It’s been almost a year since we last visited Downton Abbey and how good it is to be back! Unfortunately, skies are overcast at the Abbey where the whole family is just recovering from the tragic death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and no one has been plunged deeper into darkness and despair than Matthew’s wife, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).
With an opening sequence fit for a horror film, we pan in on the night-shrouded Abbey where one window is lit. A baby’s cries echo in the background as Mary is seen lying alone in bed with a photo of her and Matthew by her bedside. And so we come to the bottom of our first box of tissues. Let the season begin.
Change Is Gonna Come
Season 4 opens in 1922, six months after Matthew’s death, and so far, if we were to give the series a very broad, not particularly descriptive theme it would be dealing with change. As Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) thoughtfully observes as she watches Matthew’s tombstone be set (second box of tissues finished), “you don’t have to tell me” it’s a changing world.
We see echoes of this realization throughout the episode, from the appearance of an electric vacuum in the opening shots to the introduction of an electric mixer downstairs in the kitchen. Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) address the topic even more directly in one of the night’s final scenes as they pick up the pieces of the mixer Mrs. Patmore broke when she attempted to teach herself its mysterious electronic ways so as to keep up with her younger kitchen staff.
Where in the World is Sarah O’Brien?
In the first twist of the season, Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) has up and left “like a thief in the night” as Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) says upon hearing the news. We already knew O'Brien was out and we had our suspicions it would be to join Lady Susan MacClare (aka the Scottish Crawley cousin) on her travels to India.
The whole situation puts the Abbey’s latest upstairs arrival, Cousin Rose MacClare (Lily James), in an awkward position seeing as she’s Lady Susan's daughter and might have known about her mother’s plans to steal away O’Brien (though, of course, we know that devilish Downton staff member wanted to hightail it out once her notorious soap story leaked). To do what she can to fix the situation, Rose places an advertisement for a new lady’s maid in the window of the Downton post office, which only leads to more trouble. More on that later.
Beside creating a vacancy in the staff, O’Brien’s departure leaves Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) in need of a sparring partner. Thankfully, he quickly makes an enemy in Nanny West with unexpected consequences and some of the night’s best one-liners. Oh Thomas, we did miss your quips.
Dealing With Matthew’s Death
Matthew’s death left more people than Mary a wreck. His mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), is also in deep mourning, telling Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) when your only child dies “then you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not really anything.” If this doesn’t stop we won’t be able to see through our puffed up eyes for the rest of the episode.
Surprisingly, Matthew never made a will, which, once again, has thrown the whole future of Downton into turmoil. Because of the laws of the day (and goodness, does Downton teach us a thing or two about early 20th century legal codes), Mary is only entitled to one-third of the estate. The rest goes to the new heir, baby George, who, at six months old, can barely hold his own head up let alone manage Downton. The conflict soon becomes clear: Earl Robert wants to protect his little girl Mary and maybe kinda also wants to be the sole runner of Downton again while good ole Tom Branson (Allen Leech) sees Mary as a bigger player in the scheme of things and even goes so far as to enlist Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) in getting Mary “to come back to us” and maybe wear color for a change.
Before we continue, let’s just take a moment and give Tom his very own round of applause for his work in this episode. We know there’s no romance blooming between him and his sister-in-law (thank goodness!), which makes his tender care of Mary all the more heartwarming. Although he puts on a brave face and seems to be thriving in his new roles as Downton’s agent and father to little Sybbie, Tom suffered a horrible loss last season, too. His determination to get Mary back on her feet is admirable and makes us wish so hard that Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) was around to see her man at work.
Speaking of Change, How About That Edith?
Six months have done wonders for Lady Edith. The formerly mousey middle daughter has completely blossomed, much in part to her job at The Sketch and her love affair with editor Michael Gregson. Is it just us or are these two much more serious than when we left them last series? As in, Michael’s willing to move to post-World War 1 Germany and become a German citizen just so he can divorce his lunatic wife and wed Edith.
Despite the obvious difficulties of her more or less leading a double life between Downton and London, Edith seems pretty set on taking Michael up on his offer. She’s so moved by his declaration of love during dinner at the Criterion that she, looking the most beautiful we’ve ever seen her, asks Michael to kiss her, kiss her in front of all the people everywhere always. Our chic silk hairties off to you, Lady Edith.
Poor Mr. Molesley
Who would have thought Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) would become one of our favorite characters?! He’s the classic underdog who got yet another hard knock from life when his employer, Matthew, died unexpectedly. This episode follows Mr. Molesely around and he looks for work; he even goes so far as to return to Isobel and plead for his old job back.
She, however, has no room for a butler (though she did have plenty of room to take in Mr. Carson’s frenemy from the workhouse, just sayin') but thankfully, the Dowager is here to save the day (again)! She arranges a luncheon to “sell” Mr. Molesely’s servant services to her old friend, Lady Shackleton (Dame Harriet Walter). Sadly for Mr. Molesely, the other manservant on staff takes an immediate dislike to the bumbling interloper and proceeds to sabotage his efforts to impress Lady Shackleton and land himself a new job. It’s a rare bit of humor in an episode that trended toward darkness.
Look Who’s Back and Ready for Trouble
Remember how we mentioned earlier that Rose’s efforts to find her aunt a new lady’s maid would end up doing more harm than good?
Well, it turns out that after Edna Braithwaite, aka the former Downton maid who tried to sink her claws into Tom at the end of Season 3, left Downton in secret disgrace she decided to go get herself an education — in lady maid-dery (who knew they had schools for that?).
She applies for the vacancy at Downton and through a little backhanded dealing combined with Countess of Grantham, Cora Crawley’s (Elizabeth McGovern) truly horrible skills in judging character, is hired on.
Our thoughts on this are best summed up by Mrs. Hughes: Edna coming back “sounds like a ticking bomb.”
Let’s Talk About the Kids
Baby George and little — how freakin' adorable, right?! If we have one complaint with this episode, it’s that we didn’t get to see their chipmunk-cheeked cuteness enough. We hope that’ll change as Mary warms up to being a mother.
We’re so in love with these kids already that we almost reached into the screen to throttle Nanny West ourselves at the end of the episode. That’s right. Thomas, by pure happenstance, was right about that mean old nanny.
Because he alerted Cora that Nanny West might not be what she seems (totally for his own benefit, of course), the Countess was on high alert. She stopped by the nursery one evening only to overhear Nanny West call Sybbie — and we quote — “a wicked little crossbreed” because she’s the daughter of a former chauffeur. In arguably our favorite scene of Cora ever, the new grandmother swoops in and kicks West right out, telling Mrs. Hughes the now ex-nanny “is not to be left alone with the children, not for one minute.” Way to go, Grandma!
There Really Is Something About Mary
Beside all the other storylines of Episode One, this first trip back to Downton was all about Mary. Matthew’s car accident left her feeling like all the softness he saw in her “dried up and drain[ed] away.” Thankfully, she’s got good people in her corner including Tom and dear Grandmama Dowager who, in an unexpected bout of emotion, tells Mary that she loves her.
That said, the award for “Best Effort in Getting Mary Out of the Land of the Dead” goes to Mr. Carson. Although he got his head bit off when he originally approached his favorite Crawley about helping out with the estate, Carson was there in the clutch when Mary returned to apologize. That’s the moment when the young widow finally breaks down, prompting Carson to give her a hug and tell her “you have a good cry.” And there goes our last box of tissues.
And that’s not all! As the episode ends, an appropriate scene of a sunbreak peeking through the dark clouds over Downton proceeds Mary’s first venture back into the land of the living — and she’s wearing purple! Taking her rightful place, literally and figuratively, Mary looks determined to not be defeated by her grief.
It would seem Julian Fellowes doesn’t want us to leave the first episode of the fourth season completely heartbroken, which is an encouraging sign after the emotional rollercoaster he took us on last year. Still, we're not putting the tissue box away quite yet.
- That downstairs love quadrangle from last season — Ivy, Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers), and Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) — doesn’t look to be getting any better. Antics on Valentine’s Day, including a heartfelt but misplaced gesture on the part of Mrs. Patmore, put the four young people at odds particularly after Jimmy gets Ivy sloshed at a pub. Based on our careful repeated viewing of the one-minute trailer/our own natural intuition, we know this situation isn’t going to get better soon.
- The quote of the night has to go to Lady Mary when, in discussing Edith’s relationship with Michael, tells her father that the older man has at least something going for him: “He’s not bad-looking and he’s still alive which puts him two points ahead of most men of our generation.” True enough in post-World War 1 England but never fear, Mary. Your attractive gentleman callers are due to arrive very, very soon.
- We’re seriously considering starting a petition to have Mr. Carson hired out to give hugs and “drafts of self-confidence.”
- Not sure if you saw the previews for next week but what’s this about a letter from Matthew? Could it be one as monumental as the whole Lavinia Swire dad epistle of last year? We’ll fill you in as we get the deets.