Around the Water Cooler: “Downton Abbey,” the Season 4 Recap (MAJOR SPOILERS)

THE SPECS:

Who:  “Downton Abbey,” aired on public TV, specifically on PBS, Winter Sundays at 9:00 PM.

What: “Downton Abbey,” the story of the life and times of a fictional lord, his family, his servants, and his estate in Yorkshire, England, in the early twentieth century (for a more detailed Synopsis, read here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/synopsis.html).

When: The season finale aired on PBS, Sunday, February 23, 2014, at 9:00 PM.

Where: The show is set Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom.  The most recent season was set in the 1920s, the Jazz Age.

Why: I am an Anglophile through and through, and people were gushing about this show.  I also enjoy Dame Maggie Smith in just about everything, and her turn as the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, aficionado of acidic one-liners, is worth the watch alone.

How – as in How Was It? – THOUGHTS

The third season finale revealed the unexpected departure of Cousin Matthew Crawley, Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) beloved husband after a protracted will-they-or-won’t-they romance, when the actor who portrayed him decided he wanted to pursue a film career instead (and, really, how’s that going, guy?).  Cousin Matthew, also the heir to Downton and in charge of its affairs, met his demise in a car crash as Mary was having their baby son, George.  Series Four picks up some months after Matthew’s death and focuses on life in the wake of not only his departure but in the wake of the passing of youngest Crawley, Sybil, who died of complications resulting from the birth of her and Tom Branson’s baby daughter, little Sybil.

Let’s examine each character’s journey this season:

Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery)

Eldest daughter Mary was stricken by a grief that left her robotic and devoid of any warmth achieved by her relationship with husband Matthew upon his loss.  At first, Downton wrestled with the question of who would inherit the estate in the wake of Matthew’s death, but when it was discovered that lawyer Matthew scribbled down a makeshift will that left his share of Downton to Mary’s charge, it was agreed that she and her father Robert (Hugh Bonneville) would split the duties, and that Branson would fulfill his obligation as the dutiful son-in-law by helping.  Mary welcomed the distractions offered by running the estate but was caught off guard by two gentleman suitors vying for her attention: a wealthy childhood friend and a man who challenged her socioeconomic status and accused English lordships of resisting change, when he hailed from a baron’s estate himself.  Though she was not willing to openly return the affections of either suitor, it seems she’s drawn more strongly to the latter man, an opinionated, competitive man with whom she worked in the mud to save dying pigs.  Notably, Mary remains brave in the face of her grief, but she is not willing to move on from the memory of Matthew just yet.

Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael)

Middle daughter Edith continued her fraternization with married man Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), who insisted upon his estrangement from his wife as he courted intellectual equal Edith.  While it seems that their affections were genuine, Edith further complicated the situation by agreeing to sleep with him, technically in an affair, on a night before Michael travels to Germany, hinted to be overrun with what are clearly Nazi sympathizers.  Michael leaves for Munich in an attempt to finagle a divorce from his wife, only to become missing in action, most likely killed in a gang fight, while Edith discovers that she is pregnant.  Her Aunt Rosamund (Samantha Bond), who possibly shares a similar prior experience, agrees to jettison Edith to Switzerland under the pretenses of bettering her French, yet Granny Violet, the Dowager Countess, suspects that something is amiss.  Edith, further, does not want to be parted from the child, which she very much wants, but for the fact that the scandal might cripple her and her family’s status.  Though Edith initially has her child and leaves her daughter with a family in the Swiss Alps, Edith, by the end of the season, has arranged for the child to be cared for by one of the Abbey tenants, who agrees to help her in exchange for favors he has received from Robert and Mary.

Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton)

Matthew’s mother Isobel is also confronted by grief.  She first finds her purpose in nursing a tenuous friendship with the Dowager Countess, who, as different from Isobel as she is, sympathizes with her mourning.  Isobel even manages to nurse Violet back from a serious bout of bronchitis, much to the Dowager Countess’ snappy chagrin.  She also finds kinship with Branson, encouraging him to return to his political roots.  The change for Isobel arises when Violet introduces her to one of widowed friends, and a late-life romance blossoms, as tentative as Isobel is about the prospect of it.

Mr. and Mrs. Bates (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)

Adorable and happy, Mr. and Mrs. Bates are enjoying their lives as personal servants to Robert and Mary Crawley respectively, but a terrible event happens.  The valet of Mary’s childhood friend begins by flirting with Anna and ultimately rapes her.  She confides only to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and enlists her promise not to tell her husband, fearing that he will exact fatal revenge.  Yet, the trauma leaves Anna in a fragile state, causing her to shun her husband’s affections, spurring her to move out of the cottage and back into the house, and elevating Mr. Bates’ suspicions.  What’s more, Mary begins to suspect that something is amiss with her lady’s maid, and when Mrs. Hughes finds out that the rapist valet will be returning to Downton, she tells Mary the truth.  Mary encourages her friend to fire his valet, but Mr. Bates, a man of some wisdom and hard years of experience, suspects the true identity of his wife’s attacker.  It is heavily implied that Mr. Bates leaves for London and ultimately causes an accident resulting in the death of the valet in Piccadilly Circus; Anna also momentarily worries that Mr. Bates has happened upon these suspicions and done something dreadful.  Mrs. Hughes and Mary also put two and two together but ultimately decide to keep their suspicions secret, concluding that if Bates did what they believe, the world is better rid of the assaulting valet.  Bates and Anna find an equilibrium at the end of the season, though their intimacy is tentative at best.

Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)

Stoic and conservative Mr. Carson was first confronted by his past when his former friend from his theatrical days appeared at Downton to inform Carson that the love of his life had passed away with a confession: that she regretted choosing the friend over Carson and loved him after all.  Carson also had a time of replacing the footman position left vacant by Alfred, who joined a cooking school in London and left Downton.  He had something of a tete-a-tete with Mr. Molesley, who was out of a job upon the death of his master, Matthew Crawley, and who worked a number of lower class jobs before accepting his “demotion” of footman.  By the end of the season, it also seems that Carson and Mrs. Hughes began to admit their very obvious affection for one another.

Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier)

The scheming Barrow was left a bit lost without his frienemy, O’Brien, who also left Downton in the wake of the actress opting out of her contract.  He was also frequently upset at the thought of having to multitask positions, such as substituting as footman when Alfred departed.  The biggest mystery: Baxter, a seamstress, is hired to be lady’s maid to Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) after the disastrous return of Edna Braithwaite resulted in her abrupt resignation.  Barrow recommended her for the position; it seems he wants someone in the upper echelon to be his spy, a convenience he lacked upon the departure of O’Brien.  Their past has not been revealed, but Mr. Molesley and Baxter seemed to have struck up quite the cordiality.

Robert and Cora Crawley (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

The Earl and Countess of Grantham were mostly accessories to other stories this season.  Robert adjusted to running the estate with his eldest daughter; Cora comforted their middle daughter during the disappearance of Michael Gregson.  They also played nursemaids to their niece, Rose, who stayed at Downton in advance of her society introduction to the royal family, while sharing the grief of those who passed on in the prior season.

The Kitchen Staff: Daisy, Ivy, Jimmy, Alfred, and poor Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol)

The long suffering love rectangle of the former four left Mrs. Patmore in quite a state.  Daisy loves Alfred, who loves Ivy, who loves Jimmy, who basically wanted Ivy for what he perceived to be a carefree attitude that might get him laid.  Jimmy yearns for freedom from servitude and wanted Ivy to be the Bonnie to his Clyde, but she assured him that she’s not that kind of girl.  When Ivy realized that Jimmy is kind of a bum, she turned her attentions to Alfred and encouraged him to join his cooking school, much to the chagrin and chastisement of Daisy, who mistrusted Ivy’s capricious affections.  Alfred joined his cooking program, only to realize in the end that Daisy was quite a girl, but she wished him well and friendship and regained her self respect in the process, inspiring pride in surrogate mother Mrs. Patmore, despite the fact that she sort of runs a daycare in the kitchen.

Tom Branson (Allen Leech)

Branson spent the season feeling like a fish out of water without his Sybil, questioning his continued existence in the upper-crust life of the Crawleys, despite their wholehearted acceptance of his membership in the family.  He first capitulated to a night of abandon with the newly rehired Edna Braithwaite, which resulted in her trying to corner him into believing that she is pregnant.  When Mrs. Hughes, in turn and by request of Branson, cornered Edna in her lies, and urged her swift and decisive resignation, Branson, with help of Isobel, decided to return to his political roots, meeting teacher Gwen in the process, a woman of disdain for the Downton lordship but a reasonable woman of good moral character otherwise.  Branson also flirted with the possibility of returning to Ireland or moving to America, but his introduction to Gwen seems to have dissuaded him from this course for now.

Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James)

Young Rose is attracted to the freedom from her mother, Rosamund, as she stays at Downton in advance of her coming out to the royals.  Yet, she’s prone to trouble: she purloins a damaging letter that she later must skulk around to retrieve that potentially puts the Crown Prince in a bad light; she accompanies Edith to London frequently, only to attend jazz clubs and parties.  She falls in love with a black bandleader, who indulges in the romance, only to break away from it when his mother and Mary convince him of the hardship they face.  Her introduction to the royal family is successful in the end, but her heart remains a bit wild.

Questions, Impressions, and Future Considerations

1) What was Edith thinking?  And will her parents find out?  Will her grandmother and aunt find out that she has summoned her baby to Downton?

2) Who will Mary choose in the end?  I vote the firecracker critic of the upper classes, but the childhood friend, Tony, is nice too.

3) Will Bates’ rash actions come back to haunt him?  He’s a nice man with an astounding capacity for anger and darkness.

4) Carson and Mrs. Hughes are so cute.  Let’s see something come of that!

5) Who is Baxter really?

6) Will Rose’s illicit affair resurface?

7) Where does the family go from here?

PARTING SHOTS:

Downton Abbey doesn’t have the same level of storytelling quality as it did prior to the departure of Dan Stevens, otherwise known as Matthew Crawley, but creator Julian Fellowes is certainly giving it the old college try.  The characters are endlessly interesting, eternally English (minus Cora and her sassy family…played by Shirley MacClaine and Paul Giamatti of all people), and the art direction is breathtaking.  That haunting opening theme resurfaces throughout each episode and serves to reengage the viewer every instance of its appearance.  The true question for the longevity of this program centers on whether the characters’ journeys continued to remain interesting and relevant.  So far, so good – but what will series/season 5 bring?

LOOKING AHEAD:

Downton Abbey was renewed for a fifth season/series slated to premiere in the United States on PBS on January 5, 2015.

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