the demands of their plot contrivances.

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz contests this, saying the marriages make this third season of the show even better:

 If happy families are all alike, as Tolstoy somewhat disingenuously tells us, it’s not because nothing interesting goes on behind closed doors. It’s because good marriages are dynamic. Each one is filled with tiny challenges and mood shifts, and couples are always making micro-adjustments, like drivers speeding down the highway with their hands firmly on the wheel. It may be more dramatic to watch two lovers veer off into a ditch, like the doomed Anna and Vronsky. But the Levins and Kittys of literature remind us how nuanced relationships can actually be.

That’s why the current season of Downton Abbey is arguably the most interesting of all. We’re no longer wondering whether Matthew and Mary will ever walk down the aisle. And so far, no one of noble blood has run off with a chauffeur or kissed a housemaid. But we’ve seen the young Crawleys learn how to maintain respect, and even passion, as they bicker over money. We’ve seen Lady Grantham let go of a fierce grudge against her husband and allow him to share her grief.

Me, I tend to sympathize with Rothenberg Gritz’s take, though I do agree that the Branson marriage plot line had run out of steam, and that the whole Bates in prison thing had petered out. What do you think?

Remember, after tonight’s episode, I’m going to have a Downton open thread here for readers who are fans of the show. Come around and let’s talk about it.

(Note to UK readers: we in the US have just finished the episode after Sybil’s death, the one in which the Dowager Countess arranges for a reunion of Lord and Lady Grantham in the presence of Dr. Clarkson. Please don’t give us any spoilers for the episodes to come.)