an episode reminding us all the importance of “joining the living”
And we’re back folks! Sunday night’s two-hour return to the Grantham stomping grounds had a veritable sampling of everything we love and expect from this ridiculously entertaining series. After all, what other show on television can turn the introduction of a kitchen mixer into an existential crisis (poor Mrs. Patmore) or an accusation of foiling the morning egg order into legit fighting words (Thomas, you sly dog)?
Let’s just get on with all the glorious melodrama, shall we?
First off, let’s start with the bad news. I hate to have to be the one to tell you, but it looks like your letter-writing campaign to Dan Stevens, threatening him to rejoin the Downton family, did not pay off. The fourth season did not begin with The Dowager Countess dabbling in the dark arts and dripping snake blood across Matthew Crawley’s dead body, reciting necromancy incantations. A miraculous resurrection was not in the cards, but Matthew is still very much ingrained in and a part of the goings-on at Downton Abbey.
Season four opens on a symbolically dismal day in February 1922. It’s been six months since her husband’s burial, and Mary’s grief lingers unabated. She cannot see past it and is unable to be the mother she should, passing off her son George, heir apparent to the Downton estate, to the seemingly delightful Nanny West**.
**Apparently, she REALLY hates poor people. Lady Cora overheard her calling baby Sibyl a “half-breed” and didn’t take kindly to that kind of thing, suggesting she pack up her toothbrush and hit the bricks. I don’t want to get up on my soapbox or anything, but being a hateful bigot does not seem to be the best way to maintain gainful employment. There, I said it. Let the controversy begin.
In many ways, I found Julian Fellowes’s treatment of Mary’s grief fairly superficial; she laments that Matthew saw the good in her and wonders now (in his absence) if she can ever be again, she snaps at Carson for over-stepping his bounds when offering advice, and she mislabels George an orphan. I mean, yes, we get it; she’s sad, angry, lonely, and vulnerable, but I didn’t learn anything new about Mary as a character. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long for this plot strand’s resolution, as Carson (it had to be Carson) helps Mary confront and take baby steps toward overcoming her grief. At Branson’s behest, she’s picking up Matthew’s torch and insinuating herself in the management of the estate. Michelle Dockery did what she could with the material, but I wish there had been more for her to sink her teeth into.
Despite the shortcomings of how we saw Mary’s grief handled, these initial two hours found Isobel Crawley’s very sense of identity in crisis as a result of her son’s death. In a touching scene between herself and Lady Edith, she says: “When your child dies, you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really. And that’s what I’m trying to get used to.” A plot that originally had me rolling my eyes (a mysterious actor friend of Carson’s reappearing) ends up dovetailing beautifully with Isobel’s struggle. In offering to help this Mr. Grigg, she rediscovers a humanity she thought had died in the passenger seat right alongside Matthew. Her kindness and charity—two traits that made her who she was—are alive and well. They’d survived the accident, and if they did, then, perhaps, by remaining true to herself, she can honor Matthew’s legacy and endure as well. Powerful stuff, and beautifully played by Penelope Wilton.
That brings us to the subject of my favorite plotline: Moseley. Who expected Downton to afford so much screen time to the late Matthew Crawley’s valet? I certainly didn’t, but I’m so glad we had the opportunity to delve into how this has affected him. You see, from Moseley’s perspective, he was set for life; the sudden departure of his cash cow has replaced the prospect of a steady income with a general sense of listlessness when it comes to his future.
The Dowager Countess gets involved (as is her wont), staying true to her tendency to help those she cares about. It seems the Lady Shackleton might be in need of help when her current butler retires, so Violet pulls some strings and gets a sort of performance interview during a luncheon between the two ladies. In a bleakly funny sequence, the Dowager’s current help, misreading the scenario and feeling his livelihood is in jeopardy, hinders Moseley’s every move (including heating up the handle of a serving tray beneath a flame) and the job opportunity disintegrates.
Soon after, Anna finds Moseley working as a day laborer doing street repairs, and she feels horribly and wants to help because Anna is THE BEST. Bates agrees to help Anna because Bates is THE BEST and, with Violet, they hatch a scheme to give Moseley a gift of 30 pounds by convincing him Bates owed him money from ages ago. It turns out, a stint it prison teaches you more than how to make the best toilet wine; you can also learn the fine art of forgery and use it to trick your friends into taking your money! So, in the end, Bates and Anna help Moseley when they’re not mailing each other anonymous love notes on Valentine’s Day. #PowerCouple
Speaking of love stories for the ages, our Lady Edith seems swept up in the plot of every school girl’s dream: it’s the old find-a-man-you-love-and-who-loves-you-but-who-can’t-be-with-you-due-to-his-current-wife’s-extreme-mental-incapacitation-so-he-must-become-a-German-citizen-before-he-marries-you-because-lunacy-is-grounds-for-divorce-there. Yes, things are progressing just as you’d expect for Edith and (future Nazi?) Mr. Gregson. Call me a pessimist, but I have a sneaking suspicion this Cinderella story isn’t going to end as well as it seems destined to right now.
In other not-so-newsworthy developments, Robert continues to be THE. WORST. In an effort to cement his bid for Father of the Year, he uses Mary’s grief to his advantage (her withdrawal having left a power vacuum as far as estate affairs go, leaving Lord Grantham salivating) and considers withholding Matthew’s will from Mary to secure his grip on power. Thank God for Violet, who takes every opportunity to belittle her son, calling him both childish and foolish in her very upper-crust Dowager Countess-y ways. As the second hour ends, and Mary finds the hastily scrawled will to be legitimate, I loved Hugh Bonneville’s look of feigned happiness; Robert, ever the traditionalist, clearly takes issue with this latest brand of female empowerment. The clash between modernity and tradition has always been at the heart of this series, and I am excited to see how it unfolds here between father and daughter.
Amongst all this are subplots of various quality: O’Brien flies the coop in the dead of night (for India because why not?), Carson makes up with a long-lost theatre buddy after a squabble over (what else?) a lady, Rose likes to dress up as the help and go dancing (not in that order), the Alfred/Ivy/Jimmy/Daisy quadrangle complicates during Valentine’s Day, Mrs. Patmore is adorably inept with her newfangled kitchen appliance, *** and Edna Braithwaite returns to Downton (who?).
***For the record, I fully endorse the idea of having each subsequent episode feature Mrs. Patmore wrestling with a new piece of quasi-technological cookware because that sounds amazing.
In the end, though certainly uneven in spots, this premiere did a great job of getting us right back into the swing of things at Downton. It wasn’t perfect, but that’s sort of why I love this show so much; it’s big and messy and over-the-top and melodramatic, and I love every minute of it.
Well, my fellow Downtonites, until next weekend! Whatever that is…
Snippets of Intrigue
– Carson: “What does it matter anyway? We shout and wail and scream and cry but in the end we all must die.”
Mrs. Hughes: “That’s cheered me up.”
– Dowager Countess: “You must choose either death or life.”
– Carson: “You’re letting yourself be defeated, my lady. I’m sorry if it’s a lapse to say, but someone has to.”
– Lady Mary: “He’s not bad-looking, and he’s still alive, which puts him ahead of most men of our generation.”