Downton Abbey: How to Grieve Fabulously

Posted on January 06, 2014

Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey, on PBS.

When we sat down to twitter our way through last night’s 4th season premiere of Downton Abbey, we asked ourselves (And the twittersphere generally) the big question: Will Lady Mary bear her enormous grief nobly and with character or will she lapse into being the cold bitch with the razor sharp tongue that everyone loved to hate before Matthew put a muzzle ring on her?

We are happy to report that Lady Mary grieves in much the same manner she floats through a dinner party; by being devastating and by cutting off anyone who gets impertinent with her. Never did so many (relatively) plain black frocks look Vogue-cover worthy. We’ll say this about Mary: she definitely knows how to catch the light. Even when that light is early-morning Yorkshire or the glare of an electric lightbulb in the butler’s office, she always looks perfectly poised and posed to show the world how much she’s suffering and how little she thinks of the rest of it for not suffering along with her.  Also: her jawline and cheekbones.

Expectations were not high for Downton’s fourth season; at least not in this house. With the hilariously peevish way show creator Julian Fellowes dispatched lead character Matthew Crawley, who sat at the epicenter of the story from the very beginning of it, we had little hope that there was going to be a story worth watching going forward. And while we’d never accuse Downton Abbey of being anything but a very pretty soap opera, we were pleasantly surprised to see that, for this two-hour opening at least, it’s a fairly well-crafted soap opera. Sure, there were the usual pacing problems that have always plagued this show; the sudden unexplained turnarounds in character or the way it tends to shuffle people in and out of the story but gives them nothing to do otherwise, which tends to render the whole of Downton Abbey like an animatronic funhouse ride in a Disney theme park. Aristocracy Land, where little figures of Mrs. Patmore or Lady Edith buzz, click and whirr their way back to life in the brief moments when the spotlight is upon them and then shut down when it’s someone else’s turn. But the story rolled along nicely last night, taking us with it. We found ourselves genuinely interested in and curious about most of the main characters and where they’re headed under the new status quo.

Mary is, as we noted, the main player in the story, as she always has been. There were times in the past where we felt the show focused way too much on the oldest, arguably prettiest Crawley daughter, but let’s face it: she was the whole reason to tune in this episode. We wanted to see how she was handling both her grief and her motherhood. It turns out, she’s not doing all that great and the main narrative thrust of the premiere wisely focused on this, with her entire family as well as several of the more connected servants concerned mainly with Lady Mary and how to get her out of her massive funk. It’s very interesting to note that the two people most responsible for getting her back on her feet were Carson and Tom Branson. The first is no real surprise, since he’s always been her second, more emotionally available (which is saying something, considering how uptight he is) father. But it’s hard not to notice the sudden rapport she and Tom have with each other. And it’s a credit to Fellowes that it all feels quite natural. Not that there’s a romance on the horizon for these two (although there were a couple scenes there that strongly hinted at it), but the fact of their lives have brought them together. They are both grieving single parents, after all. And they’re bound together by their responsibilities to the estate. But it’s all rather awash in irony, since the ridiculously aristocratic Lady Mary’s closest friends now appear to be servants or former servants and since the former revolutionary terrorist (arguably) is now consumed with running a massive estate. There’s a rich amount of story to mine from this and we’re happy to see that Fellowes seems to realize that.

Of course we laughed long and hard at the silliness of Matthew’s hastily scrawled will, found months after his death and including a tear-inducing final note. It made not the slightest bit of sense that Matthew wouldn’t have a will. In fact, we doubt very much he would have even been allowed not to have one, once he became the heir presumptive of the estate and married the Earl’s daughter. But the fact that it was found shoved in a box long after he was put in the ground was just too much for us to take. “Was it found under Lavinia Swire’s deathbed letter?” we asked the screen. “Or did he scrawl it on the back of Mr. Swire’s will?” At this rate, we fully expect a goofily-acted burn victim to show up on the doorstep claiming to be Matthew.

In other Downton news, Lady Edith has a stunning new wardrobe and no fucks left to give. It’s a true pleasure watching her come into her own, away from her oppressive family and bitchy older sister. It says something that Mary herself, even in the midst of her grief, appears to be at least a little impressed with Edith and the way she’s living her life at the moment. Who wouldn’t be? She’s swanning around 1922 London in a succession of gorgeous outfits, on the arm of a very attractive man (with a BOATLOAD Of red flags and issues, it has to be said).

And we thought we’d hate to admit it, but we find it rather easy to like Lady Rose. We’re going to be pilloried for saying this, but Lady Sybil was a boring character played by a charisma-free actress. Rose is annoying, but she’s a fun annoying. That house desperately needs some lightness and recklessness in it. And how better to portray the coming Jazz Age by plopping a Jazz Baby right smack in the middle of the estate. Give her this: the girl’s got game. She had an adorable little tweedy boy following her around like a puppy from the second she entered that dance hall. We also like how Anna’s becoming something of a mentor to her.

Which brings us to the downstairs portion of the house. Always fun to watch the goings-on, but we can’t tell you how bored we are by the Jimmy/Ivy/Alfred/Daisy love rectangle (which feels very last season) and how coma-inducing the Bateses are. We honestly wish they’d kill Mr. Bates off. The longer he’s on the show, the more everything he does looks creepy and suspicious. We don’t think that’s the intent of the writer; we just think too much darkness has been piled onto this one character and not for the first time we found ourselves wondering if he really did murder his first wife. Kill him off to give Anna something to do besides babysit Lady Rose and fret over Lady Mary.

Surprisingly, we didn’t mind seeing the back of Miss O’Brien. As much as we loved the character, the show needs to keep moving forward in order to remain at least somewhat fresh. We were annoyed with the return of Edna Braithwaite, mainly because it seems so unlikely (even if Cora’s been repeatedly shown to be utterly clueless when it comes to downstairs politics) but also because, along with the return of Cheerful Charlie to vex Mr. Carson, it didn’t feel like the show was moving forward at all. Too much recycling of old characters whose stories had effectively ended. Time for new blood at Downton. Unfortunately, Nanny West didn’t last long enough to do anything but make Thomas look good once again. “Oh Robert, we owe so much to Barrow. Let’s pretend he never stole from us or sexually assaulted a male servant!”

Let’s see… what else? The annual ritual humiliation of Molesly continues. Isobel ripped our hearts out in more than one scene and we loved Mrs. Hughes for effectively taking her under her wing – especially since that cold-as-ice family seemingly couldn’t be bothered. Robert continues to be an insufferable ass, which is almost comforting in its regularity. Cora is, as noted, the Dumbest Countess in England. The Dowager is sui generis and above our feeble attempts to classify her. She is, quite simply, perfection. Although we did love finding out that her butler is a scheming, judgmental bitch. How very appropriate.

It was a solid, fun opening. We can see where Fellowes is likely to fall into some of the same narrative traps again, but for now, we’re fine to just sit on the couch and watch where things go. We thought it was a dead show at the end of last season, but there’s still some life in the old girl.





[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE]

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