Early in this mega episode, there’s a moment that hearkens strongly back to the pilot of Downton Abbey—it’s Mary Crawley, getting up in the morning and looking out her window. The light falling on her face reveals her loveliness, but there’s no joy or enthusiasm in her expression at the prospect of another day. She looks out the window with a weariness that is at odds with the splendor of the house and the beauty of the morning. It’s a subtle callback, but it stuck with me.
The beginning of the fourth season is a good time for the show to be looking back to where it started. Even though creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame must have had high hopes for Downton Abbey’s first season, there was they could have anticipated the enormous success of the series. Indeed, it is one of the most popular shows in worldwide distribution, with an estimated 120 million viewers around the world. American audiences are no exception: Downton Abbey’s third season was the most-watched PBS drama of all time, with a staggering 24 million viewers.
And yet, despite all this positive reinforcement, there’s something implausible about the show's continued success. The writing has been terribly inconsistent, moving from identity politics to financial trouble to death-by-car-accident. Almost half of the first season’s cast has left the show, written out through either death or relocation. The show depends on shifting moods more than it does on story, on certain characters behaving exactly as you'd expect them to behave, while the plot throws new encumbrances at them. Downton Abbey isn’t characterized by the organization and planning that distinguishes other prestige shows: Its actors’ contracts and storyboarding certainly didn’t plan for much beyond the first season or two.
Instead, what is planned out, with tireless detail, is the gorgeous scenery. Downton Abbey has capitalized on its production values to produce the prettiest serial on television—a nighttime soap in a Disney castle. The logic seems to be that so long as it looks fantastic, it will be successful, and so far, that logic has held. It’s not what we think of when we think of prestige television, but there’s no denying the show’s appeal.
And this fourth-season premiere is appealing, despite the tumult and disarray of last season. Masterpiece Classic’s decision to mash together standalone episodes of Downton into two-hour monoliths doesn’t sit well by me, but it does reinforce the continued idea that Downton Abbey is more about sound than structure. There’s little narrative coherence in tonight’s mega-episode, but the characters are reintroduced to us in ways that put them on a continuous track. The only character whose departure mars this first episode is Siobhan Finneran’s Miss O’Brien, and the show smartly makes that disappearance a major plot point in the opening seconds of the show, so as to address the absence head-on in a plausible way that builds off of last season’s finale. O’Brien’s disappearance (to become Susan Flincher’s ladies’ maid in India) neatly disposes of the last cast member on the show who had no interest in being there, and with that work done, it feels like the rest of the cast can breathe a sigh of relief.
It’s six months after Matthew's death, and the house is slowly breaking out of mourning—except for Mary, who won’t even trade in her black scarf for a slightly less somber purple one. Mary exists in a world of her own for much of this episode—she spends a lot of time alone, isolated from the other characters and from the general activity of the house, which has otherwise resumed its normal activity. The general theme of the first episode is an attempt to drag the last few grieving characters out of mourning. (Besides Mary, the other stuck personage is Isobel, Matthew’s mother.)
I've always found Mary to be the heart and soul of Downton, and I found that true in tonight's episode as well. In the third season, as happy as she was with Matthew, it seemed like the show lost sight of her character. There’s something very practical and majestic about Mary that was lost a little in the passionate and sentimental version of marriage she had with Matthew. Now that he’s dead, the Mary we’re getting is a throwback to her earlier self: brittle and cold and deadly. It’s thrilling to behold (especially because I have a sneaking suspicion that Mary’s better off without Matthew).
And in this episode, the show returns to the issue that motivated it from the start—Mary’s right to the estate that she has made her life. Matthew was only necessary to the Crawleys because he inherited Downton—if Matthew and Mary hadn’t fallen in love and gotten married, Matthew could have legally kicked out all of the remaining family members once Robert died. Mary’s situation was immediately introduced to the show as unfair—if the life of an earl’s daughter can ever be unfair. Now that Matthew’s gone, the management of the estate is still up for grabs—and in a move that is really rather exciting, Mary’s the one who will step into his role.
There are a lot of machinations that go into that moment—Lord Grantham doesn’t want her involved, because he’s, you know, an embodiment of the patriarchy, and there is the whole question of whether or not Matthew ever left a will—because if he didn’t, his holdings and the title go straight to his son, with a third reserved for Mary's use in her lifetime. And Mary might not even want the responsibility, depressed as she is. But it emphatically feels like the right direction for the show—a show that has long floundered in knowing exactly what the forward purpose of its story is. Mary managing the estate before passing it on to her son has a justice to it that many of the other characters on the show instinctively feel, and I felt it, as well.
As always, with a two-hour episode, there are many other adventures. Edith and Rose’s love lives are going to be lots of fun—even if they don't work out, both of them are now bent on going to expensive restaurants and/or illicit parties, which is just the type of thing I want to see on Downton Abbey. I have even grown fond of the friendship/rivalry between Ivy and Daisy, Jimmy and Albert, and even Daisy and Mrs. Patmore, who all have a series of adventures surrounding Valentine’s Day. The good stuff is weighed down by stories that feel less significant to me: Carson’s old coworker makes an appearance, as does Edna, the housemaid who got entangled with Branson last season. Neither character feels permanent to me—and though Edna looks like she’ll be sticking around for a bit, she doesn’t yet have the crafty charisma of her predecessor.
But these are mostly minor quibbles. The season has gotten off to a good start, and though I actually have no idea what happens next (I avoided spoilers, for once!) I'm looking forward to seeing what's to come.
- “When you talk like that, I’m tempted to ring for nanny and have you put to bed with no supper.”
- Bates engages in some light criminal activity to give Moseley some extra cash, which strikes me as a little bizarre.
- Relatedly, poor Moseley.
- Welcome back, everyone! Let's hope season four is an improvement on last year. For those of us who haven’t seen the season yet, make sure to tag your comments with spoiler alerts.