Downton Abbey – Series 4 Review

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Series 4 by J King

With Series 4 at an end in both America and Canada (as well as the UK) for another year, it would seem the ongoing and enduring affair with Downton Abbey is about to hit its yearly late winter hiatus as viewers hit the beginnings of withdrawals. Our advice: STOCK UP on your dvds and books !

We all have our ways to cope with the annual ‘Downton drought’ and we in the UK are into our second month. Luckily for us here in the UK, the series starts again in the UK in September, before it is rolled out to some of Europe and New Zealand, hitting stateside in January, followed by Australia, South America and other countries last. For the creators, the critics, but above all for the viewers, who have struggled to deal with the changes of the central romantic storyline, one thing is for sure, Downton’s original landscape has altered. And Series 4 has certainly presented every viewer with challenges. We were carefully steered through the subsequent grieving process of losing Matthew Crawley, seen through the eyes of Mary, while Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) struggles to maintain the estate. The lead romance between Matthew and Mary, that had dominated the TV screens all around the world, had come to a shocking halt on Christmas Day in 2012 when, after been lured into a false sense of security with a trip to the Highlands in Scotland, the last scene closed in on the face of Matthew Crawley after his car had overturned following a car accident. Nobody saw it coming. Not even (as it turned out), Dan Stevens, the actor who played Matthew, who has since on numerous occasions found himself having to apologise for leaving the show.

‘…The price of great love is great misery when one of you dies’ (Lord Grantham)

Up until that moment, the romantic muscle inside each of us remained beating faithfully right from the beginning of the very first episode: It had only been a year before when we all rolled away from the TV screen in a state of euphoria during the beautiful scene in which Matthew had proposed outside the Abbey. Then, a year later, fans who had invested three years in Matthew and Mary’s romance, felt undeservedly cheated. The rug had been swept from under them, and reluctantly we have all had to start from scratch again. Perhaps this should serve to show the more experienced viewer that nothing lasts forever, and that includes a TV series,

‘Miss O’Brien’s upped and left!’ (Anna)

To coincide with the unexpected departure of O’Brien, (Siobhan Finneran) the opening of Series 4 (filmed in the UK in February 2013), focused upon a house in grief, and the sombre mood on the cold and misty Downton estate that reverberated through the viewers’ eyes as the first two UK episodes, albeit beautifully handled, kicked us back into touch.

 But it was to be different.

 The dark tone in the first two episodes took us through what happens when you lose someone. It was, in particular, Mary, Isobel and Tom Branson, whose lives had altered the most by events of the previous year. Some in-house relationships had remained unchanged: For example the Carson and Mrs Hughes dynamic (will they? won’t they?), plus the bustlings of the other downstairs staff, maybe it is fair to say that there is nothing like recovering from one shock, only then to be greeted by another unpleasant jolt to plant us firmly into series 4.

Indeed, it went even darker. Amongst a gaggle of guest faces during a house party in Episode 3 we saw Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performing beautifully but to coincide, the atmosphere downstairs turned violent. There is no doubt that Downton has in the past courted controversy: The shocking depths into which Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall) plunged to in Series 3 after she lost her job, self-respect, and, almost, her baby to become a prostitute. Nonetheless, the shocking attack of Anna Bates in the UK’s Episode 3 was felt across the seas from country to country, state to state. But no more than in America where the backlash after the scene aired was felt by everyone from living rooms to internet social networks and resulted in a great number of complaints and verbal explosions. The UK alone generated nearly 400 complaints to Offcom. The irony that the series also generated more viewing figures than ever before and remained strong after it was aired in the US and Canada, is worth mentioning.

Downton proved they still have the ability to shock. While much of the attack was not actually screened, what happened to Anna outraged and incensed viewers, who had taken the character to their hearts. Therefore, the initial knee jerk reactions were alarming. Thanks to the brilliance of the writers, who have spent the last four years shaping and forming the back stories to all of their characters, Downton had previously created multi-dimensional characters for us to either love or hate. Series 4 seemed to forget this a little, and some characters simply didn’t have enough to do, or that we didn’t empathise with them. But love them or hate them we still continue to do. And this seemed to go double for the story lines which have successfully brought us into the roaring twenties. Series 4 aroused a lot of passion and Series 5 looks to be much the same.

With events such as an attack on a ladies’ maid playing out on-screen, it is important to remember the time frame in which series 4 is set. It is not 2014, but 1923. We should all know that during those post-war times, women knew nothing about feminism or women’s liberation. It has been drilled into our heads by several Downton characters that ‘the war changed everything’. Women still struggled to be heard.

Apart from Cousin Violet of course, who never keeps quiet.

While the much loved Anna festered in misery, we were treated to the arrival of Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) into Mary’s life, and their on screen chemistry, coupled with his earnest puppy dog stares and declarations of love propelled in Mary’s direction, brought us something new to believe in, or at least to think about. However, viewers knew full well that Mary could NOT have fallen in love at that point and viewers around the world breathed a sigh of relief as more eligible suitors arrived. At this point it is worth noting that the beautifully crafted musical scores which have accompanied this latest series.  One particular signature tune acted provided an effective audible backdrop whenever Mary and Gillingham were together in scenes. (Yes, we are making enquiries about the musical scores!!)

While the landscape of Downton continued to change, there was a nod to past characters, while other certain characters were brought to the forefront. Enter, Mrs Hughes, (Phyllis Logan) who swiftly wiped out ‘evil Edna’s’ (MyAnna Buring) plans to trap Tom Branson into marriage, then in another scene subtly engineered to ‘do the right thing’ by Anna following her harrowing attack by bravely confronting Mr Green (Nigel Harman). All this on top of  her work with Mrs Patmore to keep the downstairs and its staff steering in the right direction.

‘If the family’s sardines my lady, the staff are like maggots!’ (Mrs Patmore)

The question mark over the position of Rose (Lily James) at Downton still remains uncertain, other than that of a wayward niece caught up in the 20s, and dating a ‘black band leader’ called Jack Ross (Gary Carr), to name one! In contrast to the above, her character remains extremely one-sided and most viewers do not empathise with her. Something profound needs to shake her up somewhat, before viewers can come to love her as much as the others. This also proved to be true with other characters including some of the downstairs staff such as Ivy (Cara Theobald), Alfred (Matt Milne) and Jimmy (Ed Speelers). We were also sorry not to have seen too much of Lord Grantham and also Thomas (Rob James Collier), as his scheming seemed kept to a firm minimum, or was it just my imagination?

However, our Edith faced further adulthood issues after becoming pregnant by her boyfriend newspaper editor – who then goes missing in Germany for more than half a series! And thank god for Aunt Rosamund (Samantha Bond), who showed her true colours and turned out to be the best friend Edith could ever have. In between the penultimate episode and the series finale, (of where there was a gap in transmission in the UK’s broadcasts) Edith’s pregnancy seemed so tucked away it was hard ti imaging she had ever been pregnant at all.

‘I REFUSE to be SHOCKED’ (Rosamund)

Thankfully, the comedy element to Downton returned to full effect by episode 5 with none other than the Dowager Countess ringing her servants bell. That’s all she needs to do to get us to laugh, and thank god for Maggie Smith! Only Violet could ring a bell to make us laugh out loud without the need for dialogue, and yet her constant sparring with Isobel (Penelope Wilton) brought forth many funny moments. (How could any of us live our lives without a weekly Violet-ism?)

‘I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with the sensation’ (Violet)

The rugged Landowner Mr Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) appeared on the scene to challenge Mary over her traditional values, and her scenes with the sick pigs in mud at night proved exceptional as we noticed how hands-on and immediate with the Downton land she was becoming. The return of Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks) was welcome, but one felt he had become lost among the new men on the Downton scene.

‘Don’t call them “Mary’s men” (Mary)

The more the series ran on the more the dark veil had lifted… Or had it? Mr Green (Nigel Harman) is later found dead in a London street, and concerns were raised about the brooding Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), who by now had worked out who was responsible for his wife’s attack. After all, he had spent a long time in jail, and THAT LOOK…

With some story-lines still (as yet) unexplained, the finale proved to be sumptuous, grand, and majestic and, thankfully, there was a happy ending. The welcome introduction of both Paul Giamatti and Poppy Drayton (Harold and Madeleine), flanked of course by the return of Shirley Maclaine’s Martha Levinson, led to some more caustic moments with Violet.  Rose’s ‘coming out’ at Buckingham Palace led to a potential scandal that led to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) stepping in to take charge. This was also undercut with Mrs Hughes’ random discovery of a bus ticket in Mr Bates’s overcoat downstairs, followed by an all too short trip to the beach led to the whole season loosely wrapping itself up. Loosely.

Many questions were still unexplained: Who is Baxter (Rachel Cassidy) and what is her relationship to Thomas? Where is Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) after his departure from Episode 4? Will Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) wake up to anything happening around her?!  We still don’t know for sure whether Bates had got his revenge. And as for the final scene with Mrs Hughes & Carson (Jim Carter), could something be about to blossom? For everyone’s sake, these need to be clarified.

TV Viewers have been down a very rough ride during Downton 4, but its fair to say that those who swore off Downton at the end of series 3, or perhaps early in this new series, have slowly returned, but its with extreme trepidation. One suspects that the roaring 20s may not yet have started roaring when Season 5 returns to the UK screens in the autumn. At this writing, episode one of Series 5 is currently being filmed, and all we know to date is the arrival of Richard E Grant, a storyline involving Jimmy and his previous employer Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor) and a sad moment to happen in the first two episodes……..

With high hopes for more storyline cohesion and more aspects to certain other characters, we are sure there is still a lot of romance to come…

Roll on September (in the UK), October for New Zealand and some parts of Europe, January 2015 for the US/Canada, and February for Australia.

 J King

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6 thoughts on “Downton Abbey – Series 4 Review

  1. Debbie Daly says:

    I love your Downton Abbey Series 4 Review! I’m already suffering withdrawals, and Sunday nights won’t be the same until Downton Series 5 airs! Please keep posting weekly, so I have something “wonderfully Downton” to look forward to!

  2. I’m enjoying re-watching Seasons 1-4. And … hoping a little throwaway line develops into more scenes. Lady Edith’s boyfriend..Gregson…is in Germany and got tangled up protesting some “brown shirt” guys. No doubt…the early nazi party.

    Hoping they continue all the personal storylines mentioned in the article above…and give beginning hints of the world troubles to come, as we know from history that Young Hitler and his brown shirt thugs were active in the 1920s…

    Liked the real-life Prince of Wales in the storyline. The Crawkeys saved his bacon.in their fictional but true-to the Prince’s character story..tho as we all know, he will get in deeper trouble …later on.

    And Lady Rose..who the Earl said was .”In charge of Fun”…is to me a realistic portrayal of a teenager with WAY TOO MUCH energy…and too little common sense. Maybe there will be things which will make her grow beyond just “getting back at Mother”!

    • Lesa Dyer Kitching says:

      Downton Abby Should win in ALL categories best show on the planet. I didn’t care for Ellen’s presentations very poor this year.

      • Lesa Dyer Kitching says:

        To bad to have to enter ww2 into the storyline. Everyone knows about it, I think actually it has worn itself out. Who wants to hear about Adolf Hitler again? I don’t. Perhaps I had been brainwashed because my 92 year old father served he was one and his group of men searched for Hitler. I am very proud of my father however I think the public for the past 60 plus years has worn it out. I am afraid if to much Soldier genres appear in the Downton Abby, it will take away the genre of what is it all about living rich, living in a castle, having maids and butlers. Perhaps a touch of the war…however don’t drowned it with the ww2 please.

  3. Emily L. says:

    Great review! I agree with everything you say about the characters and what we should hope to happen to keep the storyline interesting and dynamic in the coming season. Very insightful!
    And yes, when WILL Cora wake up to everything happening around her?? 🙂

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