The fourth season of Downton Abbey premiered on PBS last night. It debuted in Great Britain back in September, but was new for most U.S. viewers yesterday. (Warning: Spoilers, as they say, are ahead.)
The season picks up six months after Matthew Crawley’s untimely death by car accident. Dan Steven, who portrayed Matthew, wanted to move on to other projects and was written out of the show. My largest question post-Matthew is whether there is enough story to drive the series now that the central romance is gone.
After the first episode, it seems the answer is a resounding maybe. Tom Branson and the Dowager Countess (the incomparable Maggie Smith) concoct a scheme to help Mary get past her inexorable grief. In short, they want Mary to play an active role in the management of Downton now that she is one-sixth owner and guardian of her son. Unsurprisingly, this puts them at odds with her father, Lord Grantham, who believes he should run everything. It’s a safe bet that creator Julian Fellows is returning to a familiar theme: the clash between modernity and tradition.
Edith continues with another seemingly impossible romance. Her beau is married to a woman who has been committed to an insane asylum. He is now contemplating becoming a German citizen so that he can divorce and marry Edith. That would be quite the scandal with World War I so large in the rear-view mirror.
Downstairs, Thomas continues to create drama and targets Anna and Mr. Bates with the help of a new employee. This storyline has been in place since the first season, so a retread feels a bit tired. The romances amongst the servants remain unchanged, with Daisy pining for Albert who is pining for Ivy who is pining for Jimmy (and perhaps Thomas pining for Jimmy as well). It all seems a little drool.
But there is reason for hope. The first episode saw quite a bit more of Maggie Smith’s character and she is undoubtedly the highlight of the show. The increased role for Branson and a nice development of head butler Carson’s backstory demonstrates that Downton Abbey still has new avenues to explore.
The cinematography of the show has always had a high standard. David Katznelson, who was responsible for the opening sequence, filmed the majority of the first season. Katznelson’s work was quite excellent. However, the first episode of this season is a notch below his earlier work. The picture has become a bit too full of contrast. It has also become overly sharp and bright which makes it lose some of the "film" quality that was previously so impressive. Since that first season, both the cinematographer and the type of camera has changed, so this is not a complete shock.
All in all, I found the first episode of this season to be a solid effort, but remain wary of possible repetitive themes and diminished production quality. Nevertheless, the potential for excellence is still at home in Downton.