This review contains spoilers.
The nights are closing in, which makes it time for the gates to Downton Abbey’s theme park of escapist wealth, posh frocks and Maggie Smith doing all the good bits to squeak ceremonially open and admit us twenty-first century oiks. ‘Look, a tiny spoon just for hazelnuts! How darling’ we gasp. ‘And look! Unjust social divisions, casual racism and a patriarchy that keeps women in check.’ Isn’t it elegant.
Unlike its series three counterpart, which had a glossy wedding and Shirley Maclaine to recommend it, this opening episode is a bleak affair. The Abbey is still mourning Cousin Matthew’s shock death from the Christmas misery special (“I can’t believe it’s time for the stone already” the Dowager Countess told Mr Molesley at the graveside. “Aye, six months my lady. They always leave it six months for the exposition to settle”). Matthew’s mother and widow were lost to their grief; Isobel felt identity-less without her only son, and Mary spent much of the episode stalking the realm of the dead, stopping once to wearily bounce little George in her arms as if guessing the weight of a sack of flour at the Grantham village show.
Unfortunately for lip-readers, grief had immobilised the remaining motile twelve percent of Lady Mary’s beautiful face. Now more aristocratic plank than woman, she drifted impassively around the Abbey like a sexy Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. If Mary hadn’t emerged from her widow’s weeds to interrogate tweedy men about their sheep-rearing habits at the end of the episode, next week would have seen Carson wheeling her in and out of the breakfast room on one of those Hannibal Lecter trolleys and asking her to blink once for ‘Seriously? This entailment thing again? You are shitting me’ and twice for ‘Wasn’t all this loads more fun when I was shagging Turkish diplomats to death?’.
Before Old Lady Grantham channelled Wham! by urging her pining granddaughter to choose life, there was the matter of vinegary O’Brien having done a runner to India in the dead of night to get over. Seizing an opportunity to make her sneering debut on the international stage, O’Brien whisked out of Downton faster than you could say ‘Who’s Thomas going to be prickly with now? Oh that’s right, everyone’.
Lady Cora thus left maidless, it was time for the reappearance of saucy Edna, the understairs servant sent packing at Christmas for ignoring the rungs of social division and saucing onto Branson. Edna won’t be skivvying around the Abbey with a coal scuttle this time, but grooming and anointing her ladyship. Let’s hope she took the ‘politely excusing yourself when interrupted brushing a lady’s hair’ module during her glove-stretching BTEC National, seeing as it accounts for approximately two thirds of a lady’s maid’s workload at Downton.
Someone who’s not happy about Edna’s reappearance is Mrs Hughes, who pursed her lips at the news and all but turned to the audience to declare Edna’s predatory loins a ticking time bomb. Come on Hughesy it could be worse, at least she’s not that one who snogged the Earl that time.
More pressing for Mrs Hughes was the task of digging up a new character for series four by rifling around in Mr Carson’s wastepaper bin. She came up trumps with by plucking out a wheezing old Worzel Gummidge from the workhouse, one who – very promisingly – used to be Carson’s song and dance partner in his theater days. There may be bad blood between them now, but mark my words, we’ll see a music hall tap duo number from Charlie Carson and friend before the series is out. Anachronistic it may be, but I’d do anything for it to be All That Jazz complete with fishnets and heels…
On the subject of butlers, we spent far too much time this week with Downton’s very own Charlie Brown, Mr Molesley. Julian Fellowes no doubt keen to point out that it’s not only the family that lose out when a toff dies but also their staff, Molesley had to cope both with unemployment and the indignity of once again being Downton Abbey’s out-of-place comic relief (I still wake up in cold sweats thinking about that cricket match). Off you go to your new life wherever it is Molesley, there’s a good man.
Momentarily intriguing was Mrs Patmore – who’d otherwise spent much of the episode giving the new electric mixer evils – being revealed as the sender of Daisy’s Valentine’s card. Despite the tantalising promise of the relationship between the cook and her assistant taking an outré turn into Sarah Waters-ish age-taboo-breaking territory, it turned out that good old Mrs Patmore just didn’t want Daisy to feel lonely. There’s lovely.
Much less lovely was blink-and-you’ll-miss-her nasty Nanny West, who’d been given the name of a serial killer to telegraph what a wrong-un she was. Like that horrid one who used to pinch Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, the newcomer was revealed to be a child-abusing snob. No sooner had slighted Thomas whispered in Lady Cora’s ear than Nanny West was out on hers, and good riddance.
Everything looked as glorious as ever, with that characteristically handsome sweeping camera reacquainting us with the house and its ensemble. There were skirmishes of wit too – despite the mourning pall, Lady Mary had the line of the night with her evaluation of Edith’s beau, “He’s not bad-looking, and he’s still alive, which puts him two switch ahead of most men of our generation” – though with death in the air and without her Yankee in-law to battle against, Cousin Violet had fewer bon mots than we’d have liked. The dresses, as ever, remain the best bit by far.
What else? Ivy got pissed, Edith might move to Germany, and there’s now a Mary Poppins position vacant.
Cousin Matthew may have left the building, and the mousse may be machine-made these days, but Downton Abbey wants to make it known that nothing’s really changed in this gentle, unadventurous return. Wake me up when Paul Giamatti arrives.
Read the 12 geeky things you might not know about Downton Abbey, here.