Downton Abbey: Series 4 – episode 1

Alex Straker

DOWNTON EMBARGOED UNTIL 12TH SEPTEMBER 02 300x199 Downton Abbey: Series 4   episode 1SPOILERS: Do not read if you have not seen episode 1, series 4 of ‘Downton Abbey’

Everyone is tossing traditions out the window in this week’s Downton. Violet is turning into a bit of a feminist. Edith is kissing married men and (gasp!) eating in public! Thomas’s scheming is having positive results. O’Brien’s done a runner, and Mrs Patmore’s not yelling! There are flaws in this return to Downton, but by episode end we’re once more engrossed in the events unfolding on the Crawley estate.

The good news: ding dong, the witch has fled! O’Brien makes a hasty exit under cover of darkness. It’s the most gothic opening the series has ever done – for a moment you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching Midsomer Murders instead.

The problem is that her departure doesn’t have the huge impact of previous opening scenes – she may have been the most hated woman on the grounds, but her leaving hasn’t rocked the foundation of Crawley life in the way the sinking of the Titanic or the outbreak of war did. That said, O’Brien’s wise-cracking was practically a fine art, and the show just isn’t the same without her.

But then this week’s series opener is all about absence. Despite my greatest hopes (and if I’m honest, countless prayers) Matthew Crawley has not risen from the dead after last year’s devastating Christmas Special and everyone is struggling to move on without him. For grieving widow Mary, absence has made the heart grow colder rather than fonder. Robert and Violet bicker over the future of the estate, Thomas butts heads with the children’s new nanny and there’s a Valentine’s whodunit taking place in the servants’ quarters.

Mary in grief is a painful sight to behold. She spends most of the episode (which could be called ‘How Mary got her groove back’) as the woman in black, only it’s Downton haunting her and not the other way around. She can’t descend the stairs without being hit by a memory of her beloved Matthew. Her scenes with Carson are brimming with emotion – now that Matthew is gone he’s the only person she trusts to see her as she truly is. But while Carson is undoubtedly a magician when it comes to evening attire and candlesticks, the ease with which he helps to transform Mary from grieving to thriving feels a little rushed – she moves on just a little too quickly.

It’s now 1922 (10 years since we were first introduced to Downton). Who would have thought that a decade later, Edith would be the Crawley sister turning heads in London? She looks breath-taking in several dresses throughout the episode, and might (just possibly!) have bagged herself a man. Seasoned viewers will be looking for the catch, but surprisingly there isn’t one. The object of her affections might be a married man, but he has a solution to that: by becoming a German citizen he can bypass those tiresome divorce laws and they can be together… On second thoughts, cancel plan, Edith! Abort!

The best moments, of course, come from Dame Maggie Smith, whose portrayal of Violet is pitch perfect. She’s humorous and heartbreaking in equal measure. Violet also delivers the most shocking speech of the episode, telling Mary that she loves her (I nearly fell off my chair) and stating in plain terms what the series premiere is about: that in the face of grief, the decision to live is a choice – listen to your grandmother, Mary. She’ll outlive you all.

So there you have it – as beautifully shot as ever, with some exquisite performances and regaining its sense of identity towards the end, Downton is still a somewhat remarkable place to be.

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  • DoctorWho50

    To me, Downton Abbey is an artificial and melodramatic pile of rubbish. The fact that it pulls in millions of viewers astounds me.

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