NOTE: This recap reviews Part 1 of Sunday’s two-hour season premiere.
Ah, Downton Abbey. The now-venerable BBC period drama — whose fourth season began airing on American TV last night — has rightfully earned a reputation as TV’s foremost provider of extremely classy-looking trash. Whereas a show like Days of Our Lives can’t seem to help but be campy, Downton’s appeal has always lain in the fact that its silliness is presented under the guise of impeccable taste. Everything we see — whether it’s the exquisite costumes, the veteran character actors or the frequent dialogue assuring us that the show is Really About Something (in this case, the rapidly changing class relations in post-WWI Britain, as exemplified by the servants and nobility of the titular Abbey) — assures us that we are watching a serious, artistic work. And so, when the show actually turns out to be about fatal pregnancies, possible amnesia and secret love affairs that require someone to pretend to be German, our ensuing delight is all the more unexpected.
In TV terms, Downton Abbey is the equivalent of those restaurants that make a name for themselves by selling “the most expensive dessert in the world”: ice cream with a diamond bracelet stuck in it. Sure, you could just get ice cream at the store and skip the indigestible shiny bits, just like you could watch Days of Our Lives and forego all the early-twentieth century frippery. Why, though? If you want to eat the most expensive dessert in the world, the indigestible shiny bits are the point. The fun of Downton lies in its snooty trappings — without them, the show’s just another forgettable melodrama.
But enough with the generalities. There’s a premiere to recap.
Previously, on Downton Abbey: Everyone was dead. Well, not everyone — in fact, a conspicuous majority of the cast remains alive and mobile — but the noble Crawley family, the “upstairs” portion of our upstairs/downstairs drama, had been dealt quite the series of blows. First, the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, who had already disappointed her family by eloping with the socialist chauffeur Branson, managed to disappoint them even more profoundly by dying of complications from childbirth while having Branson’s baby. Second, Matthew Crawley — a distant cousin and the heir apparent to Downton, due to the current Lord Grantham having no male children — had fatally rammed his car into a tree immediately after providing his wife, eldest Crawley daughter Lady Mary, with an infant son. This leaves us with two babies and at least two grieving parents, all of whom will play a large part in this episode’s drama.
Meanwhile, the downstairs crew is dealing with a loss of its own: Miss O’Brien, the personal maid of Lord Grantham’s wife, Cora, has unexpectedly taken a job with Lord Grantham’s cousin Susan — and given that the job is in India, it’s safe to say that O’Brien won’t be popping in for a visit any time soon. This fact is introduced through a long montage of servants saying things like “Miss O’Brien’s gone!” and “Have you heard? Miss O’Brien! She’s gone!” and “Do you know someone who is totally not present right now? Miss O’Brien! I would go so far as to say she has left — is departed, even!” Oh, all right, I made the last one up, but the Montage of Miss O’Brien’s Apparent Absence drags on for much longer than it needs to. It also eventually lands on Lady Cora herself, who wails, “I can’t believe Susan has done this to me!” This, if nothing else, establishes that Lady Cora, who recently lost two immediate family members, has some trouble keeping things in perspective.
Fortunately for Lady Cora, Susan’s rebellious daughter Rose is living at the Abbey and feels guilty enough about her mother’s blatant maid-thievery to post an ad locally to look for a speedy replacement. Will the replacement be found? More to the point: Will she be completely evil? Downton Abbey does have a tendency to hire disastrous and/or malevolent servants to get the plot going, and with Miss O’Brien’s perpetual petty cruelty out of the way, they’re somewhat understaffed.
Alas, we must wait for the answer to this question, for it is time to check on Downton’s current Evil Employees Division: namely, the devious under-butler Thomas, who is embroiled in a faceoff with the new Nanny West. When Thomas tries to socialize with the late Sybil’s child, Nanny West responds, “Please don’t touch the children, not without my permission,” before presuming to give him orders to pass along to the cook and declaring that her Nannyship places her above the other mere servants in the house. And if there is one person on Downton Abbey you don’t want to exert your nannying-based superiority upon, it is Thomas, who is both a man of pride and a consummately skilled workplace bully. So it’s pistols at dawn for these two: Thomas promptly begins smack-talking the nanny behind her back and spreading rumors about her leaving the children unattended — yes, if you’re just tuning into the show now, “spreading rumors about poor work performance” is what constitutes pulse-pounding action on Downton Abbey.
But this brings us back to the children — and, in turn, to the recently widowed Lady Mary. She is in the grips of a grief that has slid into intractable depression, which is nonetheless expressed through a series of entirely sleek and stunning black outfits. Aside from standing around in fantastic getups and intoning, “It’s Valentine’s Day” and “have a happy time” in a voice that crosses the line from “deadpan” to “Count Dracula,” Lady Mary is also refusing to be involved with the question of her son’s inheritance. For her newborn is, in fact, the heir to Downton Abbey, and while Branson — progressive sparkplug that he is — believes Mary deserves to manage his part of the estate until he comes of age, Lord Grantham is stuck in his patriarchal ways and wants to run it all. The only person who can settle the question is Mary herself, but anyone who entreats her to emerge from her depression and engage with the problem is subject to a brutal tongue-lashing.
At long last, though, our Lord and Savior the Dowager Countess — who is impervious to all tongue-lashings, being made of pure steel beneath her increasingly lush and enviable velvet hats — successfully entreats Mary to arise from her grief and live. And “living,” in this case, means taking over her part of the estate, sitting down at a meeting with local villagers and consulting them on their opinions about sheep. Hurrah!
Yet of course, all is not well in the world of Downton. Specifically, the Evil Employees Division is expanding: A new lady’s maid for Cora has been found, and it is none other than Edna, the maid who recently and unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Branson during her previous tenure at the Abbey. Edna was fired after her first go-round, but has managed to get re-hired and now has a disconcerting tendency to lurk in the shadows saying things like “I’ve been … studying.” This seems to indicate that her Branson Fever has not subsided in the least; in fact, it appears to have escalated to full-on pantomime villainy. If Branson doesn’t end this season being tied to the train tracks by a scorned lady’s maid, he should count himself a lucky man.
But, as one Evil Employee rises, another must fall. After swearing grim revenge upon Thomas for undermining her, Nanny West retreats to the children’s quarters, where she engages in what is apparently her nightly routine: Doting upon Mary’s child while verbally abusing Branson’s, hissing things like “go to sleep, you filthy little cross-breed” right into its adorable chauffeur-fathered face. Unfortunately for Nanny, her spate of anti-chauffeurian vitriol is witnessed by Lady Cora herself — made suspicious by Thomas’s scheming — who fires her instantly. There’s a lesson here about child abuse, classism and anti-Irish sentiment, sure. But, more to the point: There’s a lesson about never, ever giving Thomas a chance to demonstrate his expertise at workplace bullying. Something tells me that this was never about the kids; Thomas would have been okay with Nanny West selling Branson’s baby to a local villager and replacing it with a giant turnip, if she had only had the sense to refrain from scolding him or giving him orders on the giant turnip’s behalf.
And so ends yet another episode of Downton Abbey. For all the melodrama contained in this recap, there is so much more: Carson receives a letter from his shameful vaudevillian past! Edith’s secret lover swears to attain German citizenship in order to divorce his wife! Mrs. Patmore has panic attacks because of kitchen appliances! Molesley’s life gets even more pathetic, somehow! (Well, that’s not news. Molesley’s life is always getting even more pathetic, somehow.) It’s the richest, sparkliest, least nutritious dessert on TV, and we’ve barely taken our first bite. Let’s hope we can digest the rest of the season.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.