Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 1

downton-abbey-recap-season-4-episode-1

SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by David Evans. Originally broadcast: 22 September 2013, ITV.

With Matthew dead, Mary is in mourning. Meanwhile, Miss O’Brien abandons the family, someone asks Carson for help, and Michael Gregson considers moving to Germany.

When is it set? A caption tells us it’s 1922. It’s been six months since the previous episode. The story takes place over a few days, one of which is 14 February.

Where is it set? The house and estate. The village, including the church, the post office and Mr Moseley’s father’s house. Isobel’s house. Violet’s house. Rippon. Also a few places in London: a train station (which looks to be St Pancras), Michael Gregson’s home and swanky restaurant The Criterion.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Miss O’Brien does a runner in the night – it’s the first scene of the season and the character has gone before there’s any dialogue – as she’s been headhunted by Robert’s cousin Lady Flintshire. The character is played here by an uncredited extra because actress Siobhan Finneran had left the show between seasons.
* Lady Rose is now living at Downton Abbey, seeing how her parents are off to India.
* Baby George has a nanny called West (Di Botcher). She’s a bit minty towards Thomas Barrow so he makes sure she gets the sack.
* Edna, the maid who caused a fuss in the previous episode, is back and applies for O’Brien’s old job. In a nice bit of plotting, she’s hired before any of the characters who met her last time realise.
* Mr Carson gets a letter from his old friend/music-hall colleague Mr Grigg but throws it away. Mrs Hughes retrieves it from the bin and learns that Grigg is in the workhouse. Carson doesn’t want to help, so Mrs Hughes goes to Isobel. This gives the grieving Isobel someone to focus her attentions on.
* We see Violet’s butler for the first time: the dour, grouchy Mr Spratt (Jeremy Swift).
* Lady Shackelton (Harriet Walter) is a friend of Violet’s. She’s a stuck-up aristo. Violet arranges for Moseley to wait on her, hoping that Lady S will hire him.

Best bits:
* On Valentine’s Day, Anna and Bates share a loving look across the breakfast table as they open their cards. “Who sent you a card?” he teases later. “I don’t know,” she replies. “It’s not signed…”
* Mr Molesley calls on Isobel to ask for his old job back. Violet is there when he arrives and he does a double take.
* Edith’s romance with Michael Gregson is very nicely done: two good, likeable actors with chemistry, and a Downton-style twist of melodrama courtesy of Michael’s dilemma. He can’t divorce his insane wife in the UK, so is considering moving to Germany. If he becomes a German citizen he would be legally able to divorce her. (Also worth mentioning is his flat. It looks like something out of a Poirot episode: there are Art Deco furnishings, then we see a soiree with bright young things.)
* Tom Branson urges Mary to take an interest in something. “I’m interested in George,” she says. “Are you?” he asks. “I will be,” she replies sadly.
* While attempting to embarrass Molesley, Spratt passes him a boiling-hot platter.

Worst bits:
* It’s been a while since the show had to have creaking dialogue where characters tell each other the legal implications of who inherits what. But with Matthew dead, we have to have it explained that his son, George, is the new heir. “Together my grandson and I own five-sixths of Downton,” says Robert as he gets into bed with his wife. “And Mary’s share is only for her life. She couldn’t do much with it even if she wanted to.”
* Now that Bates has stopped caring, and Miss O’Brien has gone, Thomas Barrow has no other servant to bicker with – so he picks on Nanny West. And then the story has a ludicrous climax: Cora overhears West being specifically cruel about baby Sybie.

Real history:
* While acknowledging that workhouses were more or less anachronistic by 1922, Mrs Hughes says the one she visited was like something out of a novel by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).
* Lady Shackleton mentions that “awful Lloyd-George” has just removed land subsidies. David Lloyd-George (1863-1945) was then the Prime Minister. Violet says she wonders whether he’s really German and just pretends to be Welsh.

Upstairs, Downton: A rivalry between the nanny and the other servants also features in the Upstairs Downstairs episode Out of the Everywhere (1972).

Maggie Smithism of the week: After a distraught Mary storms out of dinner, Violet is the one person aware of the servants smirking at the drama. So she moves the conversation on: “This mousse is delicious, Carson…”

Mary’s men: Mary is still in deep mourning after the loss of Matthew. She’s wearing black and moping about; she even refers to her son as an orphan. When Carson attempts to talk to her, she gets defensive and accuses him of overstepping a boundary, then later shouts at her family when they try to help. It’s her grandmother who finally gets through. In a tender chat, Violet says Mary has to choose life or death… By the episode’s end, Mary is again playing a role in the management of the estate.

Review: The episode begins with spooky shots of the house at nighttime as Miss O’Brien flits away unseen. Matthew has been dead for about six months, yet it’s strangely played like he’s only just died. (For example, Molesley is only now worrying about not having a job any more.) There are a handful of lighter subplots, but grief overshadows everything. Actress Michelle Dockery is especially haunted, and the moment when Mary’s frosty façade drops and she sobs into Carson’s arms is very moving. The whole episode then noticeably lightens for its final few minutes – there’s even a shot of the sun breaking through the clouds.

Next episode…

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