There were plenty of big changes in the third season, with both Sybil and Matthew exiting the series by way of death. Sybil's death cast a pall over much of the third season, while Matthew's surprise death in the Christmas special
is having a similar effect in the premiere.
One could argue that viewers aren't watching Downton Abbey in order to get depressed. At its core, Downton Abbey is escapist wish-fulfillment with a side of history and a healthy helping of drama. The recent cast changes, however, have sucked quite a bit of the more lighthearted joy out of the series.
In the season premiere, set six months after Matthew's accident, there is certainly no way to get around the grief felt by everyone at his passing. Matthew was an important character in the Downton Abbey landscape, and he was part of arguably the show's biggest couple. So it wasn't like the show could just ignore his death and soldier on. The premiere instead deals with the way Matthew's passing impacts everyone from Isobel to Mary to the ever-more-controlling Lord Grantham.
Which doesn't mean the episode doesn't take time to begin new storylines or have a little fun. As usual, where the Dowager Countess goes, solid witticisms will follow. And Molesley brings a little humor by being as much of an underdog as ever, especially now that he's also unemployed.
While Matthew's death has touched the lives of just about everyone in the estate, life continues on. The repercussions of his death are likely to be felt for the entire season, if not the rest of the series, but hopefully the creative team can find enough material to balance out the gloomy nature of this mourning period.
The Mary and Matthew of It All
True love never dies, and once you've killed off one half of the audience's favorite couple, it's pretty impossible to just move on as if nothing happened.
Ironically, this might be some of the best material Michelle Dockery has been given to work with in at least a season. While it was nice to see Matthew and Mary happily paired off in season 3, the writers didn't seem to know what to do with the couple once they were a happy and healthy unit.
Sans Matthew, Mary has reverted to a more harsh and prickly version of her personality. This might not be great for everyone around her, but it's nice to see the talented Dockery have something interesting to play again.
Without Matthew, Mary says all the softness he found in her "seems to have dried up and drained away." She's having a hard time connecting with her newborn son, George, and she's shut herself away from the world. While the Dowager Countess tells her there's more than one way to be a good mother, Mary is still consumed by her grief.
You know things are dire with Mary when she's even being mean to poor Carson. If there was ever one person who will always be in Mary's corner no matter what, it's Carson. Both of the scenes between the two characters in the episode are heartbreaking for different reasons, and it's a relief to see her break down in her favorite butler's arms and finally have a good cry.
Branson, Cora and Granny all want Mary to get involved in the running of the estate with the idea that some activity will do her good. Also, considering what a stone cold schemer Mary has always been, running a giant estate like Downton seems to be a particularly natural fit.
Lord Grantham, however, disagrees. He thinks they need to protect Mary from the world. Mostly, he thinks he should be running Downton without Mary's help. Everyone else in the entire universe basically disagrees, but Lord Grantham has never let a little thing like logic get in the way when it comes to managing the estate.
As the episode ends, Mary shows up at the luncheon they're holding for the estate's tenants and starts getting herself involved in the business. It looks like Mary chose life instead of death, although whether Lord Grantham will approve of her being involved in running Downton is a battle for another day.
While Mary shuts herself away from the world, Edith is getting more and more involved with her married editor. She even kisses him at a public restaurant. The scandal! He's been looking into ways in which he can divorce his crazy wife and he's landed on one: Germany! I hate to be that person, but I'm not sure Germany has ever been the right answer.
Apparently, Germany is more progressive about letting men divorce their bonkers wives, and if he becomes a German citizen he can finally get a divorce. He asks Edith if she would be willing to go to Germany with him and she somehow manages to avoid giving a solid answer to the question, which is hilarious.
"Why don't you go to Germany, get the divorce and then we'll see? I like to keep my options open. Now give mama some sugar!" Even though there's no way this is going to end well for Edith, let's just enjoy her small moments of happiness while they last.
Meanwhile, O'Brien has left under cover of night to go take another lady's maid position, leaving Cora high and dry after all these years. "How will I put on my own clothes!? With my own hands, like a peasant?"
Thankfully, she immediately finds a new candidate for lady's maid, and it's someone who comes highly recommended by Mrs. Hughes herself. In the minus column, it's weasley Edna Braithwaite from the Christmas special.
In case you've forgotten, Edna made a play for Branson and got ejected from the house for her impertinence. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hughes was nice and wrote her a good recommendation, which allows her to weasel her way back into Downton again.
Carson's life gets a little more complicated when his old theater friend Charlie turns up in a workhouse asking for help. Suddenly, we're transported into an old Dickens novel.
Carson isn't interested in helping Charlie, especially not after he tried to blackmail him all the way back in the first season. Man, they are doing some Downton Abbey deep cuts this season in order to find storylines.
Mrs. Hughes, as Carson's meddling work wife, is not on board with him abandoning his old friend. So she calls in the only other person as meddlesome as herself: Isobel Crawley. Deep in despair over Matthew, Isobel finds some purpose again helping out another person in distress.
Meanwhile, the meddling continues when the Dowager Countess tries to find poor Molesley another job. Because it's Molesley, however, it doesn't go exactly as expected. Pretty soon poor Molesley's face is going to get frozen in that sad little Droopy Dog expression.
Elsewhere Around Downton...
-- Jimmy gets Ivy drunk for no apparent reason and the servant love square no one cares about continues.
-- Thomas butts heads with the new nanny when she keeps him from bro-ing out with baby Sybil. It turns out she's super awful to baby Sybil all the time and Cora kicks her quickly to the curb.
-- Mrs. Patmore wages a one-woman war against the new mixer, but the mixer wins. It's like seeing the very first battle in the rise of the machines.
What did you think of the season 4 premiere? Is the show still the same? Do you still miss Matthew? What do you think of Edna's return? Sound off in the comments!
Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9pm on PBS.
(Image courtesy of PBS)