Downton Abbey returns for series 4 tonight

Are you ready to return to Downton Abbey and learn how all of the characters will cope with the departure of Matthew (Dan Stevens)? The first episode of Series/Season 4 begins 5 January 2014 at 9 p.m. to 1 p.m. ET.

The year is 1922. The month is February. The topic is love, in all forms.

Six months have passed since Matthew’s sudden death. We come upon Downton Abbey in the dark. A woman, the nanny (Di Botcher), is attending the crying baby. Mary (Michelle Dockery), Matthew’s widow, looks pensive.

When the episode begins, Anna is looking in a servant’s room. There are two envelopes on the mantel. What does it all mean?

The first answer is easy. Mary is now a widow and well-suited for widow’s black–so slimming and it makes her pale face almost glow. She began the series in mourning after her fiancé, the unseen Patrick, died with the sinking of the Titanic. That was in 1912–a whole decade ago. Her mother-in-law, Isobel (Penelope Wilton),  is no longer a mother yet not ready to be a grandmother.

We can divide people into two camps: coddle or cold water. Because we’re dealing with aristocrats in love, the cold water dashed in the face is metaphorical. The dowager Countess of Grantham Violet (Maggie Smith) offers wise counsel. “You must choose either death or life,” Violet tells Mary.  That’s cold water wisdom.

Of course, the Mary and Matthew’s baby is not the only infant that the aforementioned nanny cares for. Last season also brought us a child of mixed class, Sybbie. We are reminded of this love because Lord Grantham insensitively tells Tom Branson, “The price of great love is great misery when one of you dies” Branson, once a chauffeur is the agent of the estate and the widower of Lord Grantham’s youngest daughter, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who died in childbirth during Series 3.

Lord Grantham disagrees with his mother, feeling the family needs cosset Mary, “Wrap her up and keep her safe.” Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville),  once was co-owner of the estate,  now looks to have full control, passing over Mary. When there’s no will, there’s a way but what of that letter?

While these upstairs characters have their concerns, things are more desperate for Matthew’s former butler and valet, Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle). He hasn’t found a suitable position and now faces unemployment and the humiliation of manual labor.

Matthew’s isn’t the only absence that leaves Downton Abbey in a tizzy.

Those two envelopes that Anna found held a resignation. Soon we learn Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Lady Grantham’s lady maid, has suddenly departed after receiving a telegram. She’s been stolen away by the mother of Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), the Marchioness of Flintshire.

Lady Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls), who doesn’t appear, booked a ticket for O’Brien to India and sent the telegram. Without a word, even to her nephew, Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), second footman, O’Brien disappears. What would Lady Grantham  (Elisabeth McGovern) do without her lady?

What will the scheming and ambitious Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) do without his accomplice? Barrow is much too in love with himself and ever watchful for ways to cement co-conspirators and sabotage the incorruptible.

Valentines arrive and causes some intrigue downstairs.

Love even touches Mr. Carson. A visitor from his past reminds him of an old wound that Isobel and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) help heal. Tom Branson requests his aid in pushing Mary to return to the land of the living.

Poor Mary. She is asleep with “barely enough energy to lift a fork to her mouth.” Yet pensive young widows are so alluring. We know that means that soon enough she will become the object of admiration. Happy lovers don’t make good stories; star-crossed lovers give proper angst. Who shall court her and when will she be able to love again.

And don’t forget poor Lady Edith Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay). Her hopes of a suitable marriage (to Sir Anthony Straillan) had been dashed by a vindictive Mary (because of Edith’s vindictive letter). Lady Edith continues her affair with Michael Gregson, a married man whose wife is locked up in the loony bin.  Sounds very Jane Eyre.  Michael discovers that by becoming a German citizen, he can divorce his crazy wife and then marry the deserving Lady Edith.  Does Germany really sound like a good place to be in 1922?

We drift a bit into March 1922, as Mary is given a letter from Matthew. Violet attempts to find Moseley a job that fails due to jealousy. Lady Rose and Anna go to a dance but must flee when two men fight over Lady Rose who is pretending to be a servant.

Downstairs, only Anna and her husband John Bates (Brendan Coyle) are happily married, mirroring the upstairs Lord and Lady Grantham. One of these couples will be in crisis by spring.

Besides love, the overriding concern here is money, managing the death taxes and how to manage the estate in the future. Scandal is  brew upstairs and downstairs and social conventions will be challenged.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire stands in for Downton Abbey. I wonder if this will ever be a solution for the finances of this beloved clan in the distant future?

The first episode of Series/Season 4 begins 5 January 2014 at 9 p.m. to 1 p.m. ET and will be available on-demand afterward.

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