The previous season of Downton Abbey ended on a major cliffhanger, with the surprising reveal that all of its characters will eventually die, their way of life becoming an archaic reminder of a stifling elitism celebrated only by the romantically self-deluded. It also [SPOILER ALERT FOR THE COMMONER] smashed in Matthew’s head, his ears now too filled with blood to ever again hear Lady Mary’s quavering, “Matthewwww,” and even killed off Lady Sybil—each leaving their significant others with the burdens of raising their children and, in Tom’s case, justifying why they’re still on the show.
And while we know that at least some of those burdens will be both complicated by and intermittently ignored in favor of new characters—including Paul Giamatti and England’s first black person—until the fourth season finally premieres on Jan. 5 in the U.S. (and in September in the UK), we can still only speculate about its direction, based on these early promo photos. Let’s do that.
Picking up in the early months of 1922, England's Bright Young Things era is just getting started, and Downton Abbey is under siege by enormous polychaete worms, whose forms have grown several miles long and developed a taste for human flesh, after being irradiated by a secret cache of plutonium that was aboard the Titanic when it sunk. “Stand fast, men,” Carson declares to his charges. “Giant carnivorous worms are no reason to break decorum.” Off-screen you can hear the cries of nearby villagers who have no such sense of propriety, as they are swallowed and expelled as viscous worm slurry.
“A lady must let her smile stand as a fortress against her feelings, as well as hideous worm-beasts,” Lady Grantham instructs her daughters. Still, Mary can’t help but worry that these horrible worms eating everything and everyone may prevent her from achieving the social status she deserves. Meanwhile, Edith wonders whether one of those worms might see fit to marry her. Oh, surely not. Don't let yourself get carried away by daydreams, Edith.
Thomas stares down a giant, writhing worm. He likes what he sees, if you get the show’s repeated drift.
Confusingly Other Tom and his daughter gaze up at the carnage. “Perhaps we should be the next to die, since we are commoners,” Tom says spitefully. But they won’t, because for some reason they still need to be on the show.
Carson quietly muses on a simpler, more elegant time, when ladies wore proper gowns, and enormous worms didn’t go around devouring the English countryside, probably after getting all hopped up on cigarettes and jazz music. “Harrumph,” Carson says.
Cousin Rose quietly muses on what a cheap, pandering introduction to the cast she is, then gets all hopped up on cigarettes and jazz music.
Daisy smiles as she concocts her master plan to save everyone: serving the giant worms an improperly seasoned vichyssoise, so that they leave in barely concealed disgust. Will it be worth the shame of embarrassing the Crawley family? She believes it will, because it’s just a soup. Seriously, Downton Abbey, it’s just a fucking soup.
Finally, Lady Mary and Tom hit upon the solution of offering up their burdensome children as sacrifice to the worms, to drag back to their undersea lairs. Then everything will go back to normal, and the house can return to the business of talking cattily about money and dinner jackets.