Review of "Downton Abbey" season premiere on PBS From The TV MegaSite

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"Downton Abbey" Season 4 Premiere review by Sundi 1/6/13
Airs Sundays, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS

Warning -- some spoilers!


Sunday’s premiere of season four of the PBS juggernaut, Downton Abbey, was the highest rated drama ever for the network, which speaks to the power of white people and their viewing habits... Picking up a bleak six months after the saddest thing that has ever happened -- referencing Matthew’s death, duh -- not much has transpired Upstairs since we left the Granthams. That doesn’t mean the two hours didn’t entertain and offer some good old-fashioned restrained English entertainment. After four seasons, fans of the show know what to expect and are probably already so in love with it that it can do no wrong -- I am writing this recap for you. For folks who aren’t fans -- you may stop reading now.


The episode picks up with O’Brien having left the downstairs for the wilds of India to accompany Lady Flintshire (Lady Rose’s mother) as her new lady’s maid. This set the tone for the busy catch-up that becomes far more complicated than a season premiere should be (especially since PBS inconveniently omitted a “scenes from last season” at the outset). Downton Abbey is a real time commitment, coming in at two hours an episode, so they definitely pack a lot in.


Let’s start with the upstairs. Lady Mary is obviously mourning for Matthew and it becomes wearying watching everyone work to protect her from the world. Branson and the Dowager Countess (with the help of Carson) step in to intercede with Lord Grantham to convince him to include her in the business of the estate. There are a few gross conversations about Mary’s “rights” as the widow, and her “capability” of running the Abbey, but after a few pep talks, just as many break-downs, and a mean dressing down of the lovable Carson, Mary comes around and gets interested (maybe in more than the business -- I’m looking at you, Branson). After a posthumous (and admittedly emotional) letter turns up from Matthew declaring Mary his sole heir, there is a lot of talk about returning to the land of the living (insert "Walking Dead" joke here). It's this letter that brings out an ugly, proprietary side to Lord Grantham. He is hesitant to relinquish control of the estate to Mary, and the Dowager thinks it's because he just doesn’t want to let it go; because he likes being in control again. He can be kind of a baby about things -- which his mother thinks as well. She threatened to ring Nanny and have him put to bed with no supper (LOVE HER!!!).


Meanwhile, the wallflower Edith is far less wall and way more flower as she travels to London more and more often to visit with her follower (that’s what Daisy calls him, anyway, but I’ll call him her boyfriend). Since he is still married, Edith feels very worldly dining in public with him and taking the train to see him. She even admits struggling with his invitation to stay overnight, saying, “I’m finding it harder and harder to say no --” That vixen! She has gotten a makeover this season as well. While Mary appears wan and pale and dressed all in black, Edith is all Gatsbied up in her rhinestone party dress and white satin gloves. I’ve always rooted for Edith; she’s had it rough over these four seasons, so I hope she gets hers this go-around. Searching for a solution to the marriage problem, Gregson suggests he become a German citizen in order to get a divorce, and that is shocking to Edith.  I’m having a hard time suspending my twenty-first-century-disbelief enough to care about this. Apparently its a big deal -- World War I and all. She invited him to Downton to meet the folks  -- let's hope we don’t have to wait three episodes to get in on that action.


On to downstairs. The under-maids and under-butlers have a lot happening on Valentine’s Day. Who sent a card to whom? Check yes or no -- all that. However, the big news is Barrow’s various feuds with the ladies of the downstairs. Barrow first sets his sights on the Nanny when she scolds him for addressing the children and then dares to give him orders. In an attempt to do her in, he tells Lady Cora she is neglecting the children, which is a lie (but good for him because she is verbally abusing little Sybil, calling her a “wicked little half-breed.”) Cora overhears this as she is following up on Barrow’s accusation and fires her immediately. She can be heard wailing down the hall as Ms. Hughes escorts her out, unceremoniously. Barrow also has his sights set on O’Brien’s replacement, Braithwaite, but in a different manner (probably not in the way one might think, since we know Barrow prefers gentlemen). He’s a blatant social climber and sees great potential in the new lady’s maid. Braithwaite (if you will remember) got a little too close to Branson in season three and was sent off with a recommendation letter that he begged Ms. Hughes to write for her. It was that letter that convinced Lady Cora to hire her back, and it caused quite a quandary among Carson, Ms. Hughes and Branson (who, in Branson’s defense, offered to tell his mother-in-law the whole story ,but was discouraged by Carson because he didn’t want Lady Cora to think him “unworthy” of the Lady Sybil -- ouch!!!). He schemes with Braithwaite to frame Anna for ruining Lady Cora’s scarf, but his intentions are unclear. Who could hate Anna? And hasn’t Bates proved himself a formidable enemy? What are you up to, Downton Abbey?


Carson himself had his own storyline this week as well, since a character from his past as a stage performer made an appearance. After Ms. Hughes digs a letter out of Carson’s trash bin (everybody is interminably nosy at Downton Abbey), she goes to see  Charley Grigg in the workhouse, where he is in pretty poor shape (even worse than Molesley, who is the Badnews Bear of Downton Abbey). As the wisest person in the world, Ms. Hughes decides to pair Grigg with Lady Crawley to help with her grief (there is a LOT of talk about grief in this episode), and of course it does help her. We learn over an excruciating bit of subtext and exposition that Grigg stole a girl from Carson a hundred years ago, and Carson never forgave him. The episode ends with a pretty badass shot of Carson coming out of the mist, Iron Man style, and them parting as friends. You can always rely on Downton Abbey to neatly wrap things up for you -- at least the stuff you don’t really care about.


Finally, I would like to leave you guys with a final request. Can someone please start making a list of the anachronistic phrases they use in the the show, such as Lord Grantham saying “blow a gasket” last night? Did that phrase exist in 1922? Here’s a link to an NPR article with a few… can you find your own? Tweet me @sroseholt with what you find.




MASTERPIECE: CLASSIC "Downton Abbey Season 4: Part Two"
Sunday, January 12, 2014, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET
Check your local listings
The fates of several characters converge at a glittering house party. Gregson impresses Robert, and Anna faces trouble.

"Downton Abbey Season 4: Part Three"
Sunday, January 19, 2014, 9:00-9:58 p.m. ET
Love is in the air at Downton Abbey, and darker emotions too, as Mary, Edith, Tom and Anna each struggle with a dilemma.

"Downton Abbey Season 4: Part Four"
Sunday, January 26, 2014, 9:00-9:58 p.m. ET
Can Bates learn what’s troubling Anna? Meanwhile, Thomas installs a new ally and Alfred takes up cooking.

"Downton Abbey Season 4: Part Five"
Sunday, February 2, 2014, 9:00-9:58 p.m. ET
Rose’s surprise party for Robert risks scandal. Mary meets an old suitor, and Edith gets troubling news.

"Downton Abbey Season 4: Part Six"
Sunday, February 9, 2014, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET
When Robert and Thomas make a sudden trip, everyone’s life becomes more complicated. Mary and Blake come together over pigs. An unwelcome visitor appears.

"Downton Abbey Season 4: Part Seven"
Sunday, February 16, 2014, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET
Robert and Thomas return from America. Bates disappears for a day, Edith prepares to go abroad, suitors flock to Mary and Rose makes her move.

"Downton Abbey Season 4: Part Eight"
Sunday, February 23, 2014, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET
Lady Rose meets the Prince of Wales and faces a dilemma. Trouble also plagues Cora’s mother, her brother, Edith and almost everyone else at Downton Abbey.
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