The fourth season of Downton Abbey promises more mayhem, romance, intrigue, and class warfare. A bona fide phenomenon in the UK (pulling in the kinds of numbers that would make it a huge hit in the U.S.), Downton Abbey has also endeared itself to U.S. audiences through its broadcast on PBS. While U.S. audiences will have to wait for what happens to the Grantham family and the servants of Downton Abbey, UK audiences already have had their Downton fix.
In the first episode – and this is a quick warning – there are spoilers ahead – don’t read on if you haven’t seen any of the fourth or third season – we meet the characters at Downton some six months after the tragic death of Matthew Crawley. Lots of fans from last season were horrified that the beloved Matthew perished in an automobile accident – so soon after the death of the spirited Lady Sybil – it’s a shame that two of the most interesting characters had to leave, because their absence is felt in the opening episode. Speaking of leaving, Downton’s resident evil villain, O’Brien, Lady Cora’s maid, up and leaves, absconded, being poached by the Dowager Countess’ niece. Those who heaved a sigh of relief at O’Brien’s exit shouldn’t get too comfortable because there are still evil-doers lurking the cavernous halls of Downton – some old and some new…
But the main plot revolves around the newly widowed Lady Mary, who doesn’t seem to have any interest in her new son, George. The new nanny dotes on the little tyke, but Mary is listless and catatonic. Her behavior prompts her dad, Robert, to shield her from her duties as a ruling voice in Downton Abbey’s financial affairs. Partly out of paternalistic concern and partly by his own selfish reasons, Robert wants to encourage Mary’s depressed state, believing that if he allows her to wallow in grief, she won’t “trouble” herself with the complicated financial pressures of keeping Downton Abbey. Tom, always the spitfire and rebel, disagrees and tries to pull Mary out of her shell, but feels resistance from Robert. The others in the family all feel it would be best if Mary asserts herself, and even Carson butts in, advising Mary that she should step up, but it’s too easy for Mary to just let herself be led by her pop. After a nice heart-to-heart with Carson, she starts to show signs of some resistance and begins to assert herself a little bit more.
Because of Matthew’s death, his valet, Mr. Moseley, has fallen on hard times. This subplot is one of the saddest in the first episode, because it highlights just how precarious the lives of the servants are; Mr. Moseley doesn’t have any other skills and flounders trying to find a job. In a fit of noblesse oblige, the Dowager Countess hires him for the day to impress a guest in hopes of getting him a job, but her own butler, fearful for his job, sabotages poor Mr. Moseley, and he fails miserably. Anna later sees the sad chap laying out asphalt on the road, and begs him to take some money, which he refuses out of pride. It’s worrisome that Mr. Moseley’s whole adult life and career has been devoted to serving others, because he has no other resources available to him. He’s middle-aged with an elderly father, and the man’s a war hero (serving alongside many of the men he would be serving), yet because his boss died, he’s left adrift. In the midst of the soapy suds of this nighttime drama, writer/creator Julian Fellowes does do some great social critique a la Charles Dickens, when showing just how ugly the world of a servant can get.
Because of Lady Sybil’s death, the show has to turn to Mary when showcasing the growing influence of women in England. It’s not an easy transition because Sybil’s character was much more dashing and daring – whereas Mary, due to her grief as well as her pampered existence, is too quick to rely on her social standing and its privileges to get ahead. She’s obviously a smart woman, but I’m not sure if she’s mature enough to handle the responsibilities of running Downton with her dad and Tom.
But aside from Mary, the other major story has to do with Anna and Barrows, the devious underbutler and O’Brien’s partner in crime. We see Barrows trade barbs with the new nanny – and he’s being an ass to her (though her behavior was also quite regal and condescending). He refuses to work with her, defying her at every turn. She finally stands up to him, reminding him of her privileged position and he sets to work on his revenge, implying to the dopey Lady Cora that the nanny often leaves her grandkids on their own. Because Cora’s one of the most naive characters on television, she starts to believe him – and in a twist that only occurs on soap operas – Cora overhears the nanny spit nasty insults at baby Sybil because her dad’s a former chauffeur. Lucky for Barrows, the nanny was “unsuitable” so he’s a hero. This comes in handy for the guy later on when he hatches a devious plan with his new sidekick, Edna.
Who’s Edna? Some will remember her as the young maid who got fired after getting too chummy with Tom in the Christmas special from 2012. After Miss Hughes gives her a glowing recommendation (stupidly), she gets herself rehired by the (again dopey) Cora as her new ladies’ maid. She and Barrows bond as only evil people do, and in their first act of villainy, Barrows frames Anna for bullying Edna, who acts simpering and cowed in front of her lady. Barrows later confirms the fake bullying to Cora, who because she’s dopey, goes and tells Robert, who then scolds Bates. It’s all very high school – but I’m glad of Edna’s return because she provides a tension that was missing when O’Brien jumped ship.
As is typical of Downton Abbey, there are also signs of changing technology – this time an electric whisk in the kitchen. Miss Patmore struggles with the darned thing while the younger maids quickly learn to use it. Again, Fellowes writes of this technological advance for laughs, but as with Moseley, there is a real sense of tension and angst with Patmore as well – she also feels the encroaching change of times, and doesn’t know if she’ll be able to cope with and ride that change. It’s a poignant moment because again, it highlights just how delicate the life of a servant is, especially one of a “certain age.”
The first episode is great and it doesn’t disappoint – there are a few laughs – mainly from Maggie Smith, who can still steal scenes left and right like a bandit. Thankfully, Fellowes has also got her doing some real acting, instead of merely throwing out one-liners, which is what he sometimes relies on too much – yes, she’s a comic genius, but she’s also a brilliant actress, and she’s been relegated a bit too much as comic relief, strolling in on her walking stick to toss off a punchline and roll her eyes majestically.
And I’m not so sold on Cora anymore – a character I really liked, but whose apparent stupidity has gotten on my nerves. She follows whatever is told to her and despite her cool assertiveness (she stands up to Robert all the time), she comes off as a bit of a dum dum, at times.
Also, I’m finding the marriage between Bates and Anna to feel a bit chummy – they look more like best friends than a couple – and I’m not suggesting that there be sex scenes, but their banter feels very much a Mary Richards/Murray Slaughter kind of banter as opposed to the Bogie/Bacall sort which I think Fellowes is going for – still their relationship is the only truly sane and normal one of the bunch.
Oh, and I realized that I didn’t write much about Edith – her story is becoming slighter more interesting, as she’s also finding herself. She’s got a married boyfriend in London, where she pop in from time to time, because of her work as a writer. There’s potential for something great in her story line and I’ll be excited to see what happens to her, especially in light of her boyfriend’s suggestion of becoming a German citizen…
So, I’m excited for this season – it’ll be great to see what happens…