Downton Abbey Season 4 Premiere Review: Death Duties

By MaryAnn Sleasman

Jan 06, 2014

Downton Abbey S04E01: "Part One" (Episode 1 and Episode 2 as they aired in the U.K.)

Not gonna lie, I was more than a little worried about what Downton Abbey would look like without Matthew Crawley following his sudden and soul-crushing death in last season's finale/Christmas special. I mean, I wouldn't go as far as to say that the entire point of the show was Mary and Matthew's endless courtship, but their story was certainly a priority. I didn't even particularly care, personally, about Matthew and Mary's Epic Saga, which always seemed so stuffy and dull compared to, say, Sybil and Tom as a couple or even Edith and Strallan as a couple. Honestly, there were times when I didn't even particularly like Mary all that much and... well... it doesn't even matter anymore because this new depressed-and-totally-at-a-loss-for-what-to-do-with-the-human-she-squeezed-out-of-her-vajayjay Mary is weirdly appealing in an OMG SHE'S HUMAN kind of way. 

And for now, the late Matthew Crawley's presence is still so deeply ingrained in every aspect of the estate that at times, the Season 4 premiere didn't entirely feel as though his absence had been fully realized on the screen. From the opening shot of the Estate shrouded in bleak, colorless fog to his surviving family's obsession with "what Matthew would have wanted," the onetime heir to Downton is still a driving force behind much of the goings-on at the mansion—upstairs, at least. 

Downstairs, despite the midnight flight of Miss O'Brien for the exotic climes of India, it was very much business as usual. Ivy and Daisy bickered over boys. Mrs. Patmore was scared of the new electric mixer. Carson was a stubborn ass about being a decent human being until Mrs. Hughes invaded his privacy and made him play nice with the long-lost ex-BFF who totally stole his woman. Oh, and Edna's back because Branson's storyline isn't horribly depressing enough as it is. YOU STAY AWAY FROM HIM, YOU HUSSY. 

Yeah, nah, I don't really care if Branson moves on from Sybil—he's human and he's young and Sybil would have probably wanted it—it's just that Edna is awful and clearly just an opportunist bordering on being a con-artist. And for the record, I also don't mind if Mary eventually moves on; I'm just not ready to invest in yet another round of Lady Mary's Endless Parade of Posh Suitors. Matthew and Mary's wedding was such a culminating event on Downton Abbey, not just for providing us with a satisfying ending to a story that'd been three seasons in-the-making, but also for all the potential story possibilities it opened up as the Crawley family saw their priorities change. The Estate was saved, and Mary had avoided scandal and ruin and managed to fulfill her destiny by marrying the "right" dude, who she also had the fortune of not being repulsed by. As Downton Abbey roared into the 1920s, the undeniable newness looming on the horizon was a tantalizing promise... making our return to a decidedly regressed Downton all the more disappointing. 

In the first half of tonight's two-hour premiere, once again, Mary was technically penniless, as without a male heir for a husband, the family fortune would go immediately to the wee baby George. With the looming death duties demanding payment, Downton was once again facing financial ruin, meaning George probably won't have much of an inheritance anyway. 

And in the second half, once again, Mary's place in the hierarchy was conveniently saved by a late-arriving letter. The threat of losing everything—or at least a substantial amount of it—to taxes still stands, but with Mary resolving to take an active role in the running of the Estate and her (and Tom's) commitment to fulfilling Matthew's quest to modernize and make the lands profitable, chances are the fortune will be just fine. BUT (of course there's a but) as Mary and Branson went forward with their plans, Robert once again got a bug up his butt about TRADITION and running Downton THE RIGHT WAY and once again set to being kind of a skeevy jackass in his determination to make bad decisions on behalf of everyone because he has the penis, and therefore all the power. ("When you talk like that I'm tempted to ring for Nanny and have you put to bed with no th-supper." LOL <3 U, Granny!)

Of course, history is cyclical, and the battle between old and new, tradition and revolution, Robert and literally everyone else, has always been a part of Downton Abbey's mythos. The 1920s are remembered by history as a boisterous era full of excess, jazz, and optimism, but you'd never know it to look at Downton, which to the Estate's older residents may very well be the entire point. As an institution, Downton symbolizes a way of life that within the show's own time period was dying—quickly, unceremoniously, and for many outside the gilded walls, not nearly fast enough. The '20s as we know them are present in Lady Rose and her careless frivolity and Edith with her impossible romance, her writing career, and her gradual shrugging-off of the old rules of courtships (you know she's totally gonna spend the night at Gregson's swank bachelor pad soon). Even Mary, who despite her initial reluctance, embraced her new active role in the estate's everyday operations with a surprising amount of passion and enthusiasm. She's not just going through the motions. She's not just doing it to safeguard George's future. Lady Mary has become empowered by her ability to have a say in things, to influence change, and to become an active participant in her own life.

Okay, so we didn't get the bright new future that was promised with the wedding of Matthew and Mary and the subsequent birth of their son, or with Matthew's ambitious goal to build a strong, modern Downton that would weather the ravages of time—that's what happens when someone dies before they're supposed to. But despite the painful repetition of old points that was present in this premiere, there was an underlying strength in the Crawley family's mourning period that gave birth to a more subdued newness in the spring. Sweeping change was never really Downton's thing anyway, you know?


– Gregson decided to become a German citizen so he could legally divorce his secret crazypants wife and make an honest woman out of Edith. Post-World War I Germany just sounds delightful, doesn't it? I'm sure this won't backfire at all. 

– Why did Rose want Edna to work at Downton so badly? 

– Does this mean Edith with Googly Eyes will update again? Miss yooou. 

– The Voice veterans The Shields Brothers recently graced us with a Downton Abbey/Beatles mash-up that you should probably have in your life because "Eleanor Rigby" is pretty much Downton Abbey in a musical nutshell. 

– How long until we end up with Mary's love life once again being the MOST IMPORTANT STORYLINE EVER?

– Why can't Edna go away?

– Do we miss O'Brien?


– Thomas's protectiveness of baby Sybbie hit me right in the feels. 

– Widow Mary was pretty heartbreaking, but I just can't with Isobel. I JUST CAN'T. I need her to hook up with Clarkson and live happily ever after, okay?

– Mrs. Patmore freaking out about the devil magic of modern appliances will never stop being the best thing.

– Poor Daisy.

– Poor Moseley.

– Poor everyone. 

What did you think of Downton Abbey's Season 4 premiere? 

  • Comments (31)
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  • joy9585 Jan 13, 2014

    I feel so bad for Mosley! Look what you did, Dan Stevens! Also, love the shout out to Gwen, the housemaid-turned-secretary (thank you, Sybil!) and her marriage!

    I will say, didn't cry nearly as much as I thought I would.

    I do miss O'Brien, but I have a feeling she may be back, considering she's working for Rose's mom (mum?).

  • Lolajane Jan 09, 2014

    Man. I was hoping that with the end of 2013 behind us, we could put that whole "squeezed-out-of-her-vajayjay" business behind us. Please. I'll overlook this one if we can just all work together now on moving past it. Please.

  • noelrk Jan 07, 2014

    The quick re-emergence of the status quo and the oh-so-lucky letter were annoying, but not surprising. The show loves doling out quickie resolutions to its big narrative problems, be they bars of soap or horrible scarred soldiers disappearing into the night, so it's pretty par for the course.

    Increasingly, it's a show I like for its parts but not their sums. Tom and Mary are an lovely duo, and I've come to love Edith and her gloriously modern but not showy clothes, but so much the show is just...they keep talking about change, but the characters are largely insulated from change, and the show itself it quick to avoid major changes itself. It's troublesome.

  • TQB Jan 06, 2014

    Dear Downton Abbey,

    Things I do not care about:

    1) Rose;
    2) Charlie Carson's Wild Ways;
    3) Thomas' scheming turning out to be for good, not evil; and
    4) Letters from the dead that magically erase serious problems.

    I had the opposite response to Mary's widowhood. I used to enjoy laughing at her outrageous bitchitude, but now she's all sad and pitiful. The mildest snicker at her self-pity made me feel like a terrible person. Shame on you, show; I want my Mean Girl back.

  • Saltine0001 Jan 06, 2014

    How many more times can the British remake Upstairs/Downstairs?

  • wudntulik2know Jan 07, 2014

    They can't. D/A doesn't even come close.

    There will never be another Mrs. Bridges and Mr. Hudson.

  • karenwasylowski Jan 06, 2014

    Off the track but doesn't Laura Carmichael look like Barbara Stanwyck? Anyway, I loved the first episode, I know the critics in UK and here rip this show apart ... but I love Downton Abbey. It is so nice - no Hooter's waitresses cast as Supreme Court Justices, no Chippendale dances cast as Fire Chiefs in Chicago/New York/Jersey, no scripted reality show backwoods idiots who were wearing cargo pants five years ago. Just a pleasantly wealthy family falling apart. Lovely.

  • tarkin12 Jan 06, 2014

    Edith with Googly Eyes is the best thing I've seen in a long time. I was dying at my desk.

  • NancyParker1 Jan 06, 2014

    I was underwhelmed but maybe a rewatch will revive my interest.

  • wudntulik2know Jan 07, 2014

    Or a large Scotch.

  • wudntulik2know Jan 06, 2014

    The old guy Carson saw off at the train - that wasn't my beloved Fat Andy aka Warren Clarke, was it? He had hints of Dalziel around the mouth.

    Sorry, D/A, I tried. You're still a soap opera to me with no characters that I am so very invested in that I just HAVE to follow the show each week.

    Meanwhile, I just saw Seven Psychopaths, holy crap on a cracker was THAT good. No room in Hollywood for old broads, though, that's the truth. Meanwhile, Walken goes on and on and on and on and on and on.............

  • wudntulik2know Jan 07, 2014

    The old guy Carson saw off at the train - that wasn't my beloved Fat Andy aka Warren Clarke, was it?

    No, it was Nicky Henson as Griggs, who has survived three bouts with cancer and is still acting at age 68, good on him. He was, if you are old as dirt and recall Fawlty Towers, the smarmy guy with the shirt open down to there and the chain necklaces, to whom Sybil took a fancy. Yes, that guy!

  • ben45tpy Jan 06, 2014

    Seven Psychopaths was a really interesting movie.

  • wudntulik2know Jan 07, 2014

    Killers who love dogs - can they really be all bad?

    Interestingly, the movie was all about love. And done so much more convincingly than 99-44/100% of the schmaltz being produced today.

    Now if only Harrelson wouldn't wear that rug in True Detective.

  • angelayang501 Jan 06, 2014

    the pilot is so much better than the review makes it out to be - michelle dockery was amazing and heartbreaking

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