'Downton Abbey' Season Premiere: Part One

The denizens of Downton are back (some of them in black)

When we left our beloved Downton, Matthew had just perished in a car accident, leaving behind Mary and newborn son George. As such, the opening moments of season 4 of Downton Abbey are cold, dark, and melancholy.

Someone’s packing, leaving notes on a mantelpiece. Meanwhile, a baby cries as a nanny bustles down the night-darkened hall. Mary lies in bed, awake. The dark figure exits the Abbey quickly, suitcases in hand.

The title card appears over a shot of a misty morning at Downton Abbey. Where is my beloved dog butt? That is a damn shame. I hope the traditional title sequence isn't gone for good.

Mary is sitting on the edge of her bed, not doing anything. Anna goes to an empty room in the servants’ quarters, switches on the lights, and discovers the two notes on the mantlepiece. It appears O’Brien has exited stage left. The household staff does the 1922 version of #obrienpeacedout, gossiping in the foyer and halls.

Lady Grantham is shocked, but Lord Grantham isn’t. “Sneaking out like a thief in the night. Fits O’Brien to a T,” he grumps. (I grew up a church kid, and it always makes me giggle when people are described this way, because it’s the way the Bible describes Jesus’ return. So, in my feeble brain, O’Brien = Jesus in this scenario. Which I’m sure she’d appreciate.) Cora is pissed because Lady Flintshire ganked her lady’s maid. Edith thinks it’s disgraceful, too. Boo-hoo. Your servant is now someone else’s servant.

Mary stares glumly out the window, as Anna offers her a purple shawl to wear on a potentially chilly walk. Mary wants the black one, as she’s committed to her widow’s weeds. Nanny brings in baby George and wants to know whether Mary would like to join them for a walk. Mary says no, kisses her son and says, “poor little orphan.” Nanny leaves and Anna says, “He’s not an orphan, he’s got his mother.” (Technically.) “He’s not poor either, come to that,” Mary replies. Sheesh, lady. Emotional vampire much?

Violet approaches Poor Molesley’s father (who I believe is the groundskeeper) outside; they exposition that it’s been six months since Matthew’s death. Also, Poor Molesley, who was Matthew’s valet, has been unable to find new employment. Out front, Thomas greets Sybbie in her stroller, sparking a power struggle between himself and Nanny West, who doesn't want him touching the children without her permission.

Branson and LG are walking the estate. Seems they owe taxes on Matthew’s death, and LG wants to sell off land to pay it off. Because the way he ran the estate was going so well before Matthew took over. If nothing else, this episode reinforces what an arrogant boob LG is. Also, we are told through exposition that because Matthew died without a will, Mary has a one-sixth interest in the estate, while Baby George owns the rest of one half, making him majority co-owner with LG.

Carson tells Poor Molesley that the gravy train is up and he's got to hit the bricks. Meanwhile, Edith is going up to London to see Michael Gregson; Cora is supportive and LG is not (shocker!). 

Lady Rose (Lady Flintshire’s daughter) wants to advertise in the town for a new lady’s maid for Cora because she has a guilty conscience. Edith visits Isobel, who is in the same fog of grief as Mary. “You see, when your only child dies, you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really. That’s what I’m trying to get used to.” Oy vey. Do you not have any books?

Carson gets a letter that makes him grumpy, which piques Mrs. Hughes’ curiosity. She plucks the letter out of the wastebasket after he leaves the room. (This storyline reinforces my notion that Mrs. Hughes loves Mr. Carson, but I’m too lazy to write any slash fiction about it.)

We see in the post office that Edna Braithwaite (the housemaid who tried to seduce a recently widowed Branson in the 2012 Christmas special) would like to respond to the advert for a lady’s maid (who needs to be good at doing hair, apparently). Nothing good will come of this.

It’s Valentine’s Day, which gives us an opportunity to revisit that ridiculous love rectangle of Jimmy-Ivy-Alfred-Daisy. Ivy and Daisy both receive anonymous cards – who sent one to whom?!? We may never know. (J/K, we’ll totally know in a few minutes.)

Mary skulks down the stairs in black, as Edith ascends, reading her Valentine’s Day card (Edith’s card is like four times the size of the servants’ cards because rich people). The exchange between the two sisters is awkward, and Michelle Dockery’s version of playing grief is, basically, to be as wooden as possible and stare off into the middle distance always. No eye contact for widows, no sirree! She and Edward Cullen should hang out.

Mrs. Hughes visits a workhouse and finds Charlie Grigg (you’ll remember him from the first season as Carson’s former partner in the song-and-dance business who tried to shake Carson down for money). He’s in a bad way and has reached out to Carson, who is “very busy,” for help.

Edith arrives in London, where Michael tells her he can get a divorce in Germany. Does she want to come with? Because that’s a great idea, given Germany’s world reputation post-World War I.

Violet is visiting Isobel and they’re talking about Isobel’s lack of purpose in life. Poor Molesley arrives and asks for his old job back, but Isobel demurs, claiming that she doesn’t need a butler as, “these days, I’m just an old widow who eats off a tray.” “Just because you’re an old widow, I see no necessity to eat off a tray,” Violet retorts. (And there’s our Dowager Countess Zinger Count initiated: 1.) Violet has now taken it as her project to help Poor Molesley out.

Mr. Carson is mad at Mrs. Hughes for reaching out to Mr. Griggs. An electric mixer has arrived in the kitchen downstairs. Daisy and Ivy are excited about it, but Mrs. Patmore worries that gadgets like these will soon make her redundant. More twittering about the Mystery of the Anonymous Valentines. No one cares, y'all.

Another battle between Thomas and Nanny West. Exposition about interviewing Edna for the lady’s maid position – they’re interviewing her in Ripon because she can’t get away due to caring for an aunt. Branson wants Mary to take an interest in something, while LG thinks she should focus on feeling better. Yes, because marinating in your misery is just the ticket to recovery, you paternalistic boob.

Mrs. Hughes wants Isobel to take in Mr. Grigg. At first Isobel resists, saying that she’s not strong enough in her present state. Mrs. Hughes cuts her off, saying, “But you are. If you could just set aside your grief and use that strength for another’s good.” And that's Isobel's lightbulb moment.

Similarly, Branson approaches Carson to help bring Mary back into her life. Meanwhile, Daisy is making a mousse with the new mixer. Mrs. Patmore instructs her to make a soup to have on standby in case it doesn’t work out. More turf wars between Thomas and Nanny. Carson approaches Mary. Thomas, up to his old manipulative shenanigans, puts a bug in Cora’s ear about Nanny West, planting a seed of concern that she’s neglecting the children. Cut back to Mary’s room, Mary is going all ice queen on Carson, telling him he’s overstepped the mark in approaching her about working with Branson to run the estate.

At dinner, a discussion of whether Mary should attend the tenants’ luncheon becomes the linchpin for her to melt down over Matthew’s death and her reluctance to come out of her grief-cave. She leaves the table in a strop (and rightly so, really, because the family kind of did a group sticky-beak into her business, even if it was well-intentioned). Violet shuts down further conversation about private family matters in front of the servants by complimenting the mousse. “I suppose [Mrs. Patmore] hasn’t bought it in,” jokes Cora. Oh, irony! We haz it.

Poor Molesley is having an existential crisis. His dad gives him a pep talk. And because the upstairs folk are just like the downstairs folk, Violet pops into Mary’s room to give her a pep talk. Mary worries that all the good that Matthew saw in her was only in his imagination. Violet says, “You have a straightforward choice in front of you. You must choose either death or life.” Violet thinks Mary should choose life, then gives her a gentry-style hug (which translates into an arm awkwardly draped across a shoulder).

Mrs. Hughes tells Mr. Carson that Isobel is taking in Mr. Grigg, because it’s the right thing to do and a tasty way to do it. Violet and LG talk in the foyer, LG crapping on paternalistically about how it is their job to keep her safe from the world. Violet disagrees, stating that it is their job to bring her back to the world. “While I will overlook Mary’s poor judgement, I find it hard to overlook yours. Good day, sir.”

Oh, and she wants Edith to come to luncheon on Friday to help make things a success. “We are selling Poor Molesley to Lady Shackleton,” she explains. “As a servant?” Cora asks. (Here's the setup, folks!) Violet pauses. “No … as a Chinese laundryman.” Zing! (Dowager Countess Zinger Count: 2)

Jimmy got Ivy drunk at the pub. Mr. Carson and Isobel talk about how she’s taking in Mr. Grigg – seems she’s a bit perkier to have gotten in touch with something beyond her grief. Lady’s got a purpose now! Hooray!

Cora interviews Edna, and offers her the job, particularly on the strength of a glowing recommendation from Mrs. Hughes from her days as a housemaid at Downton. “But what about your aunt?” Cora asks. “My aunt?” asks Edna, forgetting her lie. She didn’t want to do the interview at Downton because she knew Branson and Mrs. Hughes would kibosh the prospect. Red flag, Cora! Oh, never mind. Cora's not the sharpest knife, is she?

Violet’s butler is threatened by Poor Molesley’s presence at luncheon, and is a hilariously genteel boor, menacing Poor Molesley through clenched teeth. He, of course, sabotages Molesley during the luncheon, providing some comic relief in an otherwise bleak episode.

Edith is back in London and meets Mr. Gregson at the Criterion wearing a dress that is decidedly va-va-va-voom (and therefore un-Edith-like). The strapless bodice is beaded to suggest a peacock, while the flowing green chiffon skirt has a slit up to the knee. Her hair is folded into soft finger curls — the stylists are deftly communicating Edith’s evolution into a modern woman with this look. To hit this point home, she says, “It feels so wild, being out with a man, drinking and dining in a smart London restaurant. Can you imagine being allowed to do anything of the sort five years ago, never mind 10?” Apparently, it wasn’t done for ladies of a certain status to eat in public in the fin-de-siecle. Interesting.

Gregson can get a divorce in Germany. “You’d join the most hated race in Germany for me?” says Jan Edith. Gregson reckons he'd become an Eskimo in order to marry Edith. This calls for a kiss! In public! SCANDAL!

Mrs. Hughes is shocked to learn that Edna has been hired on as lady’s maid, but can’t be forthright with Cora about why it’s not a good idea. Cora isn’t impressed. Daisy dithers about the Valentine’s Day card to Mrs. Patmore (seriously, how long has it been since Valentine’s at this point?). Mrs. P makes Alfred confess to Daisy that he sent Ivy a card, and Daisy is confused about who sent her her card. Mrs. Patmore tells Daisy that she sent her the card because she didn’t want her to be left out. D’awwww. “I might not have a follower, but at least I’ve got a friend,” replies Daisy. D’awwwwwwww.

Branson, Mrs. Hughes, and Branson discuss The Edna Problem. They determine that there’s nothing they can do but keep an eye on her. Sure. We'll go with that. Also, O'Brien's departure has left Thomas without a foil, which deprives the plot of its soap opera machinations.

Cora takes the opportunity to lurk in the hall and watch Nanny West, observing her fawning over Baby George, who is fussing. “There, there, my precious boy. Don’t let that chauffeur’s daughter disturb you any more.” Then, hissing at Sybbie, who is cowering in her corner crib, “Go back to sleep, you wicked little cross-breed.” Game over. Cora storms the castle, ringing for Mrs. Hughes, dropping some ice-cold real talk on Nanny West: “I want you to pack tonight and leave first thing in the morning. Please put Master George back in his crib. You are not to touch the children again.” Mrs. Hughes arrives, confused. Cora, the portrait of chilly patrician rage, explains that Nanny West is leaving in the morning and could you please find her a maid to sleep with the children and a bed for Nanny West? “Your values have no place in a civilized home,” she seethes to the nanny. Mrs. Hughes, god love her, is utterly gobsmacked.

Mary and LG talk a bit about Edith’s relationship with Mr. Gregson. “Is it serious?” LG asks. “He’s not bad looking, and he’s still alive, which puts him two points ahead of most men of our generation,” replies Mary. She asks if she’s wanted at the tenants’ luncheon, but LG doesn’t think it’s necessary, because he wants to manage things in his own way. Here’s where you can see a little crocus poking through the frost of Mary's soul. She starts to head up to bed, but instead goes to see Carson and apologizes for shutting him down when he was trying to help. Mary says she’s spent too long in the land of the dead, then collapses in tears and has a good cry in Carson’s arms. Finally some real acting from Michelle Dockery. Carson says that Mary is strong enough to the task of what’s ahead, but Mary reckons LG doesn’t think so. Carson says Mary owes it to Matthew to see his vision through, and that he believes in her.

Mrs. Hughes hears a great crash from the kitchen. Mrs. Patmore is attempting to use the mixer, but has broken it in the process and is fretting mightily that her inability to use it means she’s stuck in the past. Mrs. Hughes dons an apron and helps her friend clean up the mess. “Who needs sleep?” We pan out on them gossiping about Nanny West, confessing that they never really liked her, and so on.

Okay, that’s it for episode one! Stay tuned for episode two!

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