Finally! Sunday night, the fourth season of the wildly popular PBS Masterpiece Theater series Downton Abbey arrives on U.S. shores. Picking up six months after the sudden, tragic and (for viewers as well as the Crawley family) unexpected death of Matthew just after the birth of his son George, Downton’s two-hour premiere focuses on widow Mary and Matthew’s mum Isobel as they cope (or don’t) with their grief.
Despite the loss of two pivotal characters as season four opens (Sibohan Finneran as Mrs. O’Brien, left the cast) the rest of the ensemble is still intact, including Dame Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess), Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Grantham), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Grantham), Michelle Dockery (Mary), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Joanne Froggatt (Anna), Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Brendan Coyle (Bates), and Allen Leech (Tom), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), among others.
Season four opens six months after Matthew’s sudden death, and Mary seems to have lost the will to do just about everything. She has become a virtual automoton, floating through life lifelessly, devoid of spirit, spark, and even the desire to be with her new young son George, the new heir of Downton. Isobel, Matthew’s sparkplug of a mum has also lost her fire and passion. To see these two incredibly strong women still in such grief after so many months is tragic, but over the course of the first several episodes, with the help of those who care about them, they attempt to rise above their sorrow and rejoin the land of the living.
For Mary, it is Tom (no stranger to grief, himself) who nudges and cajoles, enlisting the aid of a surprising ally to pull her out of her funk. And as she finally emerges from her widow’s black, Mary soon finds herself the object of some serious courtship. But is she ready? But it is not only courtship for which Mary needs to be prepared, but the running of the estate in little George’s name. With much at stake, is she up to the task?
In the meantime, Edith is spending more time in London, better dressed and coiffed as she is courted by her still-married Michael Gregson, chained to an asylum-bound wife who no longer knows him (how very Jane Eyre!) But he has a plan, and however long that will take, he is ready to commit to seeing it done — if it means he can marry his beloved Edith. But how will Robert react to Edith’s choice of a mate? You’ll just have to wait and see.
Downstairs, the episode begins with O’Brien creeping off in the middle of the night, leaving Lady Grantham without a ladies’ maid (oh dear!). She hires (without first checking with Mrs. Hughes) a maid with a history at Downton, which causes no end of misery (and regret) for poor Tom.
A bit of Mr. Carson’s past comes back to haunt him when his former performance partner turns up in a nearby workhouse, and Mrs. Hughes cannot help herself from intervening. How will it end? You’ll find out by the end of episode four.
The most painful storyline at Downton will concern Anna and Bates as it unfolds over the first several episodes. I cannot say more, other than it tests the character and strength of both of these very virtuous characters, as well as their marriage.
The new Downton Abbey season is simply riveting. The fast-changing world surrounding the Crawleys and their downstairs staff must have been no less jarring than the transformative decades of our own time. Technological changes (amusingly, in the kitchen — poor, dear Mrs. Patmore), new-found upward mobility possibilities (and unemployment for some), a dying aristocracy (along with their estates), sociological upheaval all have an irrevocable impact on life at Downton.
But the social commentary is but a backdrop for the real drama above and below stairs. Downton is still classy soap opera, done with panache, fabulous performances, beautiful set pieces and powerful emotion (and a few surprises). Downton Abbey premieres on PBS tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET; original episodes air through February 23.
The most popular series ever to air on PBS, Downton has been renewed for a fifth season to begin production later this year. So tune in and let us know what you thought of the season premiere in the comments below!