Downton Abbey: Season 4, Episode 1 Recap

Deborah Gilbert | January 5, 2014

The great philosopher Fred Rogers once said, ‘There is no normal life that is free of pain. It is the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for growth.’ Unfortunately for some of our friends at Downton Abbey, it is 1922, forty six years before he could be their neighbor, so they will have to muddle through without his sage advice. Though who knows, it is quite possible that Lord and Lady Grantham are acquainted with the Earl of Cardigan, so that’s something. But we can tell right from the first moments of this new Season 4 that everything is amiss at dear Downton. How could it not be? First off, where is Isis? Instead of the familiar wagging doggy and wafting piano welcome, we are greeted with things that go bump in the night; with hurried packing, with someone unfamiliar; with the baby crying in the distance as Lady Mary lies awake, motionless on Matthew’s side of the bed. And so it begins…

Born to Run: O’Brien We Hardly Knew Ye
And just like that she’s gone. What a way to kick things off! O’Brien departs in the night for a place where noodle bangs blow freely in the breeze – or so she thinks. Or maybe she doesn’t think about that at all. Could it be she’s only trying to get away from the spilled secret of the slippery soap? Was that whispered taunt still hanging over her head? Was Bates still using it to get her to bend at will (i.e. “Please pass the salt or… Her Ladyship’s soap”)? We may never know. And now she’s off to India with the Bickersons, and if Mr. Bates thought it a good idea to nudge her out the door, he likely regrets it now because better the devil you know. This new psychotic Ladies Maid seems a much more formidable foe than the neutered O’Brien. And she giggles evilly, as opposed to O’Brien who just smoked evilly. Kinda hard to say which is more annoying, but I guess we’ll spend the rest of the season finding out…

Ain’t No Sunshine When He’s Gone: My Baby, He Wrote Me a Letter
When we first met Lady Mary way back at the beginning, she was looking bored as she gazed out the window, greeting the abyss of another day. And so it was striking symmetry to see her looking exactly the same as we pick up the story here, six months after Matthew’s death signaling, right from the start, that Lord Fellowes has hit the reset button with this character. Six months on from the splat heard round the world, she is still in black and her poor little orphan is left to Nanny Dearest. It is Valentine’s Day and as Mary descends the stairs, passing Edith and her card, we see a shift in the continental plates of this relationship with Lady Mary looking, not really at her, but at the world in general with a combination of hollow stillness and vacant anger so incandescent it pushes you back in your seat; she appears like a black hole. If Michelle Dockery does not get an Emmy for that scene alone, for just that one look, then the Television Academy should just melt down their little statues and turn them into bedpans because there is, quite simply, nothing else on TV to compare to that performance in its quiet intensity and economical brilliance. Nothing. And when Mary stops at the landing and gazes into the empty gallery we can see exactly what she sees; in our mind’s eye we see her and Matthew dancing.

Branson is the most natural person to help Mary right now, and he knows how. But his suggestions are summarily dismissed as Lord ‘Foot-In-Mouth’ Grantham lectures him about losing a great love. And when Carson tries to help Mary, she pulls rank and gives him a dressing down that shocks him, and us (though he does recover enough to give her some tough love on his way out the door). When Violet tries a little nudge at dinner, Mary storms out, causing Granny to follow her singing, ‘Oh it’s time to start livin’, time to take a little from this world we’re given…’

In this time of grief, Robert’s inner putzliness comes to the fore as he tries consolidating his control of Downton. While he pretends it’s all out of concern for Mary and her son, we think mmmmm… not so much. Last season we saw Lord Grantham refer to Violet as having ‘her own Machiavellian reasons’ for supporting Edith. Me thinks the only reason he objects to those Machiavellian tendencies is that Mummy is simply so much better at it than he is. Lord Grantham is as manipulative as an evil ladies maid. He knows full well that Mary IS strong and smart, and that is exactly what he is afraid of. He wants his own way. But by now Lady Mary knows where to go when she needs a boost of confidence: To Carson. It is Papa Carson who tells her ‘you are strong enough’, while Papa Robert says ‘you are never enough’.    Thankfully, like Lavinia before him, Matthew is heard from the great beyond. Though, unlike with Lavinia, it didn’t require a Ouija Board, just a newly discovered love letter written to Mary, tucked all this time into a book, in which Matthew writes his intention to leave everything to her. Of course, that’s not good enough for Robert, who calls on Mummy Violet (not questioning Cora) with Matthew’s newly discovered final letter. He wants to send it to his lawyer without showing it to Mary, caring only about what the letter means for the estate rather than what it will mean to Mary to have these final words from Matthew. He assumes Violet will agree with him. She doesn’t. Remember, Violet always wanted Mary to inherit everything right from the start – from the moment the Titanic hit the iceberg, she wanted to overturn the entailment. So when Matthew’s final words give Mary’s lungs new air and Robert tries to knock the air back out of her with a boorish dining table smackdown, Violet shakes her Downton snow globe again and Branson is now driving Miss Mary, giving her an agriculture crash course. And it turns out the letter is legal! Matthew’s half of the estate goes to Mary (causing Robert to throw himself onto the floor in a sobbing heap and the Dowager to cartwheel out the library door and down the front lawn). And Mary has ideas. This morning glow is long past due!

No Wire Hangers, EVER!: The Broken Clock
Yes, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and so it was with Thomas when he really only tried to make some mischief. OK, we could all see right from the start there was something not quite right about Wicked Nanny of the West, amiright? Something that was, I don’t know, maybe one part Up With People, one part Twilight Zone. Just sayin’. T’was not a single spoon full of sugar in sight. Maybe it was because of the way she was introduced to us, walking the floor in the night with that outstretched bowl and the crazy eyes, and that off-key O’Brien music playing in the background. Seemed ominous from the start, didn’t it?  But who knew it would be Thomas to drop a house on her? And who knew she was as bad as that? And now she’s not only merely fired, she’s really most sincerely fired. Cora was so livid she actually sat with the children. Didn’t touch them, didn’t comfort little Sybbie after hearing her being called ‘a wicked little cross-breed’, but did approximate babysitting by sitting in a chair next to their cribs, so that’s something.

Who Knows What Evil Lurks: Blonde Ambition
Last season when O’Brien turned on him, we saw a vulnerable side of Thomas emerge. That’s disappeared and now Thomas has a new sense of power after accidentally calling it right with Wicked Nanny West. Less than a year ago it was Bates who saved Thomas from total ruin. If you thought that he’d feel some kind of truce-inducing gratitude toward Bates, you’d have thought wrong. Another reset button. Thomas has a new playmate now: Back like a bad penny is predatory housemaid Edna Braithwaite who, as soon as she gets the job, endears herself to Thomas with, ‘I don’t need to have everyone love me.’ And by the way, am I the only one who thinks that with that creepy voice, Edna sounds a little like a distaff Peter Lorre? Since being fired from Downton the first time (for hunting Branson meat), she went from blonde to brunette. One assumes that was a production decision meant to draw a contrast between her and Anna in this good vs. evil showdown (Alfred Hitchcock used to employ that dramatic device). Thomas conspires with the new girl to take down both Bates and Anna, and Lord Mercurial and Lady Dim Bulb are dumb enough to fall for it. But how is that even possible? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that Lord and Lady Grantham would suddenly suspect loyal, trusted, heart-of-gold PollyAnna of anything other than being a secret Santa. Accusing Anna of anything untoward is utterly mad and rather like pulling the wings off a butterfly. And to do so on the word of someone who’s been in the house only five minutes? No sense! But it serves to show, once again, what a petulant boob Lord Grantham can be, as well as a reminder of how easily these servants can be snapped right back into their arbitrarily ordered places – places determined by accident of  birth. And as benign as these Master/Servant relationships seem on the telly surface, the real class system was ruthless and unfair and could turn on a dime. But what is with the psychotic servants all up in here anyway? (I’m looking at you too Mr. Sprat!) Good help truly is hard to find. It was rather amusing though, to watch Mrs. Hughes, as Cora laments a helpless ‘what happens now?’ You just know what Mrs. Hughes wanted to say, in her Scottish lilt, ‘Well, with no one to dress you, I suppose you’ll just have to go nude M’lady.’ I’m sure that was the alternative scene ending that some focus group nixed, and more’s the pity.

A Lot of Livin’ To Do: What’s the Matter With Kids Today?
Ladies and gentlemen, as Lady Rose MacAfee lounges in her bedroom with the Victrola playing, we have spotted something familiar:  Our first our first 20th Century Teenager! As the Crawley girls move on past adolescent hi jinx, enter Cousin Oliver (AKA Lady Rose), back as a permanent pinch hitter this season. With Shrimpy and Susan in India and Duneagle on the auction block, that means (thankfully) no more visits to Scotland (i.e. no bagpipes! Kine hora!). But what do you do when your horrid Mummy steals a servant out from under the Lady of the manor that is sheltering you? When Edith offered to put ‘an ad-VER-tizment in The Lady’, you could see the wheels turning in Cousin Oliver’s head and you just know she went back up to her room and wrote, ‘Dear Diary, Invent Craig’s List’ and dotted the ‘i’s with smiley faces before writing, ‘P.S. Invent Smiley Faces’. Former servant Branson was clearly the only one in the room who gets that servants are people and thus not property that can be ‘stolen’. A minor detail. Lady Rose serves her function by quickly setting trouble in motion. She’s the impetus to bring housemaid/stalker Crazy Edna back into the house, and she gets Anna to chaperone her to a Tea Dance at the Moose Lodge in York where she takes a walk on the wild side, pretending to be a servant and dancing with one special boy, under gardener Hugo(who, if you ask me, was too good for her), inciting fisticuffs, and a narrow escape from a police raid. Later, when young Hugo turns up at Downton to check on her, Rose has to put on a happy face and the sexy housemaid’s outfit that married lover Terence Margadale loved so much (I’m guessing), just to give poor Hugo the polite brush off. She’s no Sybil, this one. But before she sends him on his way, she does give him one last kiss.

That Girl: She’s Gonna Make It After-all
…then again, this is Edith we’re talking about here, so as promising as it all looks at the moment, we have a feeling it will all end in tears and tossed tiaras. Lady Edith has gone from Jan Brady to Carrie Bradshaw, or more accurately, to her antecedent, the more chaste Ann Marie – only this Ann Marie is still living in Brewster and only commuting into the city to see Donald (AKA Editor Charming) – only this Donald is a bit more dashing and bohemian and lives in the 1920’s version of a cool, downtown loft. One need look no further than the modern art on Editor Charming’s walls to know that this is a different world than the one Edith comes from. Would an abstract ever grace the walls of the Abbey? We think not – and not just because the estate no longer has the money to buy art. As Edith walks through the Criterion toward Editor Charming, we see very clearly the use of production design to tell the story. In a room dominated by golds and creams and blacks, Edith is a bolt of color moving across the floor – and it is an interesting choice of color too. The green dress is a shade reminiscent of the green silk walls at Downton. An interesting side note: At the recent cast appearance here in New York, Laura Carmichael said that they had nicknamed this dress “Beadith” because of its intricate beadwork. In London, Edith and Beadith stand out. And contrast the confident way she walks into the Criterion with the way she self-consciously adjusts herself before entering the Library at Downton upon her return from a London jaunt. At Downton, her plans are always met with disdain from Lord Grantham despite Cora’s coaxing.

Commuting back and forth to London, Edith is leaving the Hundred Acre Wood bit by bit. Editor Charming now says he is even willing to change his citizenship so he can divorce his institutionalized wife. He’s done the research and has found out that in some countries, lunacy is grounds for divorce. (Some would say that marriage is lunacy to begin with, but that’s a discussion for another day.) In the mean time, he tells Lady Edith “I do love you so.” Her reply? “Do you? I’m glad.” Ouch? Or just British reserve? We think Editor Charming understands, but we can see the lingering doubts in both their faces when Chauffeur Burns comes to pick Edith up at the train station – and it seems Gregson can’t face visiting Downton (maybe Duneagle was enough to throw him for a loop). He does tell her that with him, ‘life won’t be quite what you’re used too’, and she tries to make him feel better by complimenting his cooking skills. Being a Lady has been an unsatisfying life for Edith, but it does have its’ perks. Can she go the way of Sybil and give up those perks for love? Will she even get the chance? For now, it’s wild enough for her that she’s sitting in a restaurant with him. Wilder still to say, “Kiss me now!” That Edith can be quite the dominatrix when she wants to be!

When a Man Loves a Woman: If You’re Ever in a Jam, Here I Am
Anna Bates is a friend to all and a sister to every other Girl Scout. Loving Anna is a spiritual journey for Bates. He loves her for what she brings out in him. My take on Bates is he is a person who works at being good, in a constant fight with his basic nature; while Anna, on the other hand, is pure good through and through. She doesn’t have to work at it. Kindness is the hallmark of her creed. I know most Downtonians see Bates as the noble hero, but I’ve always thought there was an undercurrent of something darker there; some element of danger lurking just under the surface. What is his secret?  His inner struggle is part of what drew him to PollyAnna. It is the attraction of opposites. Plus, she still calls him Mr. Bates. A little kinky, me thinks, but it’s working for these happy little Valentines. The Talmud says something like (and I paraphrase), ‘if you see someone who needs help, you are obligated to help them, but you should do so in such a way that they are not made to feel like they are accepting charity’. That is a natural for Anna, and it is what Bates did for Mr. Molesley, turning to forgery for no reason other than to help him (though only because it would make Anna happy). And his only response to her question “why?” was, “I keep telling you, prison was an education”. Hmmm… Tune in next week when Bates shows Molesley how to make a shiv and use it on Mr. Sprat.

Go Ask Alice: What Becomes of the Broken Hearted
Given the way they parted in Season 1, after Cheerful Charlie Grigg showed up as an opportunist from the past looking to extort money from our Mr. Carson, it seemed a bit odd that he’d show up again, after all these years, looking for compassion. But Mr. Grigg’s appearance served to peel away another layer of the onion that is the back story of Carson and how he came to his role at Downton. It also helps Mrs. Hughes help Isobel, still lost in grief over the death of Matthew. Mrs. Hughes doesn’t understand Carson’s anger, but she does understand that Isobel needs to get back to being her old crusading do-gooder self to get Grigg out of the Workhouse, if only for her own sake. And it works like a charm – even if Carson refuses to participate. But theater folk are like a big, dysfunctional family, and so in the end, Carson appears out of the mist at the train station to say a last goodbye to his old partner before he departs for Belfast. Is there a more appropriate entrance for our mysterious Mr. Carson? And after this, he is a bit less mysterious. We now have a name for his sadness: Alice Neal, the woman who left him for Grigg and broke his heart. Now that we’ve put a name to her, is this the last we’ll hear of her? Somehow I doubt it. Mr. Grigg says, almost in passing, that she’s dead now, but I don’t know about that. Carson did say he’s always been a liar; was he lying about this as well? Somehow I can feel it in my waters that there is more to this story. Upon hearing Mr. Grigg’s parting words, the deep, deep sorrow was so evident in Carson’s face as he walked away, past Mrs. Hughes, it seemed to take her by surprise. He had just lost his Alice for a second time. It turns out that all this time he has been carrying a lonely torch all on his own. As we watched Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes walk off down the train platform, we saw yet another example of the kind of small, subtle detail that makes the stories of Downton Abbey come so alive; it was the simple dance of how they switch sides as they begin to walk together. Mr. Carson is a gentleman and a gentleman always walks on the traffic side of the pavement. Small. Subtle. Perfection. The only thing we Downtonians want to know is, what are they walking toward?

The Dowager Countessdown (Madam Dowager’s best zingers from each episode)

5. No, but we can’t discuss it now. This mousse is delicious!

4. I see I am beaten, but oh how I sympathize with King Knute.

3. When you talk like that I am tempted to call Nanny and send you to bed without supper.

2. There can be too much truth in any relationship.

1. It is the job of grandmothers to interfere.

It seems to me that what we just enjoyed in this premier episode was watching all the pins being set up for the season. The bowling balls will come rolling down the lane soon enough, but for now it was a sweet pleasure to simply relax and watch new depths and shades being explored in these expertly drawn characters. We do love them so!

New episodes of Downton Abbey Season 4 air Sundays at 9pm through February 23. The previous week’s episode re-airs at 8pm, or catch up on previous episodes at and on the THIRTEEN explore iPad App.

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