The first few minutes of the Season 4 opener of “Downton Abbey” were such a delicious reminder of why we watch this show, weren’t they? That camera, roaming through the vast halls and lavish front rooms of the Abbey (a.k.a. Highclere Castle); the steathy departure of Miss O’Brien, as news of her leaving races through the staff like a virus; the whispers and buzzes as the camera races on, knowing, like a servant, that its work is never done. Great fun . . . but then we settled into an uneven episode. Like much of Season 3, some of last night’s show was riveting: Edith’s tricky relationship with Mr. Rochester, which I know is not his name; Michelle Dockery’s sepulchral depiction of the Widow Crawley, flattened-out with grief; the Dowager Countess scheming to do a good deed for the Eeyore-like Mr. Molesley, whose luck seems to have run out. (Hmm, maybe he should get involved with Edith.) Then there was the rest of it: the interminable love triangle going on between the younger servants (which has the unfortunate effect of making Daisy, usually the most charming character on the show, oddly dull); the oh-so-convenient will, the dull resolution of Carson’s relationship with his old vaudeville pal Charlie (though I did like that shot of Carson emerging from the fog like a Spielberg hero); the endless reminders that the times, they are a-changing. (Oh, Mrs. Patmore, it’s just a mixer. Enjoy it.) A mixed bag, but all in all a treat to see our Downton friends again.
A few impressions:
— I loved the Dowager’s response, when Bates inquired after “the younger Mr. Molesley,” “You make him sound like a Greek philosopher.” Also her command that Branson (I can call him that now, can’t I?) explain to Mary ” . . . . the crops, . . . and the livestock.”
— A real highlight here was the portrayal, by Michelle Dockery and Penelope Wilton, of genuine grief; the kind that you just can’t get out from under. It’s been six months since Matthew’s death, but Dockery plays Mary as carrying a heavy weight; it’s as if her black clothes pull her down, in her bearing and her voice, and seeing her weep in Carson’s arms was truly moving. Wilton got the most heartbreaking line of the episode, “When your only child dies, you’re not a mother anymore,” and the most believable transformation: The character who once advised that Edith, after being jilted, needed to dry her tears and “find something to do” found it, in taking care of Carson’s old friend. A plot device, to be sure, but Isobel’s part in it rang true. And I like her new hairdo, too.
— Mrs. Hughes: “It’s not for me to have an opinion, but I will say this . . .” By the way, anyone else wonder exactly what it is that Mrs. Hughes is doing that makes her too busy to stand in as lady’s maid to Cora? I love this character, but Mrs. H’s entire job seems to entail wandering around the Abbey glaring at the maids, having tea in her sitting room, and meddling in other people’s affairs while maintaining that she isn’t. Nice work, if you can get it.
— First of all, why is Edna back? Second, why is her hair now a different color?
— I have become strangely fascinated with glove etiquette on “Downton Abbey.” From what I can gather, it was customary at the time to don long gloves with your evening dress (even when dining at home with your own family), wear the gloves for a pre-dinner drink, remove the gloves for dinner (was there a special glove table for this purpose, where they were left?), then put them back on again for a post-dinner sherry. This seems like a lot of drama for one evening.
— Pity the show didn’t do more with the nanny character, rather than making her a sudden villain who needs to be immediately ushered away. It’s a potentially interesting role — that the nanny is “not one of the family, but not one of us,” as Daisy said — and seems like a missed opportunity.
— That said, wee George and Sibby are adorable. And I don’t see why Miss Sibby shouldn’t have a scrambled egg with her tea. I would like one myself.
And what did you think? What was your favorite Dowager Countess moment? I also liked her horrified response to Isobel’s describing herself as “an old widow who eats off a tray.”
Photo courtesy of ©Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE