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Downton Abbey Review: "Episode One" (Episode 4.01)

January 6, 2014  |  11:46am
<i>Downton Abbey</i> Review: "Episode One" (Episode 4.01)

It’s been a week of new beginnings on television, starting with Thursday’s lauded premiere of Community, which marked Dan Harmon’s return to the show and effectively hit the reset button on the series after a down year and some changes to the main cast. Now Downton Abbey is back, and though the British period drama couldn’t be more different from Harmon’s meta-sitcom, when we last left it, it was equally in need of a rebuilding year.

Last season saw the departures of not one but two main characters, as Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley both met untimely demises—Sybil dying from complications after childbirth and Matthew crashing his car moments after meeting his own newborn son—after the actors who portrayed them (Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens) left the series to pursue other projects. It was a lot of melodrama for one season, albeit necessary melodrama (Sybil and Matthew were both hopelessly in love with their spouses, so death was the only believable exit for them), and it was made exponentially worse by a Bates prison storyline that went nowhere. But while a self-referential show like Community can poke fun at its own dud season and acknowledge missing cast members, Downton Abbey does not have that luxury. Like all costume dramas, it’s deeply rooted in its setting, miles away from the fourth wall.

And so, despite the elder Mr. Molesley’s observation that “It’s a changing world”—a point the show spent much of its two-hour premiere trying to drive home with shots of ladies in flashy headbands and the occasional jazz soundtrack—we were left with a reboot that felt like more of the same.

We open in 1922, six months after Matthew’s accident, with the news that Mrs. O’Brien has snuck off in the middle of the night to accompany Rose’s mother to India (in other words, yet another cast member has departed the show). But she’s promptly replaced by Edna, the maid who was fired at the end of last season for attempting to seduce Tom Branson, after she lies about her reasons for departing Downton in her interview with Lady Grantham. Once she’s back in the house, it’s obvious she’s meant to serve as a surrogate O’Brien of sorts, getting chummy and conspiring with Thomas and framing Anna for one of her mistakes. Meanwhile, it’s same-old, same-old for Lord Grantham as well, as he’s once again butting heads with his family over who should run the estate. While Tom, Carson and the Dowager Countess try to coax the grieving Mary into taking an interest in running Downton, Lord Grantham babies her, convinced that he should be the one in charge of overseeing the estate.

Later, to Grantham’s obvious dismay, it’s revealed that Matthew left everything to Mary rather than their young son, making her half-owner of Downton. After spending much of the episode in mourning, Mary finally dons a lavender dress instead of her usual black, shows up to a business lunch and takes Tom up on his offer to educate her on the issues facing the estate. There’s the little matter of Matthew’s death duties, which Lord Grantham plans to pay off in one lump sum by selling some of Downton’s farmland. But by episode’s end, Mary tells him she disagrees with this plan, and it’s obvious she’ll spend yet another season butting heads with her father, much like she did during the show’s early seasons.

Rose also solidified her position as Replacement Sybil, carrying the family’s young progressive torch by listening to jazz, begging Anna to accompany her to a dance hall to do the one-step, falling for a working-class man and getting caught in a brawl. When the man she was dancing with knocks on the door to make sure she’s okay, Rose dons a maid’s uniform, makes up a story about being engaged to a farmer and breaks it off with him—but not before kissing him and being caught by Jimmy (who’s still part of that dull love rectangle with Ivy, Alfie and Daisy left over from last season).

Even though most of the episode’s two hours felt stale, there was one glimmer of hope. We’re finally learning a little bit about Carson’s past, and although Mrs. Hughes’ discovery of his old friend in a workhouse led to another repeat storyline (the old “Isobel Crawley takes on a charity case” plot), it revealed that Carson was once in love with a woman named Alice who chose the friend over him, despite really being in love with Carson. Alice has since died, we learn, but here’s hoping we find out more about what happened with her and our favorite stoic butler. Mr. Carson is one of the few characters whose backstory has not really been explored, and looking into his past is an interesting new direction for the series—much needed for a show that seems to have attempted to start a new chapter by rehashing old ones.

Stray observations:
-For a while, I thought Nanny West was going to be Thomas’ new rival for the season, but she quickly proved to be no match for him, getting the boot after Cora—who was tipped off by Thomas—catches her calling the babies names. It’s a good thing, because the “Thomas attempts to get someone fired” storylines are also getting old.
-”The price of great love is great misery when one of you dies.”
-I keep waiting for the bottom to drop out on Edith’s romance with Michael. It’s off-putting to see her finally happy. What does Germany have in store for him?
-”It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere.”
-It seems that now that Anna and Bates are finally together and happy, the writers don’t know what to do with them. Their attempts to help Molesley seemed to be a set-up for a larger “Bates tries to be nicer” arc, as Anna comments she never thought of him as social and Molesley remarks that Bates isn’t particularly friendly to anyone who isn’t Anna.

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