Mourning Becomes ‘Abbey’

Season-4-downton-abbey-35621641-3000-2000It’s been six months since the last action on “Downton Abbey” — but nearly twice as long since it’s been on the air.

So with the start of season four Sunday, it seems like poor Lady Mary, unaware of the fate of her husband at the end of season three [yes, there will be spoilers, and yes it’s been about a year, so yes, get over it] is now in full mourning over what was one of the worst moments in the series.

Not that the death of Matthew Crawley wasn’t sad and sudden, but it was also way too convenient a way for its actor to get out of his contract, with no particular script forewarning, and the kind of exit you’d expect in a cheap soap opera.

After all the gnashing and wailing about Matthew going off to war, it’s fairly senseless storytelling as well, and Mary explodes at one dinner scene to say about that.

Still, they must soldier on, and they do. “Downton” looks smashing and seems to have found its footing with characters, a balance of upstairs and downstairs action and establishing some of what will be the season’s plot lines.

Two hour season premiers are unwieldily, though. The immense amount of promotion already guarantee the season’s first episode an audience without making it a bloated event longer than most feature films.

The success of “Downton” comes in cutting its stories quickly back and forth in a way writer Julian Fellowes learned from “The West Wing.” But over two hours, that’s a lot of story and a whole lot of characters. I’m not sure someone coming into Downton now would be able to sort through the dozens of characters and their stories.

Plus there was one who was back at Downton though it took me most of the episode to figure out who she was: Edna Braithwaite was the maid who threw herself at the widower Tom Branson and was kicked out. She’s back with a new position to fill a slot left by O’Brien — who provided the early intrigue in the long episode by essentially doing a Matthew: disappearing in the dead of night to take a job with Rose’s mom Susan MacClare, whom they all visited in Scotland last season.

The actress Siobhan Finneran’s contract was up too – and the shadows of the woman purported to be O’Brien in the start of the episode probably isn’t her (It happens in a one-time opening credit segment for the show — the usual castle and dog hindquarters returns next week).

So let’s try and cover everything that’s happening here: Mary is mourning and acts like a ghost, though she’s not quite as fragile as Lord Grantham thinks she is. He won’t let her work on any of the estate stuff because she’s so emotionally fragile, but also, we learn, because he wants to run it all himself.

But Mary’s been moping around for six months like this so by now even servants are telling her to get ob with it — first Anna and then Carson (at the behest of Branson). But mostly it is the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by the splendid Maggie Smith, who seems to have much more to do this season and is generous with the wisecracking when she isn’t giving advice.

Just as down in the dumps is the formerly cheery Mrs. Isobel Crawley — the Dowager is on her case as well, and Mrs. Hughes gets her to take on a pet project, Mr. Carson’s former music hall song and dance partner Charles Grigg, who has been down on his luck lately and is found in a workhouse (which apparently did still exist in some rural areas in 1922). Carson holds a grudge because he took away the love of his life. But the busybody Hughes, who dug up a crumpled up letter from him, vows to help anyway.

And by the end of the night, it’s no surprise that yes, Mary’s out of her black and into a purple dress, ready to join the family business; Mrs. Crawley is back out helping people and annoying the Dowager the way she always did; and even the comically stern Carson has agreed to shake the hand of his former enemy just as the train whistle rings.

In all of this Downton seems such a conventional and predictable series, despite its setting and occasionally sparkling dialogue. But there is so much more stories to tell.
Cousin Rose, staying with the family since the Scotland trip, looks like she’s going to be a handful. She talks Anna into going to a tea dance with her down in the village and immediately sparks the interest of a local gardener. She pretends to be an aspiring ladies maid and then a big fight breaks out when someone else wants to cut in. So odd to see fisticuffs in the normally genteel drama.

Poor Mosley is out of work — uh, he used to be Matthew’s butler but there’s no need for that any more, and Carson lets him go. The Dowager invites him to a lunch she’s attending so he can show off his skills, but that goes awry when another butler sabotages him.

Mosely goes beyond mere comic sad sack, though, when we next see him laying tar for the road, complaining he’s in debt to Anna when she passes by. (It inspires a convoluted way for the Bates to give him some money, but to make it look like they’re paying him back for a loan he’s forgotten).

Change is coming to the kitchen when an electric mixer is introduced. Mrs. Patmore seems absolutely scared of it, though Daisy welcomes the change. Daisy is part of the least interesting plotline of the week: sending Valentine’s Day cards. Apparently in England in 1922, you could only send one, so the Bates each get one, and everybody assumes since Jimmy must have sent a card to Ivy, that Alfred gave one to Daisy. In reality, Alfred sent one to Ivy and Mrs. Patmore sent the one to Daisy because she didn’t want her to feel bad.

Jimmy invites Ivy to the pub and gets her drunk. Some think he’s showing Ivy attention just to bug Alfred who really likes her more.

Edith got a valentine too, and Mary is morose about the fact. She’s popping over to London more and more to see her editor man friend Michael Gregson, who is now talking about moving to Germany because it’s easier there apparently to get a divorce and he and Edith can be wed. Edith is touched by this sentiment and her resistance is lowering to his invitations to stay over.

Barrow is up to his usual ways by giving the new nanny some lip. She seems to think she has a higher rank than he does, and he obviously disagrees, refusing to follow any of her orders, no matter how small.

Barrow goes further and makes up a story about how the nanny is not caring for the children properly (someone has to take care of these kids! Widow Mary and WIdower Branson may be the two worst parents in England).

Lady Grantham pokes her head in the nursery just when the nanny coincidentally happens to be cussing out the Branson child as a “half-breed.” Lady Grantham sacks the nanny then and there and thanks Barrow for the tip.
Anna tells the incoming Braithwaite to be wary of Barrow, who tells the newcomer to blame a sewing accident of some sort on Anna. Barrow’s still being bad in other words.

But Lord Grantham may be the biggest jerk of the abby, trying to grab power from Matthew’s share of the land. When he finds a letter Matthew wrote just before his accident saying he intends to make Mary the heiress, he considers not showing her. When it proves to be legal (though why, as a lawyer, Matthew had not written a will for his growing family is odd), Mary suddenly has control of half the estate by the end of the episode.

As a plot device, the suddenly-found letter seems as cheap as the original car crash — it’s too neat, too clean.

There seems one lost opportunity in the episode, too, when Gregson invites Edith to a party to meet his literary friends. Though the series is loathe to introduce actual historical figures (the way the revived “Upstairs Downstairs” did), they could have had a stand-in George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot or Aldous Huxley among the group just for fun.

The party — and the episode — gets stronger next week when there’s a big social gathering at the Abby, where Gregson tries to ingratiate himself to Lord Grantham and the first of what turns out to be a string of suitors tries to catch Mary’s eye.

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