Downton Abbey: Season 4 Wrap-Up

Deborah Gilbert | March 25, 2014

Tis’ a weekend afternoon, a few weeks since the finale of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece and I’m making like Mrs. Patmore and preparing my dinners for the week, thinking about what we just witnessed; a year in the life of the inhabitants of The Abbey condensed into eight all-too brief episodes. The January 5 premier now seems, all at once, like yesterday and such a long time ago (maybe because we’ve been snowed in for most of that time).

This season ended without all the sturm und drang that followed last year’s finale — that infamous Splat heard ’round the world. No storming the barricades, no pitchforks and torches, no calls for Julian Fellowes’ head on a platter, no threats to never watch the show again. No, this season ended with a sigh and a smile, and maybe a happy little dance. Kind-of ironic considering how it all started so ominously, with that off-key piano and things that go bump in the night.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. This season was about the stuff of life, the small things; no wars or pandemics, no threats of bankruptcy or the gallows; it was simply about love and loss. It was about finding love, and losing it; about what someone would risk for it, and about picking up the pieces when it all goes pear-shaped. Again. Before the season started, Masterpiece told us, ‘This season, secrets change everything.’ Don’t they just. Let’s tuck in…

It’s not where You Start, It’s Where You Finish: The Accidental Hero:
And it seems like Thomas ended the season exactly where he started, adrift, after spending much of it spinning his wheels to no avail. Sure, early on his stock was up when he got Wicked Nanny West sacked, but then his evil super powers went on the fritz and he crashed like a Canadian railroad stock. At the preview party here in December, Rob James-Collier said that Thomas isn’t evil, he just needs a hug. I suppose that is true. To be gay in that time, especially in his situation, could be lonely and dangerous thing. It could be grounds for incarceration or worse, and I think that fact is the source of his malevolence. At the very least it had to be frustrating to be adrift with no hope of finding love and companionship. For awhile, he and O’Brien were kind-of companions of convenience; kindred misanthropes. Then one grey night it happened, his playmate O’Brien vamoosed. And although they had since fallen out, O’Brien was (at least) still a worthy opponent; the Frazier to his Ali. Without his lifelong friend, Thomas could not be brave, so Thomas that mighty Under Butler sadly slipped into his cave. He was left largely without direction. It made no sense that, after Bates had saved his bacon, for Thomas to turn on Anna (who had only ever been kind to him) in such a petty way, conspiring with Crazy Edna. Once, Thomas seemed like a peacock; now he is just a small man, miserable with his lot in life, feeling so excluded that he brings a Trojan Horse into the house to be his eyes and ears; so bitter he is left to bully another down-on-their-luck soul. But people are unpredictable and with a bit of kindness from Molesley, Thomas’ intended puppet, Miss Baxter, blossoms and steps out into the light. And just like that, Molesley went from hapless weasel to hero. And all it took was a chain letter and a dream. Will next season see his friendship with Baxter become something more? Would that even be possible? And will we finally find out what Big Secret Thomas is holding over her?

Those Were the Days My Friend: The Times They Are a Changin’:
The Dowager’s final scene of the season ended much the same as her first: With a wistful look, lamenting the end of an epoch. Though her season-ending scene, a showdown with Martha Levinson, was more brutal than the first one with a more like-minded Mr. Molesley, Sr., “You don’t have to tell me.” But is the closing epoch she fears really her own mortality? Is that why she so often grabs the steering wheel, to make sure the family firm is set on the right path so she can rest? Or is that just how The Dow G rolls? I’ve ended each Downton Abbey Dish recap with the Dowager Countessdown, Violet’s funniest or most profound zingers of the week. But really, even though she consistently gets some of the best lines in every episode, what most speaks to the funnybone and the heart, and what I cannot put in the Countessdown, is her face. That face. It is a face of monument and subtlety, of economy of movement and brilliance. Coco Channel famously said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.’ And well beyond that is Maggie Smith’s expressive face – a Stradivarius being played by a master of both comedy and tragedy. I’d say that if Lord and Lady Carnarvon ever decide to carve a Mount Rushmore in the hills above Highclere Castle, the Dowager’s face should be the first one chiseled in stone. Fans often ask how long Downton Abbey can continue; in my opinion it can keep going as long as the Dowager can. She is the only character the show absolutely cannot do without (which is why there was a collective gasp heard across America when she started to cough and wheeze a few episodes in). And Violet never gets stale; four seasons down and we are still learning new things about her. Just one thing we learned this season: Her house is run by a bitchy Norma Desmond impersonator. And since she has long since mastered the swivel chair, I look forward to next season when Violet embraces newer (matchmaking) technology and posts a Grindr profile for Mr. Sprat.

Green Eggs and Ham: Addicted to Love:
Mary began this season, six months on from Matthew’s death, burning a black hole of grief in the screen. She ended each day the way she started, not crying her heart out exactly, but devoid of life; no more laughter, no more love. When handed the baby, she held him like he was a ten-pound sack of potatoes. And Lord Grantham seemed to want to keep her that way so he could have his toy Downton back. Then Matthew spoke from the great beyond (maybe Lavinia showed him how), and slowly the worm turned, and the suitors started appearing like gorillas in the mist. First there was pretty boy Gillingham, a blast from the past who was hedging his bets, conflicted over whether he should marry potential serial killer Miss Mabel Lane Fox. And Mary was conflicted over whether she should let him get away. Then there was good old Evelyn Napier who came in third even when there were only two contestants, making the strategic error of shlepping Blake along for a stay. Blake challenges Mary, and that is her pattern – she loves gamesmanship: She wants to play chess. That’s why Evelyn Napier was never in the running; he was playing Candy Land. For Napier, she could barely muster an eye roll. For Blake, she did that sexy little egg-scrambling dance, looking over at him as she stirred, like she was Salome dropping a veil. So who will it be? Which one will win her heart? Or will it be none of them? I know there are some who don’t like Gillingham for the simple reason that he proposed to a woman he didn’t really love, Miss Mabel Lane Fox, and then dumped her after hiking through the Scottish heather (or maybe it was poppies). Some people thought this dishonorable, but since we have never met Miss Mabel Lane Fox, we really have no idea. For all we know, she came home every night and hit him in the head with a frying pan (or had her ladies maid do it for her), so Gillingham just might be blameless in all this. And he was a good enough judge of character to dislike Green. So he can’t be all bad. Then again, I have a strong suspicion he just might be a fortune hunter. Then again, so was Lord Grantham. And so is Mary.

The Impossible Dream: The Man That Got Away:
While Mary has busy hoarding all the available men, Edith was hoarding all the bugle beads. For the last two seasons she has had the most enviable wardrobe of the bunch, and this season Edith and Beadith kicked it into high gear, though that might not be much consolation to Lady E. Much has been said about Mary’s Black Widow-like track record with men, but Edith’s just might be worse. Her love interests seem to simply vaporize into thin air – except, of course, that old geezer, Sir Anthony Strallin. He’s still running (he was recently picked up on NORAD, sprinting across Greenland). But one had higher hopes for Editor Charming. He was no hero out of books, but last season at Duneagle, we saw Edith grow three inches taller when he stood up for her, against the digs of Lord Grantham. An ally in the drawing room at last! He made her world bright and all right. But this is luckless Edith we are talking about, she of the dropping of the other shoe. This season, we first heard about a dodgy past, and then just like that, he was gone – but not before leaving Edith with a lovely parting gift. She still loves him so; he’ll never know. Or will he? And if Gregson is declared dead and she is his beneficiary, Edith just might become an accidental newspaper magnate. Then again, secrets change everything. What about the loony wife? Is she really loony at all? Might she turn up? And will Rosamund and Granny still support her after this other shoe drops: That Editor Charming was a married man. Edith has probably had the most interesting journey, and the one most relatable to contemporary women. Her life may have been just despair, but she didn’t care. In her own way she has pushed against the tyranny of expectation and tried to build something for herself.

Sure, she still had her Edith-like moments, like when she first spotted Jack Ross in the Downton gallery and asked, “Who is this man and how did he get here?” – as if she thought the answer might be that he had disembarked from an alien space ship that landed on the front lawn. Or when, in discussing her misgivings about Rosamund’s Switzerland baby-dodge scheme, she said, “Is it right that the baby be Swiss?” Though these outrageous comments may seem like a joke, they tear at your heart when you scratch the surface: Of course, that isn’t what she was really asking. The subtext — what she was really thinking (or screaming) inside, was that she wanted to find a reason for Rosamund’s plan to not work because she wanted to find a way to keep her baby. It showed Edith at her most poignant. Now she has pinned her hopes on the Pigman. Will he come through? And will he keep shtum? Will Cora and the rest of the family find out, and if so, how will that change things? It’s funny, in my review at the end of Season 3, I wrote that it would be great if, a few years from now (after Julian Fellows has had a bit of R&R), they produced a Downton Abbey sequel that takes place in the run up to WWII that would find that Edith had had an illegitimate child with Gregson, who would grow up on the estate along side Sybil’s daughter and Mary’s son, and with a chip on her shoulder to rival Edith’s. When chatting with Lord Fellowes, at the preview party, I suggested this to him, and he just looked at me funny. Of course, people often look at me funny, so I didn’t think much of it. I have since read that he doesn’t like to talk about future story lines or ideas. Oh well.

But forget about sequels. Let’s just think about Season 5. Will next season find Edith makin’ bacon with the Pigman? Will Editor Charming ever return? Will Edith be his forevermore? Is he still out there somewhere? Did those Brown Shirts in fact give him a thump on the head, and he’s in a semi-conscious state in a German hospital just waiting to be awakened? I saw that in a Shirley Temple movie once, so it could happen. Yes, what is the First Rule of Soapdom?: We don’t see a body; he ain’t necessarily dead. Hello! And more importantly, what kind of relationship will Edith be able to have with her daughter? Will she just have to watch her (longingly) from afar? For Edith’s sake, I just hope she doesn’t name the girl ‘Veda’ (though it would be kind-of funny if Mrs. Pigman names her ‘Mary’). Regardless, you just know there is more heartbreak to come. The only thing we don’t know is what form it will come in.

The Quicker Picker Upper: Jazz Hands:
According to Robert Frost, ‘Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.’ He added, ‘It also got Cousin Oliver Rose in a lot of trouble.’ What can we say about Cousin Oliver? She’s so spoiled and out of touch she thinks her Dad works harder than a slave, complains about her luxury living conditions to the impoverished staff, and thinks nothing of using poor, adorable Jack Ross to make a point. Her job this season was to set the cat among the pigeons and she did it admirably, almost to the point of bringing down the Monarchy. Well played Cousin Oliver, well played.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother-in-Law:
The combination of grief and feeling like a fish out of water can make a person do strange things; things like, almost getting taken to the cleaners by a bunny boiler on acid. T’was a narrow escape, that one, thanks to Judge Judy Hughes. But without Mrs. Hughes, nor surrogate Mum Isobel, around to help, Tom has difficulty fending off Miss Blunt Bunting, who knows just how to tap into that Irish guilt. Will she continue to push Tom’s buttons? He may see his old attitudes reflected in Miss Bunting, but now that he has learned that the Crawleys are not The Other, will he find that reflection unattractive? In many ways, Branson’s identity crisis mirrors Mary’s: They each have a foot in two different worlds and are conflicted because of it. We have often seen Mary’s inbred imperiousness make her cut her nose to spite her face, like at the beginning of the season when she gave Carson a dressing down because he dared speak to her out of concern, as an equal. Because it was a truth she didn’t want to hear, she pulled rank in a cruel way. Of course she apologized when she came to her senses. She needs Carson for that draft of self-confidence – and love. It seems odd that the butler would offer her more support, devoid of reservation and jealousy, than Lord Grantham, but there you have it. It is not surprising that Mary and Branson make a great team. Remember Mary’s reaction to Matthew when he so publicly stood up for Tom and named him Best Man after Lord Merton’s son had tried to humiliate him? She was elated. Once she got past the shock of Sybil’s relationship, she settled in – and not just because she’s pragmatic. Tom has grown and he serves an important role: He is the glue. He is a kind-of combination confidant/mediator to the battling Crawley sisters. Just as Isobel is his surrogate Mum, he is Edith and Mary’s surrogate Sybil. He has spent enough time in the breakfast club with Edith to understand and support her – and given some subtle reactions, one wonders if he has sussed what has been going on (i.e., the pregnancy). I’m guessing he knows. Do you agree? And, of course, maybe more than anyone, he helped Mary back to life. And Lord Grantham learned a lesson from Branson too: No more hot young chauffeurs around his daughters. This new chauffeur is some old guy who doesn’t speak or go near the family. He rarely even leaves the driver’s seat. With that, it seems the only person he’ll be pairing up with is Madge.

What I Did For Love: Keep On Truckin’:
I did say last year, that something bad was sure to happen to the Bateses. And you know me, when I say a thing I have a very good reason for saying it: They were just too darn happy, and whenever anyone on any television drama is too happy, start to worry. But all joking aside, the attack on our PollyAnna was brutally horrific. It was a kick to the gut because it was so well done, and because everyone loves Anna. In its aftermath, we saw the two people who love Anna the most, Bates and Mary, do what they could to help her – and Mrs. Hughes did her best as well. But how far did Bates go to help? I feel for all the EastEnders fans who were so, so excited at the news that dishy Nigel Harman was going to be on Downton Abbey coming into our living rooms in high definition, only to be crushed that he was playing a horribly evil character, and then (not quickly enough) that he met with a well deserved Albert Square-like demise. Was it an accident or not? I vote not. Is that a question that is going to come back to haunt the Bates’ happy little home? Is Bates a serial killer? How can he be a serial killer, with only one name? Did Green just see Bates coming at him, panic, and accidentally step in front of a lorry? Or did Bates give karma a shove? Then again, where was Miss Mabel Lane Fox on the date in question? I say we get those Bletchley Circle girls right on it. Though if Bates is guilty, do you even want to know? As much as he loves Anna and wants to protect her, at some point, might his anger turn on her? The man is a limping red flag, and she already spends way too much time walking on eggshells for fear of what his anger might make him do: I cannot help but think that at some point his anger will turn in an unforgivable direction. What say you?

I Wanna Hold Your Hand: L is For The Way You Look At Me:
So what is the deal with Lord Merton and Isobel? The fact the he pops in, and she gets flustered over her lowly soup, kinda says to me that this might be going places, unless something puts the kibosh on it. Maybe someone who doesn’t want to see a commoner with a coronet? Maybe a certain Dowager Cougar who wants him for herself? Or maybe just that putz of a son of his. It was a season of love, wasn’t it? If I am not mistaken, Lord Grantham actually got through the entirety of it without cheating on Cora (though we don’t know what he got up to in America). Prediction: Next season sees Lord Grantham finally give up his resistance to the horseless carriage in earnest and (inspired by his loving wife) make a fortune manufacturing bobble head dolls for rear automobile windows.

But Lord Fellowes did save the best for last, didn’t he? Who didn’t love that ending with Carson and Mrs. Hughes holding hands as they waded into unchartered waters? Forget about the young’uns in the Downstairs Quadrangle: This is the couple every Downtonian wants to see make it, amirite? But will we get to see it? Or will we only get a tease? Or will we find out that Alice Neal isn’t dead after all when she turns up at Downton bringing complications in her wake?

Sigh. It’s gonna be a long, hot summer.

With this happy ending, I’m guessing that Lord Fellowes didn’t want this off-season to be like last, where, after the death of Matthew, he had to spend months on an apology tour (did he get to your house yet?) Then again, the seasons seem to alternate anyway between ending with potential happiness or tragedy:  Season 1 ends with the outbreak of WWI; Season 2 with Matthew & Mary’s engagement; Season 3 Matthew goes splat; and now Season 4, Carson & Mrs. Hughes wade into romantic waters. If Fellowes follows this pattern for Season 5…well, I shudder to think. I believe it was Mrs. Patmore who said, ‘nothing is as changeable as a script writer’s heart. Take hope and warning from that.’

So there you have it, Downton Abbey is like life: Grab the happy while you can! The season ended happily for everyone…except Jack Ross…and Crazy Edna… and Green… and card sharp Samson…and possibly Gregson…and that cute guy (Sam) who danced with Cousin Oliver in Episode 1…and Madge the phantom housemaid who was never really mentioned after Episode 3, and, of course, potential serial killer Miss Mabel Lane Fox. Did I leave anyone out?

So now the countdown to next January begins. And what shall we do in the off-season? Maybe take up a new interest perhaps. Something like poetry or carpentry; history or hats. Between now and then, keep checking back on Thirteen’s Downton Abbey page for my blog Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora for regular, spoiler-free updates on Downton Abbey and all the rest of the great British programs on PBS. Next up: The return of Call the Midwife and Mr. Selfridge. It’s been a great run, Downtonians! I hope you had fun!