So here we are again, back with the fine folks of Downtown Abbey, where the governing principle seems to be that every time a baby is born a parent dies. Season 4 finds us in 1922, six months after the heir, Matthew Crawley, went to the big castle in the sky, not for plot development reasons but because his portrayer – the once-non-threateningly-handsome actor Dan Stevens – decided he wanted to lose 30 pounds, spike his hair and star on Broadway.
In the opening minutes we find that yet another character, the odious lady’s maid Mrs. O’Brien, has flown the coop, leaving poor Lady Grantham without anyone to dress her! And in the various plots that unfurl from there it becomes apparent that no one at Downton Abbey has learned a thing in the intervening six months. Consider the following: after all these years Lady Grantham has still not figured out which of her servants are honest and which ones are schemers; Lord Grantham still doesn’t know that he’s too incompetent to left in charge of the assorted windfalls that have undeservedly landed in his lap; Mr. Carson hasn’t learned that if you throw a letter into the trash rather than burning it one of the other busybody servants will read it; and screenwriter Julian Fellowes hasn’t learned which storylines bore us.
After the high-stakes melodrama of Season 3, Sunday’s two-hour intro to Season 4 was a bit dull. One plot revolved around which of the servants sent valentines to the others! Another concerned which servant would be blamed for ruining one of Lady Grantham’s garments. Yet another centered on whether Mr. Carson would reconcile with his old vaudeville buddy Charlie Grigg. Game of Thrones this ain’t.
The overriding plotline of the episode involved the question of who would control the Downton estate now that Matthew is six feet under. You will recall that Lord Grantham had squandered his wife’s fortune through mismanagement and bad investments but that Matthew had inherited scads and scads of money from his Spanish Flu-dispatched fiancé and was then cajoled into sharing the management of Downton with his Lordship. And that somewhere along the line he decided to give Lord Grantham HALF of his fortune so the old guy didn’t feel emasculated or whatever. In any event, with Matthew out of the picture, the estate is divided like this: Lord Grantham has half, baby George has a third, and Lady Mary, the bereaved widow, has a sixth.
Or is it? Because, what do you know? Out of the blue they discover a letter from Matthew (who never made a will, despite being an attorney and despite having a huge fortune) stating that he wanted his wife Mary to be his heiress. Now this is one of the things that irks me about “Downtown Abbey”: no, not just the long-lost letter from a dead person that arrives in the nick of time to solve a conundrum (a device already employed last season when Matthew got a similar letter from the dead fiancé.) No, what actually bugs me is that this climatic resolution isn’t even necessary. We had already established in the opening sequence that Mary, if she so chose, could manage her son’s interests, so if you want to give Mary co-management responsibilities, it doesn’t matter whether she, or her son, is the actual owner. In fact, it seems to make more sense for the baby to be the owner for estate planning purposes.
The issue of who controls the management of the Downton estate is important because Lord Grantham has already shown himself to be inept in almost everything he does. In fact, I’d rather have Daisy the kitchen maid managing my 401k than his Lordship. And of course we all remember how incompetent he was in his choice of doctors. But it’s clear he’s more than an amiable dunce; he’s actually a bit of a dick. He spends the whole episode warning everyone not to bother poor Mary with any details of real life, apparently because he wants to regain full control of Downtown Abbey, not out of concern for her mental health. Because as soon as she indicates an interest in co-managing the estate he turns on her with an alarming ferocity, pelting her with sarcastic questions about “cereals” and “grains” that she obviously can’t answer.
And to complete his reign of error, his Lordship lets himself get taken in again by the evil manservant Thomas Barrow, who should have been fired years ago for his various villainies against his co-workers. Why Lord Grantham, at this stage in the series, should take the word of Barrow against Mr. Bates is beyond me, other than the fact that Julian Fellowes only has about ten plot ideas and needs to keep recycling them.
In fact, it’s obvious at this stage that everyone has settled into a specific, immutable archetype, with little capacity to surprise. Lord Grantham, is a blithering idiot and his wife isn’t much better, falling first for O’Brien’s shenanigans and now for the new lady’s maid Edna’s tricks. In addition to the aristocratic imbeciles at the top of the food chain we have three outright saints: Mr. Bates, Anna and Mrs. Hughes, who are always putting others first. Then there are the horny young servants, the sensible but tough-love-giving older servants, and of course the outright villains (Thomas, and now Edna). There’s also the middle class do-gooder Isobel Crawley and the working class hero Tom Branson.
There are really only two interesting, complex characters: Lady Mary and the Dowager Countess. It’s no coincidence that they are played by the two best actors on the show, Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith. When we were first introduced to the Dowager Countess in Season 1, she was a snobby, out-of-touch dragon lady, but over the years she’s become almost cuddly, dispensing wisdom in hilarious bon mots and acting the benefactor in numerous surprising ways (including her efforts to get Mr. Mosely a job.)
Lady Mary started the series as prickly and slightly nasty but clear-sighted, and she remains the one character on the show allowed to swing back and forth between gradations of good and bad, between selfish and gracious. Of course not even Michelle Dockery can overcome the lame lines she’s given in the first half of the episode. Several times I laughed out loud at her mournful, dirge-like pronouncements (e.g., “poor little orphan,” when addressing her son, who is neither poor nor an orphan) because they are as lugubrious as Bela Lugosi. In the end, though, she decides to “choose life,” but only after crying on Mr. Carson’s shoulder in the only truly affecting moment of the episode. Oh well, now that she’s back in the land of the living, I guess that means more man-hunting in future episodes. Matthew may come to regret that he didn’t leave the estate to little George after all, if it turns out that Mary gets involved with a fortune-hunter.
Some other thoughts:
— The saving grace of “Downton Abbey” is usually the sly humor, but this was a particularly dour show (except for the unintentional humor of Lady Mary’s funereal pronouncements). The Dowager Countess did get off one good zinger when Lord Grantham was pouting about Lady Mary becoming a co-manager: ““When you talk like that I’m tempted to ring for nanny and have you put to bed with no supper.”
— Speaking of nannies, there’s a saying that even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while, and it’s also true that even Thomas Barrow will occasionally, if accidentally, focus his malevolence on a worthy target. With no proof whatsoever, he disparaged the new nanny to Mrs. Crawley out of personal pique, but then it transpired that he was right – the old bat turned out to be as obsessed with blood purity as Harry Potter’s nemesis Draco Malfoy, who all but calls poor little Sybil – the offspring of a Lady and a chauffeur – a mudblood.
— Also speaking of nannies, who’s in charge of hiring at this place? They need a better HR process. First they get this crazy nanny and then they hire a new lady’s maid Edna Braithwaite (great name, btw) who’s even worse than the little-lamented O’Brien.
— There should be a drinking game called “eavesdropping,” in which everyone takes a drink when the plot turns on someone secretly listening in to someone else’s conversation. How fortunate that Lady Grantham was listening at the door when Nanny West was spewing her classist comments at poor defenseless Sybil.
— Hard as we might try, it’s hard to take Edith’s story-line seriously. Somehow she has managed to captivate a successful magazine editor, who’s married (to a “lunatic” we’re told, shades of Jane Eyre). He is so bedazzled by her that he’s willing to become a German citizen in order to get a divorce so he can marry her. This scheme would seem crazy even if we didn’t know what’s going to happen in Germany during the 1920’s. Good luck, Fraulein Edith.
— One thing that does seem accurate about this episode is the anxiety about status and security in the post-War era. The 1920’s were certainly a time of great unrest but in Downtown, this manifests itself in the arrival of an electric mixer! In real life, workers were going on strike, millions were mourning the war dead, yet the biggest change at the Abbey is the use of a mechanical beater, which Mrs. Patmore thinks will eliminate jobs. God forbid someone suggests a dishwasher.
And what an existentialist Carson has turned into: “But what does it matter anyway? We shout and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we must all die.” Call Albert Camus!