What ho, PBS — we did not receive traditional opening credits with this new season of Downton Abbey? The flower falling slowly from the vase, the exploration of the grounds and house, the close-up shot of Isis’ derrière to start it all off … without this, where are we? In 1922, it seems, with O’Brien having fled in the night and Downton (suddenly being referred to as “the Abbey”) in deep mourning, as they have been for 6 months. Hit the jump for more on the state of things, and why you really should go change because that is not appropriate dinnerware, were you raised in a barn!?
Few series pack as much into an hour as Downton Abbey, and Season Four’s two-hour premiere (edited together from the first two single episodes broadcast in the U.K. several weeks ago) was certainly no exception. The pervading theme in the first hour was that of finding one’s place — a way to orient viewers about where our Downton residents all were emotionally (and occasionally physically, such as the sudden absence of O’Brien), as well as showing where they are all headed next.
The crux of both hours though was, as it should be, the trials and tribulations of Lady Mary. Mourning Matthew’s death so heavily, she is unable to find an interest in anything, not even their son. But the efforts of those around her to “bring her back to the living” was heartwarming stuff, able to melt even Mary’s heart of stone (which, until that point, had only been something Matthew could do).
It was right for the show to spend so much time focusing on the mourning; we needed it. Matthew’s sudden departure to end last season left everyone in shock, and given what an important part of the show he was, it was only fitting that time be devoted to him and the characters’ various feelings about him leaving. (On the other hand, the lack of mourning over O’Brien felt a little short-changed, given all that she went through with them as well. Though it’s also understandable, considering how hated she was). It provided a satisfying change as well when Mary was able to choose life over death, and took her place at the table — quite literally — when it comes to running the estate.
The Mary-Branson alliance is a strong and necessary one for Downton to move forward. Careful viewers should have been horrified by Robert’s desires to take over the care of “the Abbey” and the fortunes of young baby George, after all he did to allow it to fall into ruin before Matthew’s intervention. The Earl of Flop may be a dope, but he’s not evil, so him showing Mary the letter and acquiescing to the possibility of her helping to run things made perfect sense, as did his ever-present hesitation at progress. So it goes. (And that’s why the show brings a certain comfort — Cora is always able to be manipulated, Anna and Bates are always sweet, Thomas is always a turd, the world turns).
The triumph and strength of the storytelling regarding Mary makes up for some of the less successful plotlines seen elsewhere, though Downton has a way (with its swirling, emotional soundtrack and lush set design) of tricking us about that sometimes. The suddenly evil Nanny West plot was largely a waste of time, though it did remind us that Thomas (who has had the best character arc next to Mary) is indeed a pretty big jerk, which set up his alliance with the new O’Brien, Edna.
Upstairs, Edith’s love life with Michael Gregson is altogether a pretty boring affair (especially for one so illicit), but there’s something so quintessentially British about their stunted emotional exchanges that it’s almost forgivable. The trials of Molesley were hit and miss — he’s always been comic relief at best, and the sudden desire to make him into an emotionally compelling character is a little hard to accept, even if it did provide Bates with something to do.
That was the thing about the premiere — there just wasn’t enough plot to go around. With so many characters, people like Rose were completely ignored in the first hour. Anna and Bates were largely relegated to whispering sweet nothings to each other in the hallways, and the love triangle in Ms. Patmore’s kitchen isn’t very interesting either, especially since we don’t really know anything about Ivy other than the fact that she’s very gullible, and a lush.
At the same time, all of these small stories are part of the larger fabric of what makes Downton so engaging. Even when nothing is happening, it’s fun to just watch the characters go about their daily tasks (particularly Mrs. Hughes, who never seems to sleep and is always fixing everyone’s problems). While the Carson story felt half-baked with the love plot (though it was nice that they brought an early season character back just as a reference for long-time fans), it gave Isobel a reason to stick around and have a “cause.”
In a way, it also spoke to the larger issues about changing social mores and the jobs and positions people hold shifting after the war. Though many of these were shoehorned into dialogue (especially regarding taxes — have taxes been brought up this much anywhere since Gone with the Wind?), they are still important issues that the show does a better job of showing rather than telling. Rose’s ill-fated affair with the working man, and Edith and Gregson’s kiss at a public restaurant, show a further breaking down of old traditions.
None of these were so interesting though, moving forward, as Mary’s equal stake in Downton. Though the promos show her smiling and laughing with new handsome men, one of whom might one day take Matthew’s place by her side, the real story is her receiving, finally, the estate that she once accused Matthew of taking from her. Downton has come full circle in that regard, and where it goes from here should be exciting to explore.
Episode Rating: Hour 1, A- / Hour 2, B
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Spoiler Policy: For the first time, I’m actually waiting and watching Downton as it airs on PBS. I’m sure there are at least of few of you who are doing the same. But for the rest, if you have peaked at future episodes, please mark any discussion of upcoming plots in your comments with a clear spoiler notation. It’s only polite.
— “Sneaking off like a thief in the night, that’s O’Brien all over” – Robert.
— O’Brien should have swapped with that other lady’s maid during the Duneagle trip, since it was so clear she was interested in traveling, etc. It was a much better fit. The way it happened here was awkward, but the actors on Downton have never made things easy for plot ….
— Mary mourning for Matthew was genuinely sad, and she certainly made one heck of a haunted widow.
— How cute is Baby Sybil, and how randomly evil was Nanny West?
— “Just because you’re a widow is no reason to eat off of a tray” – Violet to Isobel.
— “I may not have a follower, but I do have a good friend” – Daisy to Patmore.
— Daisy would do well to stay away from Alfred, he’s such a wet blanket.
— First a toaster, then an egg beater, good God what next?!
— Ugh, Edna is the worst. At least they made it clear she won’t be trying to put the moves on Branson again.
— Downton needs to stay away from social commentary like work houses and an actual Dickens reference. Not your style.
— Gwen is married! To Jon Snow! #crossover
— Gregson mentioned several countries where he could get citizenship to divorce his wife … why pick Germany? Why not go live on the coast in Portugal?
— I doubt that was the last we’ve seen of Sam.
— “There can be too much truth in any relationship” – Violet.