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Note: No spoilers for the season finale, but we figured the rest of season 3 is fair game for discussion.

In the third season finale of Downton Abbey, which airs Sunday night on PBS, series creator Julian Fellowes puts the cap on perhaps the most uneven—but definitely the most spiritual—season yet of his colossal hit. He's more than made good on his (somewhat unofficial) declaration that faith would enter the show's multiple storylines.

On the surface, there is a great deal more discussion of mere religion this year. It's driven at first by the presence of Tom Branson, the Crawleys' ex-chauffeur and new son-in-law, who is both Irish and Catholic. After being exiled for revolutionary activities in his homeland, he informs his new, culturally Anglican family that his soon-to-be born child will be christened Catholic. Meanwhile, the poor vicar is back, and he even has some lines, though in speaking them he turns out to be as much of a sop as he appeared to be when cowering before the dowager countess in Season 2—and a petulantly religious sop at that: the worst kind. There's been some debate about whether the relative agnosticism of the household is historically accurate (yes it is, say some; no, a reawakening called the Oxford Movement would have touched the place by the 1920s, say others).

Unsurprisingly, given his skill as a writer and his evident love for these characters, Fellowes proves himself largely unconcerned with such matters. To a serial novelist like him, merely religious questions are academic; it's the matters of the heart that interest him, and perhaps the spiritual matters of the heart most of all.

Is there a difference? Fellowes seems to pose the question. ...

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February 2013

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