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Downton Abbey: Season Four, Episode One

“You must choose either death or life.”

Six months have passed since Matthew’s death and everyone is receiving Valentine's Day cards, so season four kicks off in February of 1922. Mary and Isobel are, unsurprisingly, not coping well and O’Brien doesn’t help the situation in her typical fashion.

Like the previous three seasons, this one opens in a way that we are instantly aware of the mood at Downton -- dark, the quiet broken by the sound of children crying and with undercurrents of deception. O’Brien, whom we knew was up to no good in Scotland, confirms our suspicions and sneaks off in the night. While her leaving makes life difficult for Carson, Mrs. Hughes and Cora, I love the fact that the staff at Downton are like the staff at any other place of employment. They all run around, neglecting what they should be doing, for a good gossip about what has just happened. The humor in these quick scenes show us that, while things may be dreary just now in the house, there is light on the horizon.

But, for now, things are bleak. Mary is unable or unwilling to move forward and Isobel isn’t much better. These two women have given themselves up completely to their grief and it takes the machinations of those who love them to finally get them moving into the light.

Tom, who has been grieving himself, understands that Mary needs something, anything, to think about other than her loss. Be it carpentry or hats, it is time for her to move on and Tom wants her to become a part of her husband’s legacy. I loved the scene where he went to Carson for help, but even better was Carson taking his side in the argument.

Carson shows both sides of himself this hour. On the one hand, he is dismissive of his friend Charlie Grigg whom we learned right at the beginning of the series was on the stage with Carson. Yet, he stands up to Mary when she really needs it; it is he who holds her as she finally allows herself to sob; and, it is he who tells her that she has the strength to manage the estate.

Mrs. Hughes knows what it takes to get Isobel turned around -- give her something outside of herself to worry about and to fuss over. Mrs. Hughes also understands that part of Carson wants to help his friend, so she takes it upon herself to do it. She understands Carson better than he understands himself, but by not telling him why she is doing what she is doing, she is allowing him to maintain his pride.

Although she would never admit it, Lady Violet has been greatly influenced through the years by Isobel. When we first met Lady Violet, she would no more have helped a servant find a job than she would have understood what a weekend is. Yet, here she is going out of her way to help Molesley. And, like Carson, Lady Violet understands what Mary needs and helps her get there. Again, I can’t imagine the Lady Violet from season one telling anyone that she loved her.

Edith is wonderfully sweet with Isobel, but is still unable to relate to Mary on any real level. It’s not because these two sisters don’t love each other; it’s because their lives have taken such drastically different roads. Mary wants to be mistress of Downton, a wife and a mother. She is dealing with the fact that two of the three will never be. Edith, on the other hand, is moving forward and making her own life.

Edith, who refuses to do nothing, is constantly running off to London to meet with her editor. It is pretty clear that Edith is making another poor decision in the romance department. The man is, after all, married and, with the benefit of our knowledge of history, the two of them moving to Germany and becoming German citizens would be a very, very bad idea. But, for the time being, I respect Edith and what she is trying to do. Not satisfied living a country life, she is doing what she must to create a life for herself in London.

To lighten the atmosphere a bit, Rose has come to stay as, presumably, she did not want to accompany her parents and O’Brien to India. A typical teenager, Rose is rebellious and not afraid to take matters into her own hands. Although she did not understand the ramifications of her actions, her helping Edna get the job reminded me of Sybil helping Gwen.

While the three younger women are evidence of a changing world, Robert is becoming ever more entrenched in the old. What’s interesting to me is that, the more entrenched he becomes, the more unpleasant he becomes. His actions towards his wife and daughters have moved beyond concern into a level of misogyny that is difficult to watch. But, even more oddly, his absolute conviction that he is the only one capable of running Downton borders on a level of self-delusion that is astonishing. This is the man who so badly ran things, he very nearly lost his estate. Even his comment to Tom is breathtakingly insensitive. Robert is incapable of seeing what is happening around him.

Downstairs has been less affected by Matthew’s death and things appear to be very similar to when we left. There are some new faces and a return that surprised me. Edna’s back! This can only lead to trouble. Similarly to Robert clinging to ridiculous notions of the past, Carson is convinced that if they only keep an eye on Edna, all will be well and Cora will not need to deal with reality. Mrs. Hughes and Tom understand that having this woman in the house is really, really not a good idea, but they go along with Carson.

I guess that firing two people in one episode would be a bit much. I must admit that Nanny made me suspicious right from the start. Thomas may be many things, but he can be a good judge of character. Now, Cora feels indebted to him. I can only imagine how pleased Thomas is with himself right about now.

The scene where Nanny is so nasty to Sybbie was heartbreaking. Half-breed, indeed. This little girl may be the result of a cross-class marriage and she may have been the cause of her mother’s death, but she has Grantham blood and her grandmother loves her. Did Cora in that final scene remind anyone else of Lady Violet when one of her granddaughters is not treated with the respect she feels is their due?

In case there is any doubt about where this season is going, the final shot is of the sunrise and Mary entering a room in a dress that is not black. Life at Downton is moving forward.

Bits and Bobs:

— Back in season one when Lady Violet’s maid left to get married, we saw the drama that women would go through when they had to hire a new lady’s maid. The reactions of everyone in the house strike those of us with modern temperaments as odd in the extreme. Cora is beyond furious; Edith blames Susan (it’s almost as though Susan stole money); Rose feels guilty that she didn’t tell anyone. We must remember, however, the relationship women had with their maids and men had with their valets. It was much closer than master/servant and the people upstairs would take O’Brien’s leaving and Susan’s hiring her as a personal betrayal.

— Death duties, or the Inheritance Tax, was no joke. The rates were enormous and more than one of the great estates broke up because of it. It is still highly controversial in the UK as much of what is taxed is personal and real property on which taxes have already been paid.

— Although we think of the workhouses as Dickensian, they existed until 1948 and they were truly awful places. Even as late as 1922, the poor who had nowhere else to go would end up in the workhouse where they had insufficient food and medical care. Many simply bided their time until they died. Isobel taking in Charles would have been tantamount to his winning the lottery.

— All the Valentine’s card nonsense below stairs was beginning to wear thin, until the scene between Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. What a sweet thing for Mrs. Patmore to do and what a lovely response from Daisy. I must admit I got a tear in my eye.

— In case we forgot that this show is about a changing world, it is Mrs. Patmore who despairs over the electric mixer and Daisy who works it and makes a delicious mousse with it.

Well Said:

Robert: “And, the price of great love is great misery when one of you dies.”
Tom: “I know that.”

Isobel: “When your only child dies, then you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really. And, that’s what I’m trying to get used to.”
Edith: “You’re a grandmother.”

Isobel: “I don’t see that it’s any of my business.”
Mrs. Hughes: “That’s something I never thought I’d hear you say, ma’am.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.


  1. I definitely liked the scenes with Carson the best. And I'm not sure when it happened, but I think Tom has become my favorite character. I loved what he did for Mary.

  2. Yay Chris's Downton reviews are back! I always look forward to these, and Chris you always know far more about the British upper classes than I do!

    Tom has always been my favourite character, even more than Matthew. But then, I had a thing for him back in Rome season 2 and I love cars, so that was a given really!

    I lost count of how many times in this episode (and I think a couple of others too) Branson had to do this silent look that says, "Is anyone going to remember that my wife died less than two years ago? And I can't even draw on my side of the family for support, but ended up having to learn a completely new job stuck in a situation where basically only Mary, maybe Edith and Cora, and Mrs Hughes really like me? No? OK, then."

  3. Your comment, Juliette, made me laugh out loud. What a perfect way to describe Tom's exasperation at times.

    I fell in love with Tom back in season one in the scene where Sybil is modeling her new frock and he looks at her through the window with a huge smile on his face. I shipped the two of them much more than I ever did Matthew and Mary.

    As I re-read my review today, I realized that the date had been staring me in the face (Valentine's Day), so I edited the opening paragraph. Senior moment!

  4. Yay! Downton Abbey reviews!!! :o) Will be fun to re-live the season through you guys!

    Tom is great! Love how he figures out how to get Mary out of her despondence, and he knows just who to talk to for help. :o)

  5. So glad it's not just me! We need our own Branson appreciation group :)

  6. Branson Appreciation Group. BAG for short? Or maybe Downton Abbey Branson Appreciation Group. DA BAG. Better.

  7. I was thinking that Doux Reviews Branson Appreciation Group, DR BAG, was another choice; but then I realized that nothing, simply nothing, is as good as DA BAG.

    This is one of my favorite exchanges on this site -- ever.


  8. I'm a few episodes behind (but I've seen this one AND been spoiled on that thing).

    But it just occurred to me that Downton Abbey is probably the show where my opinions of characters have changed the most. Except for Sybil, who I always loved. And Maggie Smith. But everyone I started out loving I now hate and vice versa. I don't know if that's impressive writing, uneven characterization, or some combination of both.

    Can anyone give me a quick refresher on who Edna is and her connection with Branson? I'd usually wiki it, but given that I am behind, I don't want to spoil myself on anything...

  9. sunbunny -- Edna was the new housemaid who made a play for Tom while the rest of the family were up in Scotland in last season's final episode. Think Edith 2.0.

  10. ChrisB, did you mean Ethel 2.0?

    (I got totally confused when Edna showed up cause I thought she was Jane, the one Grantham was making out with, and wondered what Tom had to do with anything!)

  11. Juliette -- I have the worst mental block when it comes to Edith and Ethel. I am constantly mixing up their names.

    I did, indeed, mean Ethel 2.0. Thanks for the catch.

  12. I have the same issue! In my case I think it's because I had a great aunt Edith and a great aunt Ethel.

  13. I do it too - the names are far too similar (they're weirdly easier to mix up than Tom and Thomas). And there are too many random maids!

  14. One thing that puzzled me was how Thomas knew the nanny was evil--maybe I missed something. I thought he was making trouble for her because she was arrogant and rude, but she was so much worse than that. Though I do think the "cross-breed" comment was probably about Tom's Irishness more than his class...many in England considered the Irish an inferior "race".


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