Six months have passed since the car wreck heard 'round the world took Matthew from Downton Abbey, and if you weren't sure that THINGS HAD CHANGED, well all you had to do was watch the credits...the familiar backside of Lord Grantham's beloved dog was replaced by scenes with positively Gothic overtones of someone sneaking out of Downton under the cover of darkness. Downton Abbey is BACK, people!! :) (And in case you're not familiar with my Downton recaps, this is NOT a spoiler-free post!)
The figure sneaking away in the middle of the night turns out to be the love-to-hate O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), who has absconded to INDIA with Violet's niece Susan! (I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that I totally suggested this last year, thanks for reading the blog Mr. Fellowes! *wink*) While I suppose I'll miss O'Brien's scheming (and her epic bangs!), I think it is wholly appropriate that the character make their exit causing scandal -- family members poaching each other's staff! Sneaking off in the dead of night!! THE SHENANIGANS!!!
O'Brien's hasty exit in Lady Susan's employ makes things right awkward for her daughter Rose (Lily James), who feels rather guilty that her mother would do something so declasse as poach a longtime staff member from the household that's been hosting her daughter for the past six months. She shows some initiative and posts an advertisement for a lady's maid in the POST OFFICE WINDOW, which is pretty shockingly modern but unfortunately attracts the attention of the erstwhile maid Edna (MyAnna Buring), who uses the reference provided by Mrs. Hughes -- which was basically a bribe to get rid of her -- to get re-hired by the family. I pretty much hate Edna with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns, so I am in complete accord with Mrs. Hughes' assessment that Edna's reintroduction to Downton is like a bomb waiting to go off. (Side note: It's refreshing to see Rose be, well -- excited and youthful and non-annoying...at least thus far. Her little interlude masquerading as as a maid at a local dance was HILARIOUS.)
Continuing to assess the downstairs action, we get a little Valentine's Day card drama to remind us that NO ONE IS INTERESTED IN DAISY which is one of this show's greatest tragedies! Both Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Ivy (Cara Thebold) get cards from anonymous admirers. Daisy is heart-breakingly hopeful that Alfred (Matt Milne) sent her a card, but he's deep in the midst of his own awkward times deflecting questions about his aunt's midnight decampment from Downton, and he still, for some reason I cannot fathom, has eyes for Ivy alone. Ivy of course is still into Jimmy (Ed Speelers), who seems only willing to flirt until he decides HEY, WHY NOT, IVY LIKES ME I SHOULD TAKE HER OUT. They can have each other, because who needs Jimmy or Alfred when you have a kick-ass mentor like Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) who sends you a card just because she's worried about you feeling left out of the romance drama, and you COMPLETELY MASTER the art of making mousse with the SHINY NEW ELECTRIC BLENDER in no time flat. Daisy, my dear, you rock. :)
Carson (Jim Carter) finds himself in the middle of some unexpected drama when his old acting partner, Charles Grigg (Nicky Henson) -- whom we haven't seen since season one, part two! -- has fallen on hard times and found himself in the workhouse. It seems Carson can hold a bit of a grudge, and his reluctance to see Charles stems from the disappointed romantic hopes of youth rather than any concern about keeping his stellar reputation as a butler without equal intact. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), however, cannot STAND to see Carson tortured (because they are IN LOVE, right?! they just don't know it yet), and after a little smart reconnaissance work discovers a repentant Mr. Grigg, in desperate need of help and desperate to make amends with his one-time friend.
Mrs. Hughes decides I CAN FIX THIS! She goes to the grief-stricken Isobel (Penelope Wilton), who has a long history of being SUPER ANNOYING. But a bereft Isobel I can apparently deal with -- but Mrs. Hughes very wisely realizes that a bereft Isobel ISN'T NORMAL, so she convinces her to take on her first post-Matthew project of fixing Mr. Grigg, which she does with her usual efficiency, securing him a job in Ireland. But Carson has taken grave exception to Mrs. Hughes' well-intentioned meddling, and it takes some SPARKS and as close as the two of them get to fighting for him to realize that he has no need to hang on to the memory of some woman who threw him over way back when, because HELLLOOO!!! Mrs. Hughes is RIGHT THERE. (I kid, I kid, I'm projecting a bit here...)
Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) are stupid cute in this episode...I mean RIDICULOUSLY happy. And since I know a few spoilers for what's coming later on in the season, this breaks my heart...I mean don't these lovebirds realize by now that happiness is a jinx?! Bates -- did anyone else notice that he's hardly limping anymore? -- gets some wonderful screentime as the devoted husband, going out of his way to placate Anna's worries about Molesley's (Kevin Doyle) unemployment situation by playing a sort of jolly Santa Claus. Seeing the normally stoic Bates involved in such a light-hearted scheme is, frankly, adorable, and just makes me want to give Brendan Coyle a hug. :) Apparently Edna and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) are now allies and have decided to take-down Anna in the family's estimation, which honestly feels like such a poor imitation of a classic O'Brien-Thomas scheme one wonders why Fellowes bothered... (Also, how sad is it that unemployed Molesley is the most compelling version of this character to date? Poor guy...)
Speaking of Thomas, he accidentally does something rather good by complaining about Nanny West's (Di Botcher) treatment of the newest Crawley family members, George and Sybbie Jr, after the nanny tries to give him orders. While I completely get Thomas' affection for Sybbie, as her mother always treated him with kindness, I really didn't expect the nanny to actually be guilty of abusing the girl in favor of her cousin because of Branson's history in service. YIKES. In other news, the discovery of Nanny West's unsuitability provided Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) with one of her more awesome moments to date in the series. Half the time Cora is such a frustrating character because she takes EVERYTHING the servants tell her at face value...but just when I think she couldn't be more clueless, she does something awesome like accept Branson into the family because Sybil loved him, or go all Mama Bear on the evil nanny. BE MORE AWESOME, CORA. I know you can do it!
For the past six months, upstairs life has revolved around trying to accommodate Mary's (Michelle Dockery) crippling grief. She's become a shadow of her former self -- I've read many describing her as a zombie, which personally I find a little harsh -- I mean just because I don't really care that Matthew's gone doesn't mean I don't think she shouldn't...as his widow her grief and crippling depression makes sense to me. But then I've always felt like I liked Mary a lot more than many other viewers of the show? ANYWAYS, enough thinking out loud there. Mary's zombification leads to two interesting plot points -- Robert's (Hugh Bonneville) insistence that she not be bothered with anything regarding the running of the estate, and Branson's (Allen Leech) belief that she NEEDS to do just that in order to bring her back to life. Also, how wrenching and powerful were Mary and Carson's scenes? It broke my heart a bit when she told him off but it made sense...and I loved that Carson loves her enough, and has known her long enough, to know where that anger was coming from. Well-played by both Dockery and Carter.
I love Branson the estate agent SO MUCH. He seems to have really settled into the role comfortably and his compassion for Mary's grief, and his understanding of what it takes to find the will to engage again from his own loss is really beautifully played. Loss and parenthood have softened this one-time hothead's rough edges with a lot of compassion and wisdom. Robert's reluctance to involve Mary in the stewardship of her son's inheritance is highly concerning...I do think Robert grieves Matthew, but his insistence on not burdening Mary starts to become annoyingly patronizing all too quickly. Thankfully his mother is around to put him in his place, especially when he floats the ridiculous notion that it would be permissible to conceal Matthew's final wishes -- a will of intent if not in actuality -- until his lawyer verifies it. BADLY DONE, ROBERT.
I adored Violet (Maggie Smith) as per the norm in this episode. Not only is she as smart and sassy as ever, but the woman looked AMAZING. That dove-grey ensemble she was wearing at one point? SO STYLISH. Smith is an acting powerhouse, and the moment where she encourages Mary to re-enter the land of the living just KILLED me. I would love more of the Dowager's backstory...for all her quick wit and sharp tongue, this is a woman capable of great compassion and empathy...and I'd love to know how she got there. Too bad we can't travel back in time to let a young Maggie Smith bring a film of Violet's youth to life. :)
Now Edith (Laura Carmichael) -- that girl is ROCKING the 1920's fashions isn't she? Girl has finally got a decade whose looks love her. *wink* Apparently she's still writing, but no one really knows about what exactly, because WHO CARES she and her editor still have a little something going on! And dancing on the edge of a full-blown affair is apparently VERY good for Edith's looks and temperament! Gregson (Charles Edwards) -- I can't be bothered to call him Michael -- is like some needy version of Rochester. I mean SO CUTE but SO DOESN'T HAVE IT TOGETHER. His latest brilliant idea is becoming a German citizen because apparently that means he could divorce his insane wife and marry Edith. Not that I think the show is going to go well into the 1930s (not successfully at any rate), but who doesn't see Fellowes thinking "oh!! Gregson can become a German fascist!" LIKE THAT IS GOING TO END WELL. :P
I suppose this about covers it for Downton's two-hour season four premiere. For all this show's forays into soapiness and predictability I still love it. Thoughts on the first two hours -- did I leave anything out? And for those of you who have watched series four in its entirety, please try to keep comments as spoiler-free as possible for those in the US watching this season as it airs on PBS!
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