The more things change on Downton Abbey
, the more they stay the same. One of the biggest problems I've had with the show in the past few seasons has been its tendency to merely repurpose and repackage storylines. Edith falls for the wrong man, Lord Grantham refuses to change with the times, someone is scheming below decks to raise their station. We've seen it all before and, as the wheel of the season turns, we will see it all again.
While there can be comfort in familiarity, there's a reason that old maxim says it breeds contempt. It's not particularly interesting to watch a television series in which you can more or less guess exactly what's coming next. While many TV shows have formulas, the promise of Downton Abbey isn't always fulfilled in the execution.
One of the best parts of Downton is the ability to see history happening from a more personal point of view. So far in season 4, it's hard to get a gauge on exactly what is going on in the wider world.
With Matthew's death as the main and recurring source of drama, Downton has left the worries of the outside world behind. Thanks to Rose, we know there's a vibrant underground of drinking and dancing, but that's about all we know of what's happening outside the stuffy halls of Downton.
With O'Brien's sudden disappearance, the show had a real opportunity to bring on a new character with the ability to bring something different to the table. Instead, they brought back the scheming Edna Braithwaite, who slots into the O'Brien role so perfectly it's like our old poodle-haired friend never really left.
From goodbyes on train platforms to clothing sabotage, it feels like I've see this episode before a million times. Downton should be using Matthew's death as an opening to explore new storylines, but instead it seems to be retreating more firmly into the land of the familiar. It's early going in the season so far, so hopefully the lackluster second part to the premiere is just setup for better things to come.
Matthew's Last Letter
Six months after Matthew drove his car into a giant pool of fake blood, the lawyers in his firm finally get around to sending his personal effects. Fearing the newly revived Mary will fall into another fit of grief, Lord Grantham decides to look through the box of personal items. To really hammer home a case of the sads, the first thing he picks up is the little stuffed toy Mary gave Matthew to keep him safe in the war.
The next thing Lord Grantham finds is a letter declaring Mary his legal heir, which would give her access to half of Downton's estate. Isn't it convenient that Matthew would have written this letter right before they went to Scotland?
It's almost as convenient as the similar post-death letter that showed up last season giving Matthew permission to accept the money from Lavinia's father. It's amazing how many last-minute letters people wrote before their deaths in 1920's England.
Unsurprisingly, Lord Grantham isn't all aboard with this plan to give Mary control of his precious. Violet sets him straight several times, pointing out that he's not concerned the letter isn't legally binding but concerned it might actually stand up in court.
While he doesn't want to tell Mary about the letter at all, eventually he's persuaded. Soon he's even more upset when it turns out the letter is legally binding, meaning he might have some battles with Mary over how to run the estate.
Again, no part of this storyline feels unfamiliar. When the show first started, Lord Grantham was an upright and moral figure. Over the course of several seasons, we've seen Robert act in ways that disappoint us. He's controlling, he's stubborn and he's not likely to change with the times. He might be a good man, but he's a far from perfect one.
No part of this storyline teaches us anything we didn't already know about Robert. In fact, it feels very much like a rehash of where we were with Robert last season, as he struggled to keep control of Downton in the face of Matthew and Branson's logic.
Also, what kind of lawyer wouldn't have a will? Downton is always stretching credulity to its absolute breaking point.
While Robert is being a creep about Matthew's last letter, Violet sends Mary out with Branson to learn the literal lay of the land. After Robert rips into her at dinner for her lack of knowledge of the estate, Branson shows her the ropes.
There have been plenty of scenes of Mary and Branson working together this season, and I never realized what a good pair the two make. Up until now, they were never in very many scenes together, but they have a fun interaction I've been enjoying.
Edith is still shocked that Michael Gregson, her editor paramour, is willing to become German in order to marry her. Hey, remember how Edith used to work as a newspaper writer and that seemed like it was going to be an interesting and fun storyline? You know, a storyline for one of the ladies that didn't revolve solely around romance? Me neither, but at least we have this repetitive romance sure to end in ruin instead!
Rose, as the resident wild child of the Abbey, convinces Anna to come with her to a dance. Mary is like, "Whatever, just don't let Rose burn anything down or start a fist fight or whatever," when Anna asks about going. Of course, Rose does at least one of those things at the dance hall while pretending to be a maid from Downton.
Jimmy rushes Anna and Rose to safety, and then later sees Rose kissing her low-class paramour in the courtyard dressed as a housemaid. Rose swears him to secrecy about it, but considering Jimmy's an idiot, I doubt he'll ever use it against her. She should just be thankful it wasn't Thomas who saw her slumming it.
Speaking of Thomas, he and the new maid are soon thick as thieves. When she damages one of Cora's favorite dresses, he tells her to blame it on Anna.
Why would Thomas want to align himself with this new weirdo when Anna and Bates saved his bacon last season? Who knows! Probably because we all used to love to hate Thomas and O'Brien, so now he's going to be friends with O'Brien Lite.
Once again, for no apparent reason, Cora and Lord Grantham trust Thomas when he says Anna has been bullying Edna. Obviously, if there's one thing Anna is known for, it's being a huge bully. Also, both Cora and Lord Grantham know Thomas isn't at all trustworthy, yet here they completely buy what he is selling without a thought. It's like everyone took crazy pills in this episode.
Mrs. Hughes is still meddling in Carson's personal affairs, because that's what any good work wife would do. She tells Carson to talk to Charlie Grigg before he goes off to his new theater job. Carson doesn't seem like he has anything to say, but does eventually meet Charlie at the train station.
It turns out their falling-out was over a girl, because this show really isn't original enough to make it over anything else. Still, the thought of Carson in love warms my cold black heart, so I'll go with it. Charlie says Alice might have picked him, but she always loved Carson. Knowing Alice cared about him cheers Carson up, and the two former partners part ways as friends again.
Is this the most interesting or exciting story the show could be telling? No, not really. But I'll never complain about more screentime for Carson. I will especially never complain about more scenes between Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Now that Matthew is dead, Carson and Mrs. Hughes are my personal Downton Abbey power couple.
Speaking of Downton Abbey power couples, Anna and Bates have a few particularly adorable moments throughout the episode. After Anna finds poor Mr. Molesley doing road work to get by, she tells Bates how she wishes she could help him. So Mr. Bates goes to Violet for some money and then tricks Molesley into accepting the cash.
When Anna asks how he did it, his hilarious answer is, "Prison was an education." You know, I learned how to make some great macaroni art, forge documents and shiv people! All useful trades in everyday life!
What did you think of the episode? Did you find it repetitive or are you excited about what's next? Sound off in the comments!
Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9pm on PBS.
(Image courtesy of PBS)