Appellate Judge Tom Becker was glad a fainting couch was nearby when someone put milk in his tea.
Our reviews of Downton Abbey: Season One (published January 11th, 2011), Downton Abbey: Season Two (published February 13th, 2012), Downton Abbey: Season Three (published January 29th, 2013), and Downton Abbey: Seasons One & Two (Limited Edition) (published October 4th, 2012) are also available.
My world is coming nearer. And your world? It's slipping further and further away.
I'm always late to the party where "hot" television shows are concerned. So, yes, I was the guy in August frantically Netflixing the entire run of Breaking Bad in the hopes of "catching up" before the much-anticipated finale. (No, I didn't make it, and my efforts to avoid discovering the ending were thwarted when it was front-page news.) PBS's massive—and unexpected—hit Downton Abbey escaped my notice altogether until I edited Judge Clark Douglas' review of the first season. The review certainly got my interest up (though I couldn't understand why Judge Douglas insisted on misspelling "Downtown" until I checked the IMDb link), but it wasn't until February of 2013 that a friend, who'd just discovered it, raved and essentially blackmailed me with enthusiasm to catch up with it on my Roku. Naturally, I was hooked on the spot (Maggie Smith! Lady Mary! Matthew! And Thomas, really????)
So, after devouring the first three seasons in a series of marathons, I was psyched for Season Four, which would be premiering in America…in January 2014! Geez, that's a long time to wait, particularly after living and breathing Grantham and Crawley in such concentrated doses.
Well, the UK version of Season Four—which aired a few months before US audiences got to see it—arrived, and I can safely say that if I hadn't seen the program before, this season would have hooked me as quickly as the previous three.
With its various intrigues and plots centering on things like illicit romances and deceptions, Downton Abbey is classic soap opera—and I mean that in the best possible way. The show looks impeccable, particularly the period costumes (Season One began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912; Season Four ends in 1923). The acting is top-notch, and the writing—by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park)—intelligent and witty, making the occasionally melodramatic plot turns seem perfectly real and natural. You might not 'fess up to watching General Hospital, but Downton Abbey is the kind of high-quality fare people speak of in slightly hushed tones.
The show is actually built around "hushed tones," with the Abbey proper, its owners, the Grantham family, and their servants all part of the subtle yet compelling antics.
As Season Four opens, the family, particularly Mary (Michelle Dockery), his wife, and his mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), are still reeling from the death of Matthew some months before. Mary is withdrawn and depressed, and Isobel—usually so active and involved in humanitarian causes—barely leaves her home; she is also unsure of her place with the Granthams now that Matthew is gone.
Isobel eventually finds her spirits lifted when she is called upon to nurse someone she knows back to health. Mary tries to work through her pain by taking a more active role in the running of Downton and its properties. She is soon attracting the attention of a number of men, and while she's not comfortable having suitors quite yet, the attention—and affection—seem to help.
Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky in love, particularly Mary's sister, Edith (Laura Carmichael). After introducing her still-married lover to the family, he leaves for an extended trip to Germany, where something happens that causes Edith alarm. Something else happens to Edith that causes her alarm, and she turns to her Aunt Rosamund for advice and a solution with which she is not entirely comfortable. Meanwhile, young and wild cousin Rose (Lily James) embarks on an especially controversial affair.
Cora's (Elizabeth McGovern) maid, the duplicitous O'Brien, is gone, and she's been replaced by Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), who seems somehow indebted to the conniving Thomas (Rob James-Collier). Thomas insists that Baxter supply him with "information" about what she hears, and makes veiled threats when she fails to do so. Romantic relationships among the servants also become complicated.
But one of the most shocking moments of Season Four—perhaps the entire series—comes early on, when something terrible happens to a particularly beloved character. It's one of the most disturbing moments in Downton Abbey history. It's a plot arc that carries through most of the season, and will likely come into play in Season Five.
While the first couple of episodes—episodes one and two were combined into one long episode for the US premiere—are a bit slow and serve mainly to "catch up" after a year's absence, things pick up considerably after the "terrible event." After that…well, Downton Abbey has always been like one of those books you plan on reading a bit before bed, then discover you can't put it down, and it's suddenly 2 a.m. and you're nowhere near ready to turn out the lights. The characters are so rich and so well-played, we feel we know these people; a sweet, sad air of inevitability hangs over everything, as they seem to be realizing that the refined, respectable times they live in are coming to an end. The "younger generation" shocks their elders by side-stepping long-standing rules of propriety; other than the servants—most of them, at least—only Mary, of the younger people, seems to appreciate tradition.
Even the melodramatic bits are never played for sensational effect, but rather feel woven gracefully into the narrative. Fellowes also has fun incorporating real-life events and characters into the narrative; this season, someone gets involved with the Teapot Dome scandal in the US, King George V and Queen Mary make an appearance, and there's a fun subplot involving the Prince of Wales and one of his mistresses. Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti, as Cora's mother and brother, visiting from America, appear in the final episode.
As it has been since the beginning, the cast is impeccable. It would actually go without saying, except that it's impossible to talk about Downton Abbey without mentioning scene-stealing goddess Maggie Smith as Downton matriarch Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham. While Laura Carmichael, as Edith, and Joanna Froggatt, as Anna, Mary's maid and the wife of troubled valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), turn in particularly strong performances—I wouldn't be surprised to see Froggatt's name during awards season—Smith is incomparable. Some of the most entertaining scenes involve her clashes with the strident Isobel. Smith also gets more dramatic scenes than she has in previous seasons; she can take a moment that might otherwise be throwaway and make it magic, as she does, with few words, in her final scene of the season.
Downton Abbey: Season Four offers 11 episodes ranging from around 50 minutes to over two hours spread across three discs. Tech is perfectly acceptable—these look and sound just as they do when broadcast on PBS. For suppplements, we get three featurettes, one featuring the new cast members (at least one of whom probably won't be back for Season Five), and the others the usual "behind the scenes" stuff.
While the aristocracy might have seen better days, the Granthams are still going strong. The only downside to watching the complete Season Four of Downton Abbey is knowing that there will be another long wait for Season Five. A terrifically entertaining, classy, literate show. The fact it has caught on so successfully speaks well of the current TV audience.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2014 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.