What’s Up In Downton: Series 4, Episode 1

Tim Boden

Downton’s back! Everyone do the early twentieth century equivalent of waving your hands in the air and freaking out! Actually, come to think of it, you might as well just do that, as Downton Abbey is many things, but historically accurate has never been one of them.

Four series in, it’d be foolish trying to explain all of the backstory or the appeal of the show to an outsider, so to the uninitiated I’ll just say this: the new series is sponsored by Tesco Finest, and there really couldn’t be a more perfect match. It’s a bit fancy, but mostly only in comparison to all the tat it’s surrounded by; it’s not really much better than Corrie/the Everyday Value range (delete as applicable), but the posh packaging makes it feel a bit special, and it certainly goes down a treat with a glass of wine.

But for Downton devotees, burning questions remain. With several major characters gone and the storyline now up to the 1920s, will the series be able to re-attain the standards set by series 1 or outdo the high-camp ridiculousness of series 2 and 3 with their epidemics, eclampsia and Canadian cousin-impersonators with melted faces? Join me now as I take a look back at Sunday’s extra-long opening episode.

The rest of this article contains extensive spoilers for the most recent episode of Downton Abbey, as well as events from previous series. Please note also that as my elderly laptop struggles with video and tends to wheeze and keel over when attempting to produce screencaps or GIFs, I have instead produced artistic impressions of key moments. I’m sure you’ll barely be able to tell the difference.

By Downton standards, this opening episode was rather restrained, with no major scraps, spats or domestic disasters other than a mildly amusing minor subplot about the kitchen’s acquisition of an electric mixer. The pieces are being positioned for events to come ahead, but nothing especially juicy seemed to reveal itself.

The biggest problem this week was the dilemma of how to run Downton following Matthew Crawley’s untimely demise under the wheels of a runaway plot device. Due to the law deciding that babies are better than women at owning stuff (as long as they’re not female babies, of course), most of the house and estate is now the property by Matthew and Mary’s six-month-old child. However, he’s in no fit state to run things – and neither, unfortunately, is Mary, who is drifting about the place like a well-to-do poltergeist, leaving trails of ice in her wake and causing plants to wither at her touch.

Dead Husband

Figure 1. Mary, mid-drift.

Credit where credit’s due, Michelle Dockery is brilliant at being numbly contemptuous, and Gothy Mary was the highlight of this episode, casting utter scorn on the world of the living and all of its frivolities. She even managed to get through an exchange about having to ‘choose either death or life’ without cracking up, which is quite an achievement, particularly when the script demanded her response be a deadpan ‘and you think I should choose life?’. (Unfortunately, the scene ended before she could declare herself to be Mary-Ra The Ever-Living and therefore claim both, then disappear in a puff of black smoke and crow feathers.)

I also don’t know whether to applaud or condemn the script for having the whole situation resolved by the end of the episode. On the one hand, it seems a bit much to think that a six-month-long period of post-bereavement depression could be cured by a nice big hug from the butler. On the other, in other series this subplot would’ve been stretched out for half the series and ended in equally underwhelming fashion, so at least they got the disappointment out of the way early.

Meanwhile, the rest of the house was occupied with more frivolous things, such as an exchange of Valentine’s Day cards (which is actually historically plausible, for a change; the tradition of sending cards on Valentine’s Day goes back to at least the mid-19th century), O’Brien running away to India, and Edith taking up the task of being The Interesting Crawley Sister in the absence of anyone else willing to do it. She’s still seeing her editor friend in London, which is something, although he now seems to think the only way for them to get married is if they both move to Germany. Great idea!  Germany’s a lovely place, and there definitely aren’t going to be any big political upheavals there any time soon.

There’s also early inklings of some development involving an old acquaintance of Carson’s who’s turned up in the workhouse, the return of Edna (You remember Edna, right? The housemaid who felt being a housemaid was beneath her? …no, me neither.), and an unexpectedly entertaining subplot involving Molesley.

I’ve always felt he’s a bit superfluous to proceedings, but for once, that was actually the point. With Matthew’s demise he’s a valet with nobody to valet at, hence the poor chap’s reduced to mimbling aimlessly around the kitchens during the day and standing out in the garden staring at the moon all night. Unfortunately, the mighty moon goddess was too busy mucking around with tides and menstrual cycles to give her favour to an ineffectual valet, so Molesley found his one chance at getting a new job sabotaged by the guy whose post he was trying to steal, a grumpy, lumpy fella with an impressive ability to talk without moving his mouth very much.

Nasty Butler

Figure 2. Molesley’s rival.

And that has been pretty much it so far. Not a lot has changed in Downton as of this opening episode, and what’s been set in motion doesn’t look dramatically promising, but we can only presume that bigger developments are on their way. They’d better be.

Best bits: Thomas’ passive-aggressive sparring with Nanny West; Ivy hanging something fierce after a night at the pub with Jimmy; Lady Violet reminding us all that there is no excuse for eating off a tray, even being an old widow.

Worst bits: Some excruciating stating of the obvious this week, from Mrs Patmore stating that her ineptitude with the electric mixer shows she’s a creature of the past to Branson having to bluntly remind Lord Grantham that his spouse is dead too.

Best worst bits: Nanny West referring to Sibyl Junior as a ‘wicked little cross-breed’. Too much? Or does Sibyl have hooves and we just haven’t been shown them yet?

Quote of the Week: “This is a man you sang and danced with – do you feel nothing?”

Missed Opportunity Watch: Two so far – other than Gothy Mary’s miraculous recovery, Nanny West and her evil ways could have been a source of episodes’ worth of intrigue and bitchery if she hadn’t been immediately discovered and sacked. Her replacement had better be worth it.

Ad break highlights: An even split this week between the Endurance Sofa (the sofa of choice if your living room happens to be located at the top of a mountain, the bottom of an oceanic trench or in the middle of a nuclear testing ground) and Tesco’s own Imperator Carrots (the tyrannical dictators of the subterranean root vegetable empire).

Next week: Hats! Fighting! Mysterious letters from the dead!

About Tim Boden

Tim Boden has been a grumpy old man since he was about 13. Born and raised in the darkest East Midlands, he now lives in Australia as part of an ongoing project to avoid getting a proper job and settling down for as long as reasonably possible. His interests include comics, beer, rugby league, 20th-century history and other things mostly favoured by middle-aged men who spend a lot of time in sheds. He has very strong opinions on vegetables.

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