Downton Abbey: Series 4 – episode 3
For the first time ever, this week’s instalment of Downton Abbey really feels like it belongs in its post-watershed slot. The first three series have had their darker moments (there has been death, grave injury and depictions of the realities of war), but none of that prepares us for the horror that occurs towards the end of this episode. ITV’s disclaimer advised that there would be some scenes that viewers may find upsetting, and the conclusion of this week’s episode takes us into painful dramatic territory that the series has not examined before.
Once again, modernity is making its mark on Downton, as a series of high profile guests join the family and bring with them a whirlwind of deceit, scandal, opera and dancing. Mr Carson is the furious butler trying to preserve the traditions of his profession, Mr Molesley is back and changing jobs more frequently than the Crawley girls change outfits, and there is some conflict between Anna and Bates over the arrival of a new, troublesome member of staff.
This series has made the bold decision to introduce us to several new characters at once, but the consequence is that we don’t truly become attached to many of the new arrivals. Anthony Gillingham’s introduction offers a potential new sparring partner for Mary (he has ‘love interest’ written all over him), but it’s hard to determine whether we are meant to love or loathe him (I’ll be watching that one like a hawk).
The upside is that their arrival definitely throws Downton’s usually clockwork dynamic completely off balance. From Mr Molesley’s horror at having to appear as a footman in gloves (he looks at himself in the mirror as though he’s being sent off to the gallows) to Jimmy’s slapstick encounter with the jam jar, it’s almost as though World War Two has arrived early at the Crawley estate. The downstairs card game chaos is both entertaining and a great example of how things have changed in the wake of war – for a moment they seemed less like a group of carried away servants and more like bankers on the stock exchange.
Carson is undoubtedly the comedic highlight of this episode, as he attempts to enforce the rules of upper class manners with an iron fist, which has unpopular consequences. From straightening the dining arrangements to insisting their world famous talented guest eat in solitude in her room, he’s the entertaining Scrooge to Downton’s modern, post-war traditions, but he remains loveable and completely sympathetic throughout. That he is the character most visibly moved by the singer’s stunning performance at the close of the episode is somewhat touching (if you look closely, you can see his eyes are almost ‘watering’).
And so it is with only a few minutes left in the episode that Downton takes a rather heart-breaking, unexpected turn. It’s one of the most difficult scenes to watch in the show’s history, a cruel and violent attack that shatters the rulebook of what we have come to expect from the show. Anna is a fan favourite, and the violence inflicted on her breaks the unwritten rule that Fellowes and his team have established with their audience: that despite the rivalries, challenges and disagreements between the characters, the Crawley estate is a safe one for its inhabitants to dwell in.
Has Mary already discovered a new love interest? Does Mrs Patmore have greater underlying health issues? And will Anna tell Bates about Gillingham’s crime?
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter