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Downton Abbey: Series 4 - First episode review

Downton Abbey

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 2 out of 5

IT kind of went without saying that the first episode of the fourth season of Downton Abbey would dwell on the aftermath of Matthew Crawley’s surprise death at the end of the Christmas special. Not many could have predicted it would be such a dispiriting affair.

We expected tears… but surely not of boredom.

Alas, the handling of the tragedy, albeit six months after it actually took place, hung over large parts of the drama, reduced both Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) to dead women walking and restored Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the levels of idiocy we thought he had left behind towards the end of the third season.

I spent a lot of my time getting annoyed by how things unfolded, not least because writer Julian Fellowes seemed to forget to add any real emotion. Matthew’s death should still have felt sad, possibly even tear-jerking, and his absence should have left something of a hole. Neither occurred.

There were a few fleeting moments that reminded me of the heights this series once reached during its nation-conquering first season, such as a ‘talk’ between Maggie Smith’s ever excellent Countess of Grantham and Lady Mary over choosing between life and death, or another between Lady Mary and Mr Carson (Jim Carter). But even then, the script itself still felt a little heavy-handed, while there was still no real sense of loss.

And it was too easy to predict that one of the final seasons would have involved Mary returning to the land of the living by attending a trustee meeting… a supposedly inspirational comeback that just felt predictably routine.

So, the rehabilitation of Lady Mary has begun. Expect new suitors to start emerging anytime soon.

Elsewhere, things were similarly hit-and-miss. Lady Edith, (Laura Carmichael) continued her liaison with a married man without really striking any semblance of chemistry in another of the more mundane story advancements, while mystery abounded over the identities of several Valentine’s cards senders (but really, who couldn’t have guessed that luckless Daisy had received hers from the sympathetic Mrs. Patmore?).

One of the night’s big shocks, meanwhile, came with the return of former maid Edna (MyAnna Buring), last seen being sent from Downton in disgrace following an ill-judged moment of indiscretion with a still grieving Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Whether her comeback will mean more indiscretions remains to be seen.

There was a little more enjoyment [and sympathy] to be found in the story of Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle), currently out of work following Matthew’s death and unable to see a clear future for himself, and in meddling butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) as he attempted to get rid of the latest thorn in his side, Downton’s nanny – which actually ended before it had chance to begin.

Put together, though, the negatives far outweighed the positives in what has to rate as a disappointing start to the fourth season. It seems the glory days that once marked Downton out as unmissable are long behind us, replaced instead by something that struggles to keep us gripped.

High drama has been replaced by melodrama, once likeable characters are testing our patience and storylines feel contrived and underwhelming. And that’s not even beginning to moan about the innumerable adverts that interrupt the general flow of proceedings every 15 or 20 minutes…