Where season three of Julian Fellowes’ prized possession, Downton Abbey, collapsed under the weight of its numerous plot conveniences and event-heavy, gradually wishy-washy eight episode run, it was followed by a Christmas special that was a painfully slow example of the show at its posturing worst. Instead of exposing the series’ carefully developed ensemble to anything particularly noteworthy, or indeed progressive, ‘A Journey to the Highlands’ was a tour de force in tedious storytelling and gaping non-sequiturs, where dramatic tension stemmed merely from a carnival-set tug of war and an altercation with a spiked glass of punch. It did, however, do something right in its abrupt killing off of protagonist Matthew Crawley in the tacked-on climax, a decision that lets a little air back into the show’s stuffy, snails-pace development.
At a time of creative shortages, Matthew’s untimely demise was met with widespread disdain – clearly from those blissfully unaware of actor Dan Stevens’ vehement, vociferous designs for departure pre-season three – yet provided a blessing in disguise; a chance for Fellowes to swerve his sinking ship in new and fresher directions. And that he has if this opening episode of season four is anything to go by; a feature-length icebreaker for what will hopefully be a wallow-free beeline back to the boldness and simplistic machinations of season one, where character relations took precedent over whatever tragedy loomed murkily around the corner.
The episode opens with the series’ – easily the best looking show on UK television – proclivity for glorious mise en scene returning in full, gothic-inflected swing. A solitary light dangles amongst the midnight darkness enshrouding the Abbey, its occupants sleeping and corridors vacant save for chief lady’s maid O’Brien absconding for pastures sunnier, though probably less eventful. It’s a stirring beginning that lays the groundwork for what will essentially be Fellowes’ new-fangled modus operandi: out with the old and in with the new.
That isn’t to say the show is now inundated with new faces, quite the contrary in fact; aside from Lily James’ young, spunky Lady Rose (a by-product of Sybil’s passing last season) injecting new blood into the stately home, the season looks set to move its focus back onto the family at the core of the story. This means we have characters actually doing something noteworthy instead of fading into the detailed background. Most notably active are Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham, who sets about trying to aid the unemployed Molesley (in a beefed up role); Thomas and Cora contending with a draconian new children’s nanny, and Mrs. Hughes, who attempts to simultaneously reawaken Carson’s past whilst planting Isobel Crawley back into the present tense. It’s Isobel who gets the most heartrending line of the episode (“When your only child dies, then you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really”), a conclusion she’s reached in a deep state of mourning.
Also trapped in infinite bereavement is Mary, whose skeletal, Mrs Danvers-esque figure and wispy vocal tones are a physical embodiment of how bereft she is, unable, even after six months, to come to terms with being both a widow and a mother to a fatherless son, now the heir of Downton’s estate. Her father, the gapingly one-note Earl of Grantham, looks to shield her from the outside world and divert attentions away from her role in the running of Downton, a role diminished by Matthew’s death. Someone no longer toiling under the thumb of old-fashioned patriarchy is Mary’s sister Edith who, thanks to the new fangled attractions of a London in the throes of the burgeoning, 1922’s Jazz Age, is being whisked away from a life of dowdy shadow-dwelling to the height of cultural sophistication. It’s a marked and somewhat divisive move to swap the activities of its two principal ‘upstairs’ characters, but it works and respectively allows Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael a much-needed change of pace.
Though some would argue the show is still trapped in its all-out flirtations with the melodramatic frameworks and narrative prospects of soap – of which it is arguably a handsomely coiffured modern example, it’s apt that this season opener deals so openly with the figurative light at the end of a gruelling tunnel. It also proves how, given a degree of hindsight, a major fatality can be more of a fortuitous opportunity than a cause for concern, dealing with it by getting over it.