Thursday, January 9, 2014

Downton Abbey, S4, E1: Downton Is Back... in Black

Last time on Downton: Matthew died horribly in a car crash in the last seconds of an otherwise dull Christmas Special because Dan Stevens did not want to make a cameo in Series Four.  Fans roared and swore that they were through with the show.  And then they gave Series Four, Episode One the largest audience Downton Abbey has received yet -- at least in the United States.

So what has been happening with our clan since we last saw them?  I'll confess that I didn't wait for PBS to start airing the episodes before I filled myself up with spoilers, but I'll be kind enough to keep them to myself.  The PBS first episode was two hours, containing the first two episodes that aired in the UK.  The first half was better than the second half, though both were decent.

Plot Synopsis

Six months after Matthew's untimely demise, it is clear that Julian Fellowes still does not know how to write prominent characters off of the show.  For it opens with the news that O'Brien, the devious lady's maid, has made off in the middle of the night to join Rose's mother as her new maid while Rose's parents are in India.  Cora is furious, though not as much as she would be if she knew that O'Brien was responsible for killing the Crawley heir.  Poor Rose is left in an awkward position, having to explain that she didn't know, but sort of did know.  Really, after her parents begged the Crawleys to take her in, does this seem remotely plausible?  Couldn't Rose's mother and O'Brien have spoken rationally with Cora, so that when we opened the season, all we heard was Cora saying: "I was sorry to let her go, but I know what a wonderful opportunity it is.  And what with everything here being so sad..."

Because yes, Downton is a sad, dark place to be right now.  And no one is sadder and darker than Mary now that Matthew is gone.  She listlessly refers to her son George as an "orphan," even though Anna reminds her that he still has one parent.  Not as far as Mary's concerned -- she is one bit of nerve away from committing suicide.  Lord Grantham is predictably unhelpful, letting her indulge in her depression while he runs the estate.  As he pointedly reminds Branson, since Matthew left no will, by law, Mary receives just one third of his portion of the estate and one third of his personal possessions -- leaving five-sixth of the estate in the hands of Lord Grantham and her son.

Lord Grantham is like a pig in poop as he anticipates reversing all of Matthew's reforms.  However, Branson wants Mary to be involved and knows that it is not good to wallow in depression.  The rest of the family backs him, including Edith, who is becoming the unsung rock that everyone relies upon.  Edith goes to visit Isobel, who believes that she has no place, no purpose anymore now that her only son is dead.  Edith assures her that she does has a place, and will be a wonderful grandmother to George.

Meanwhile, things are not going so well for Edith.  She is in a relationship with Michael Gregson,  the London publisher, but they are still barred by law from getting married.  Gregson tells her that he has been doing research into countries that will allow divorce on the grounds of lunacy, and has finally landed on Germany.  Problem is that he will need to live there and become a German citizen.  Edith points out that this would not exactly go over well with their fellow countrymen, who hate Germans like the plague after the war.

Indeed, it seems odd.  What would happen when Gregson returned to England, or did he and Edith plan to live in Germany permanently?  Is the United States such a dismal place that living there is never a solution?  Hell, in half of the states in 1922 they could probably claim to be husband and wife and no one would think to verify.  But since the show needs conflict, Gregson decides that Germany is the only place he can go.  Germany at this time was experiencing hyperinflation under the Weimar Republic and Adolf Hitler was beginning his rise in the Nazi party.  Hmm, you think maybe Gregson will find himself at one of his speeches?    

The fact that Matthew, a former solicitor whose JOB it was to draft contracts and wills, left no will of his own was pretty damn odd.  Fortunately the show realizes this, so in the second half, a letter from Matthew is found, which leaves everything to Mary.  Lord Grantham huffs that a handwritten letter might not constitute a valid will, but haha yes it does.  So Mary now takes Matthew's place as the one fighting for reform, and I suspect she'll be a much more aggressive fighter.  One big issue appears to be the "death tax," which will be applied due to Matthew's death and which Lord Grantham seems to regard as a terrible burden.

As an aside, I'm confused as to how Matthew could will Mary his half of the estate... or divide the estate period.  Wasn't the point of the entail to prevent the estate from being divided up?  If a simple will could pass part of an estate to a woman, why didn't Lord Grantham think of-- why didn't someone else in the family think of that?

Then there's the "comic relief" portion of the episode, which involves Rose pretending to be a servant and convincing Anna to come with her to a local dance hall.  There, she meets a guy who is so smitten that he later comes to Downton's back door and asks to see her.  Rose then has to dress up in a maid outfit and break his heart gently, telling him that she has an "intended" who is a farmer's son.  It's actually kind of a cute plot line, but I'm still not very invested in Rose, and have trouble understanding why the Crawleys would let her stay with them during such a difficult time -- especially when Rose's mother absconded with Cora's lady's maid!

The rest of the plot lines I will dispense with in quick succession:

Isobel finds purpose again by helping an old friend of Carson's, whom Mrs. Hughes learned about by going through Carson's waste basket.  Carson won't give his friend the time of day because he resents him for stealing his one true love, but the friend tells him that the marriage quickly soured and she told him that she really loved Carson.  Too bad she never bothered to find and tell him.

Molesley has been out of work since Matthew died and is reduced to paving the road for a living.  He cries pitifully to Anna about how he owes about 30 pounds, and so Bates goes to the Dowager Countess and out of the goodness of her heart, she gives him the money to give to Molesley and pretend it's repaying a loan.  She's getting soft.

The downstairs love quadrangle continues between Alfred, Ivy, Jimmy, and Daisy.  Yawn.  Jimmy gets Ivy drunk at a pub, and Daisy receives a Valentines Day card that she thinks is from one of the fellas, but is really from Mrs. Patmore, who feared that she would be hurt if Ivy received one and she (Daisy) did not.  Daisy, why aren't you living on the tenant farm with Mr. Mason?

Mrs. Patmore sees a future where even rich people will do their own cooking in the form of an electric mixer.  Yet she learns to love it because it whips up a great moose.

Despite being an under-butler with many duties, Thomas continues to act bored and lazy.  He finds time to be a snot to the nanny taking care of little George and Sibyl, refusing to get anything she asks for.  At first it's baffling -- she seems like a nice woman, not unlike the woman from Supernanny who would sweep in and reform households.  Could some of this have to do with the natural tensions between nurses/governesses/tutors and other household servants, as illustrated in Manor House?  No -- it turns out that the nanny is cruel to little Sibyl, calling her a "half-breed" because her father is Irish.  Cora overhears her and demands that she leave immediately.  She praises Thomas for informing her, although personally, I think getting rid of the evil nanny was just a side perk of being his usual nasty self.

Finally, time for the most ridiculous plot line of the evening.  Cora absolutely must have another lady's maid!  The thought of promoting Anna never occurs to her.  Why?  Because she must have someone she can call by her last name, and she can't just call Anna "Bates" when they're alone and there's no chance that Anna could be confused for her husband?  Anyway, Cora puts out a bunch of advertisements, but ends up hiring the first person she interviews.  That person worked at Downton for only a short time as a lower servant, then worked for her next mistress for only a few months, and has very little experience as a lady's maid.  Sold!

That person is also Edna, the maid who tried to get into Branson's pants, for whom Mrs. Hughes wrote a good letter of recommendation to get her out of the way as quickly as possible.  Although Cora asks Mrs. Hughes her opinion (after she has already hired Edna), Mrs. Hughes for some reason does not tell her that Edna acted inappropriately.  Instead, she, Carson, and Branson agree to conceal what happened because learning that Branson was "unfaithful" to Sybil's memory would kill Cora.  That makes sense, but it would have been much better if the normally sensible Mrs. Hughes had let Cora know that, at least, she disapproved of Edna.

But then, Cora should have asked Mrs. Hughes her opinion first.  But she didn't because she is as stupid and useless as her husband.  How do Mary and Edith have more than two brain cells to rub together?

Now Thomas is trying to turn Edna into his new O'Brien.  Oh the wicked antics sure to come!

Other Observations

Not too many this time -- it feels like this recap has gone long enough.  I'll just hope that there is some character evolution, especially among the lower servants, though I won't be holding my breath.  I won't expect Cora or Lord Grantham to suddenly get interesting, either.  One thing I do find funny, though, is how everyone calls Lord Grantham a petulant baby for wanting to run the estate his way and not listen to Mary, even Cora and Violet.  As for Mary, Matthew's death provides an unexpected benefit: for the first time, she has something to do besides be unpleasant.

Oh Okay, One More.  At one point, Mary exclaims: "After all he went through in the war, he gets killed in a stupid car crash!"  That about sums up the audience's view.

Next Time:  Boys, boys, boys at the house!  Which will Mary choose? 

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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