Okay, so I lied about not recapping this season. The Twitter party PBS hosts every year always renews my enjoyment of watching Downton despite my teeth-gnashing over various elements when I watch it while it airs in the UK. Livetweeting also makes watching Downton feel like new, so I’m going to write these recaps the night of the PBS broadcast to keep my brain from drifting into spoilers!
Over the course of the past year, we’ve lost not one, not two, but three members of the cast. The departure of the amazing Siobhan Finneran, who plays nasty lady’s maid O’Brien, after season three’s Christmas special, precipitated some hasty writing to show her character’s exit. That is what we get in the opening minutes of the season four premiere, which opens on a foggy and ominously-lit Downton Abbey–coupled with equally ominous music–instead of the familiar wagging tail of Isis. Miss O’Brien packs her bags and leaves Downton in the dead of night, leaving two letters on her fireplace mantle to be discovered in the morning.
The disappearance of O’Brien upsets the family more than Mary’s corpse-like appearance (some on Twitter likened her to Lydia from Beetlejuice!)–Cora is infuriated that Susan Flintshire would poach her lady’s maid and collapses in bed as though without O’Brien around, she cannot even straighten her spine! Rose, Susan’s daughter, who has come to stay with the Crawleys while her parents move to India, bears the brunt of the family’s ire and suspicion. This leads to the spirited and impulsive Rose to place a help wanted ad in the village, thus circumventing Edith’s intentions of placing an ad for her mother in The Lady. Speaking of The Lady…Edith is popping down to London practically every five minutes to meet her secret lover Michael Gregson. He not only has a very swank flat, but he can cook! Edith noticeably blossoms in his company, wearing the most sinful red frock and later, while dining with Gregson at The Criterion, a floaty, sexy, sea green beaded strapless dress with a slit up to here (picture my hand at upper thigh–naughty Edith)! Gregson’s Great Idea for circumventing the law preventing divorce from an insane wife is to become a German citizen…in 1922. Will we be seeing Gregson extending his right arm, palm down, in salute in the nearby future?
While Edith is experiencing her professional and romantic awakening, Mary is drifting about the house, spreading doom and gloom. Robert is content with allowing Mary to wallow in her mourning since it keeps her from taking interest in the running of Downton, as Tom keeps urging her to do. Tom, braving Carson’s sneers whenever he is forced to interact with the former chauffeur, asks Carson to use his close friendship and almost fatherly relationship with Mary to convince her to move forward in life. Mary’s reaction is a given: she cuts Carson to the quick and reminds him of his place. Carson has troubles of his own to deal with, namely the reappearance of his ex-music hall dance partner and erstwhile blackmailer, Charlie Grigg. Grigg is destitute and in the workhouse, and is also desperate for Carson to visit him. Carson has no intention of unearthing his past yet again, but Mrs. Hughes presumptuously fishes the correspondence Carson discarded out of the trash and visits Grigg herself.
Somehow, Mrs. Hughes decides the rehabilitating of the ill and unemployed Grigg is the perfect project to dig Isobel out of her own mourning over Matthew (MATTHEW!!! your recapper weeps). While Grigg is installed in a cozy, warm bedroom in Isobel’s house, Molesley, Matthew’s valet and Isobel’s former butler, is turned out since Isobel sees no need for him! Molesley experiences one bad turn after another, first the humiliation of having no position, then being caught as a temporary ditch digger by Anna, his former crush, and then the sabotage of his butler skills by Violet’s butler. Violet, urged by a concerned Bates, decides to bring Molesley to help serve at a luncheon with Lady Shackleton, who is searching for a new butler. Violet foolishly does not tell her butler about these plans, and he assumes Molesley is his replacement! Poor Molesley. After this disastrous luncheon, Bates devises a way to give money to the proud Molesley by pretending to have borrowed money from the man. The hapless ex-butler/valet can do nothing but accept the money.
In Downstairs world, Thomas hates the new nanny because she does not treat him with proper deference, and schemes to get rid of her by preying on Cora’s completely cluelessness as to when someone is lying to her (geez…maybe Mary should have told Cora that Pamuk mistook her room for his own and then expired when she was taking a bath). Luckily, Thomas’s hatred of the nanny bears fruit: the Kathy Bates look-alike has been whispering nasty nothings into Sybil Branson’s ear, who had the “misfortune” of being the offspring of a former servant. Cora lays the smackdown on Nanny West, discharging the weeping woman that very night. But this moment of backbone is reversed when Cora simperingly congratulates Thomas for being such a fantastic servant. Oh well.
The love square of Jimmy-Ivy-Alfred-Daisy still continues, with Daisy embarrassing herself when she assumes Alfred sent her a Valentine’s Day card. Mrs. Patmore played a role in this embarrassment, but redeems the crushing moment by revealing she sent Daisy the card. Meanwhile, Jimmy is still toying with Ivy’s emotions in order to needle Alfred, and during an outing at a pub, gets her drunk. Rose, absolutely bored with living in the country, takes a jaunt belowstairs by pretending to be a lady’s maid at a thé dansant held for the servants and working class in the area. She ropes Anna into her adventure, and the nosy Jimmy tags along as well. All is fun and games for one-stepping Rose until another young man starts a brawl with her dance partner, Sam, after Rose refuses his advances. Sam sweetly shows up at Downton–Rose’s alleged place of employment–to check on her, and Rose exchanges her silks for a housemaid’s black in order to have a last bit of fun and romance with a servant.
A black moment was the return of Edna, the forward housemaid who made Branson so uncomfortable and uneasy in 2012’s Christmas special. Now allegedly trained as a lady’s maid, she takes Rose’s advertisement and applies for the position. Mrs. Hughes had written a great reference for Edna at Branson’s instigation, and its bites her in the behind when Cora is ecstatic over it. Edna’s reappearance in the house signals a new co-conspirator for the lonely evil under butler Thomas, and Thomas, forever hating Bates, uses Edna to undermine Anna’s position as a trusted servant. Cora swallows Edna and Thomas’s tale of Anna’s incompetence hook, line, and sinker. Completely absurd since Cora should trust Anna implicitly after Anna helped her and Mary carry Pamuk’s body out of Mary’s room! But that’s Cora Grantham for you.
Thankfully, Mary the Zombie disappears after the first hour, when she breaks down in Carson’s arms and apologizes for her rudeness, and takes up her position on the estate. Branson is pleased, and takes on the role as Mary’s mentor. Some of his statements about the estate are odd coming out of the mouth of a socialist ex-chauffeur–one would think he now upholds the ways of the manor born. Robert’s desire to hoard control of the estate is dealt a blow when a mysterious letter turns up (always with the letters!) where Matthew, who did not write a will, leaves the control of his investment in Downton to Mary. Thus the show has come full circle, with Mary finally getting what she wept about in season one: a controlling interest in Downton Abbey.