How do you move on after your greatest joy in life is gone? How does a hit show follow up a season that had one of the most devastating finales in television history? This past Sunday, American audiences of the British period drama television series Downton Abbey tuned into the season four premiere with record numbers, in an attempt to find the answers to these very questions. While most of us west of the Atlantic have to conform to PBS’s schedule and learn about the future of the Crawley family piecemeal, I was lucky enough to have a friend studying abroad last semester get me the BBC’s DVD release. I endured a binge-watching session spanning two days, and (after ingesting six months of storyline) a recovery period of a few more days, just to give you, dear Downton fans, a brief glimpse into what the next few months has in store for our beloved characters. Minor spoilers lie ahead, so proceed at your own risk!
The new season begins in early 1922, six months after Matthew Crawley’s death. The war is a thing of the past and these are modern times, but Mary, now left a widow even more jaded by the world, can’t move on. Earlier hints from show creator and writer Julian Fellowes that Mary is a negligent mother who disregards her baby prove to be exaggerated. Let’s be honest, Mary’s cold to everyone, especially someone she’s meeting for the first time. And, uh, her husband just died six months ago. Are we supposed to have forgotten that? I’ve had almost a year to get over Matthew’s tragic death and I still want to cry when I see the actor who played him, Dan Stevens, so how can Fellowes think that six months is anywhere near enough time for Mary to move on?
We all have some idea of the “perfect couple”; to me, Mary and Matthew were the real deal, the fantasy come to life. So I was disappointed to see that in the fourth season the main issue is little different than the previous seasons: whom will Mary marry? Once again, “Mary’s men,” as the family jokingly calls them, fight amongst themselves to impress her. While Mary does start holding her own in the management of the estate (Fellowes gives us some great scenes of father-daughter power plays, presented in understated British fashion), it feels like the show-runners missed a great opportunity for character development. Instead, the plot is recycled – same story, different Matthew.
Another instance of laziness happens in the aftermath of a horrific incident at Downton that occurs in the third episode, one so shocking that I actually had to hit pause and get myself together before continuing. Instead of exploring the occurrence with any real depth, using it as an opportunity to develop and explore character roles and relations as well as the historical 1920s, it is dealt with abruptly and hints at a plotline we’ve seen before (two words: Bates and crime).
One woman whose post-war story gets some justice is Isobel Crawley. With Matthew’s death really leaving her role-less, at least as far as her relationship to the Crawley family is concerned, Violet experiences what it’s like to lose the title of mother, but finds direction in her renewed charitable deeds. Her conflict – to remain perpetually in mourning or to allow herself to be happy – is grappled with elegantly. It’s nice to see her relationship with the Countess of Grantham continue to develop. There were initially concerns that Maggie Smith was leaving, but she’s still around and as witty as ever. The two of them are like an elderly version of Gossip Girl’s Blair and Serena, only it’s actually enjoyable watching this pair of frenemies interact.
The rest of the character arcs were a little messy, though I suppose reflective of real life, with random storylines involving a nanny, a jazz singer (the show’s first black character), and even Edna, the hated ex-housemaid. This last one seems to serve the sole purpose of shaking up Tom Branson’s otherwise rather boring life. It’s strange to think that this out-of-place and quiet, almost demure, character used to be one of the most interesting ones on the show, a riot-braving, socialist chauffeur who ran away with a noble lady. The Edna subplot is quickly resolved by Mrs. Hughes, who spends most of her time taking care of secrets and scandals both upstairs and downstairs. Speaking of scandals, this was supposed to be the season Edith comes into her own, but still it’s “poor Edith” as she silently struggles to deal with two huge life changes. As for the newest noble character, the teenaged Rose, it’s rather unclear what she’s doing with the family – her presence seems merely a tool to enable small episodic conflict. We get it already, Fellowes, Downton isn’t all about stuffy old ladies – it can feel young and modern. But Rose’s mere presence won’t be enough to do that. She has to become significant, more than just a pretty noble whose only role is to throw parties.
With these modern times, we increasingly see scenes that take place off the grounds of the estate. As usual, Downton doesn’t disappoint with its incredibly beautiful scenery, cinematography, and costume design. And considering it’s a rather dark time for much of the family and servants, the season was full of humorous touches. Unfortunately, the addition of romance was much more heavy-handed, resulting in some relationships that felt rather forced – for instance, a distant family friend randomly showing up and courting Isobel, a weird sudden-onset love-quadrangle amongst the servants (who have been working together for several years!), and a brief and almost arbitrary engagement between Rose and a lover, just to name a few. So in terms of quantity of drama, season four is brimming with it; but the cursory nature with which it deals with the plots and the one-too-many romances veers into soap territory, which is never good news. After all, we know the Crawleys have a bad history with soap.