Review–“Downton Abbey”-“Episode One”

Well, darlings, it’s that time again in the U.S., the very favourite time of year for all of us Anglophiles.  Yes, it’s time for the U.S. premiere of the ever-soapy and ever-delightful Downtown Abbey, whose fourth season is off to a roaring start with lots of sneaking, gossiping, and romancing to keep us guessing (and hoping) for the rest of the fourth series.

Tonight’s two-hour episode had a lot of material, ranging from Mary’s gradual recovery from Matthew’s death to a multitude of other plot lines, including:  Isobel’s recovery of her fierce sense of civic responsibility, Edith’s burgeoning romance, Robert’s desire to keep Downton in his own control, a remarkably touching scene between Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, and a little slice of Carson’s past.

To start with the arguably the most important bit first, the series opens six months after Matthew’s death, with Mary struggling with her soul-wrenching grief and the burdens of motherhood.  While her father wants to keep her insulated and free of the stress of running the estate, almost everyone else, including his mother and Branson, argue that she should be more involved the running of Downton, in order to bring her back to the world of the living.  Of particular note here is a tense standoff between Lady Mary and Carson.  After he (at Branson’s urging) advises her to follow Branson’s advice, she sharply reprimands him for overstepping his boundaries.  The scene is, perhaps, one of the most dramatically focused of any that we have seen in Downton thus far and this makes their eventual reconciliation, in which Mary tearfully breaks down in his arms, all that much more emotionally wrenching.  Fortunately, by the end of the episode Mary has begun to emerge from her shell, confident in the knowledge that Matthew wished for her to be his sole inheritor and, thus armored, prepared to become much more intimately involved in the maintenance of Downton.

Speaking of Carson, though we have thus far only gained tantalizing glimpses into his past, tonight’s episode showed us that even the seemingly stodgy old butler is/was capable of romantic attraction.  Indeed, we find out that his old entertaining partner Mr. Grigg was responsible for Carson’s heartbreak at the hands of a woman.  Again, the staging is exquisite, with the two men reconciling at the end.  What makes the moment so poignant, however, is Grigg’s revelation that, at the end of her life, she recognized that Carson was, indeed, the better man.  A sentiment with which most viewers, no doubt, would wholeheartedly agree.

While the personal drama served as the driving thrust of this evening’s narrative, it is also important to recognize that, for all of its soap and sugar-coating, Downton does have moments when it recognizes (and encourages the viewer to recognize) the changing social and cultural landscape.  Although Mrs. Patmore’s escapades with the electric mixer are played for laughs, they do point to the ways in which electronic devices and appliances started to pave the way for a new way of food preparation.  While we in the 21st Century might take such things for granted, they truly were a radical change.  Nor is Mrs. Patmore the only one resistant to change; Robert, as always, refuses to acknowledge that the world in which he grew up in and the rules by which he played are increasingly outdated.  It remains to be seen how (or if) he will be able to adapt to this brave new world.

The women of Downton continue to shine, both upstairs and downstairs.  While Cora is, unsurprisingly, easily manipulated, Edith has begun to emerge as the most captivating Crawley (aside from the Dowager, of course).  It was truly splendid getting to see her dolled up in London for her publicist suitor, and I for one hope that he manages to obtain a divorce (though it will probably require him becoming a German citizen).  For once, Isobel and the Dowager were not at one another’s throats; indeed, we even saw the Dowager reaching out to her old nemesis in an attempt to bring her into the role of a grandmother.  Once again, Downton proves that it is the women that keep this show running and that provide its narrative energy.

If the first episode had one weakness it was, perhaps not surprisingly, Thomas.  Although we ended the last series with some remarkable depth and development of his character, this series sees him regressing to his old, manipulative and needlessly cruel ways.  At this point, the sneaky/conniving homosexual trope has worn quite thin (considering that it was about as thin as tissue paper to begin with makes this even more remarkable).  It’s about time that Fellowes finds something interesting to do with this character, rather than just having him scheme and plot against Bates, Anna, and pretty much everyone else who gets in his way.

All in all, however, this was an exemplary way to begin the fourth series of Downton Abbey.  While some of the program’s flaws are still in evidence, it does seem to have gotten a handle on most of its characters and, just as importantly, how to keep the narrative moving forward at a fairly decent pace (without seeming too rushed).  There was still the deus ex machina of Matthew’s posthumous letter allowing Mary to take control of half of the estate, but I was mostly willing to overlook that (though I do sincerely wish Fellowes would quit relying on them quite so much).  As a premiere, however, this episode set the stage for what promises to be an endlessly entertaining fourth series.

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