PBS’s soap opera in tuxedos, Downton Abbey, returned for its fourth season with a two episode premiere last night. Over the past couple seasons Downton Abbey has slowly morphed from a show filled with gossip, one liners, zingers, and general fun comeuppance into a show that teems with plot, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Unfortunately, the first two episodes of season 4 follow this latter formula, which makes the ever grandiose and majestic Downton lose a bit of its inherent charm.
After last year’s Grantham family shakeup with the deaths of both Sybil and Matthew, season 4 began as every season has every done – the estate is quickly going to ruin and for some reason no one has the money to do anything about it. Mary is firmly lost to the “land of the dead” as she mourns for her lost Matthew and can barely stand to hold her baby, George. Robert is in control of the estate again because Matthew had not drawn out a will and the law says that Mary has no say in any of Matthew’s inheritance. Of course Branson and Robert are still butting heads against the running of the estate focusing much of their energy on how to pay the death taxes that are levied against the estate since Matthew’s death. Cousin Rose is now a fulltime resident of Downton.
Initially O’Brien’s departure in the night, to work for Rose’s parents in India, causes a great stir. This event, however short it was considered during the show – only about five minutes or so was actually devoted to O’Brien – did offer some excitement for the show to return to its old gossipy ways as the various servants ran from room to room telling each other what had just happened. Unfortunately, that was far too short and only served as a wistful reminder of some of the more simple fun the show used to have. O’Brien’s departure means that Cora must find a lady’s maid to replace O’Brien, giving Rose something in which to stick her nose.
And that lady’s maid is Edna the former housemaid who threw herself at Branson in a very un-lady-like manner. She has gotten both experience and training since then and with Mrs. Hughes’s glowing letter of recommendation – only to get Edna out of Downton sooner – Cora just couldn’t say no. There is only a matter of time before the truth finally comes out. Especially when Edna has decided to buddy up with the ever shifty Thomas, who gets her out of a jam by telling Edna to blame her mistake on the ever pure Anna. Damned logical reasoning Thomas just needs to make sure he creates unnecessary drama!
And if plotting against Anna wasn’t bad enough, good old Thomas also lucked into a good deed based on his own selfish reasoning. After newly introduced Nanny West felt she had the right to order Thomas around, which Thomas did not take kindly to, he tells Cora that the nanny often leaves the two babies unattended. This was a complete fabrication but when Cora overhears the nanny favoring George over the “crossbreed” of classes that is baby Sybil she immediately fires her. Who knows what Thomas will do with this new injection of good will?
The love quadrangle that is Alfred, Jimmy, Daisy, and Ivy is still going strong. Daisy still holds out hope that Alfred, who has feelings for Ivy, will eventually see the err in his ways and like her. But Alfred is too focused on the dreamy Jimmy who is toying with Ivy by taking her to get sloshed at the pub and inviting her to the theater in York. Jimmy’s intentions are still a tad unclear as he seems to have a beau elsewhere but he may as well have a little fun while he’s at Downton, nay?
Upstairs was far less interesting. For the first episode Mary, with a fairer complexion than ever before, blankly stared off into nowhere as she still mourned Matthew. The way to get Mary out of this funk turned into another Robert versus everyone else as he decided it was best for her to not tax herself and mourn for as long as she desire. First Branson, then Carson, and finally Violet acted against his wishes in hopes of pulling Mary back into “the land of the living,” which was a success when she joined the farmers’ luncheon to discuss business. And while Robert was not wanting to cede any of his power over the estate, he ends up doing it anyway when a package arrives for Mary containing his office effects – chiefly a fake will that says Mary is to be in charge of his inheritance. For a brief time there is question whether this will hold up legally but by the end of the second episode the lawyers have spoken and it does. Also, in the second episode Branson takes Mary out on the estate to talk to her and ask her opinion about the business of running Downton while also teaching her a thing or two.
Isobel is also listless and depressed due to Matthew’s death but is soon taken out of it by a bit of charity from Mrs. Hughes. Mrs. Hughes ends up bringing a former friend of Carson’s to Isobel for a little rehabilitation after finding him in a workhouse. Isobel takes it upon herself to mend this man back to health, which also brings her out of her depression, and finds the man a job in Belfast. And both Mrs. Hughes and Isobel appeal to Carson to meet his former friend, to which he finally obliges by the end of the second episode. It was quite funny that this subplot was devoted so much time while O’Brien’s departure garnered so little.
Last from the upstairs comes Edith and her beau Michael Gregson – the editor of the paper who is currently married to his wife who is in a mental institution. And even though Gregson can’t get divorced in Britain, it seems he has found a loophole. He plans to become a German citizen where it is legal for him to divorce his wife despite the fact that World War I just ended a couple years ago. This causes Edith to fall in love with him even more and invite him to a supper that her mother is throwing in one month’s time. And while the audience knows just what the rising to power Nazi Party will do in little more than a decade, if this marriage were to happen, it seems the tragedy that is Edith’s life will only continue.
Deserving mentions are the dance in York for servants which Rose makes Anna chaperone her; Molesley falling on hard times and turning to paving streets (which will probably become a running plot arc for this season); and Mrs. Patmore’s worry of becoming obsolete due to the electric mixer the kitchen staff just received. And while Downton Abbey is still what it has been for the past couple years the sheen is beginning to fade.
The constant racing through plot keeps the show from slowing down but it gives little to no actual character development and very few fun moments. Even Violet was reduced to two zingers in the first two hours of the show. Not forgetting how tedious the main plot has become where Robert’s poor leadership is holding the estate back and he eventually cedes a little more power episode by episode. It is coming to the time where the question of whether the estate will be saved or sold needs to be answered.
But then of course that really isn’t the point of Downton Abbey is it? The show will always deliver on the wistfulness of its audience, giving the fantasy of returning to the early 20th century and living in the grand spectacle that is Downton Abbey. The plot is merely a function to keep interest, to shock the viewers – regardless of rhyme or reason – and provide moments that were only previously captured in paintings. Downton Abbey remains entertainment in its purest form, something in which can garner your attention for an hour or two a night and then easily be washed away from your mind until the next week. And when something looks as good as Downton Abbey that is in no way a bad thing.