“The servants are excited by Valentine’s Day and Mrs [sic] Patmore struggles to deal with an electric whisk,” reads the Wikipedia summary for the fourth-season premiere of Downton Abbey. And while there’s plenty of potential fodder for a pulpy potboiler spread throughout the rest of the nine episodes, it’s these more mundane, increasingly transient plotlines that come to define the latest installment of the series. (Spoilers herein.) An abusive nanny is exposed and dismissed before she can even utter the phrase “cross-breed”; Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) foils new lady’s maid Edna’s (MyAnna Buring) plot to blackmail Tom (Allen Leech) into marriage practically before it’s hatched; Lady Violet huffs and puffs over a missing heirloom, accusing her new gardener of stealing it, if only because Maggie Smith, sorely underused this season, needs something to do. These subplots may not overstay their welcome, but their purpose is frivolous and dubious at best.
The show’s third season was its leanest, most nuanced to date—until the final episode, which fell back on predictable soap-opera tropes, lazily juxtaposing visions of birth and death. Accidents are, by definition, random and unexpected, but the sudden, haphazard nature of Matthew Crawley’s demise following the arrival of his newborn son seems to have been born only as an afterthought due to Dan Steven’s imminent departure from the series. Thus, creator/writer Julian Fellowes scrambles to fill the void, attempting to give the freshly widowed Mary (Michelle Dockery) a new partner to further challenge her long-ingrained attitudes. By the third episode, she’s already being courted by a former acquaintance, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), and by the fourth, he’s proposed, prepared to break off his existing engagement.
A few episodes later, Mary strikes up a more promising dalliance with Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), a government inspector sent to look at the Downton Abbey estate, ostensibly setting up a love triangle. Mary and Charles immediately spar (convivially, of course), reminiscent of Mary’s courtship with Matthew, which was measured and purposeful, a comment on the class divides of the era and the familial pressures women were, and still are, often forced to bear. Mary’s function has always been to voice the tension between the virtues of tradition and modernity, but it remains to be seen how (or whether) the rush to find her a new mate fortifies her role in both the family and the series.
The season finale (billed as the show’s annual Christmas special during its initial run in the U.K.) attempts to hint at an answer to that question, and reprises many of the previous seasons’ strengths. As Harold, the Countess of Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) American brother, Paul Giamatti conveys his disdain and incredulity at the British upper class’s social customs far more effectively, and drolly, than Shirley Maclaine did last season as the too-overtly rough-hewn “Grandmama” (it’s almost unbelievable that the refined countess is her daughter). In fact, the arrival of the Americans this time around is, overall, more successful at highlighting this clash of cultures. “Are you excited?” Harold’s overzealous valet asks Daisy (Sophie McShera). “I’m never excited,” she deadpans.
The remainder of the season seems less interested in exploring such issues or any others beyond the surface. Subplots revolving around abortion and interracial romance offer plenty of opportunities for a cultural critique of the past, if not a correlation to the present, but they’re both glossed over too quickly. Violet, meanwhile, has regrettably turned into a bit of a softie, discreetly showing support for both Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) unsavory predicament involving her missing lover and Mary’s interest in taking a hand in managing the estate. The dowager’s evolution is welcome, but feels oddly sudden.
The season’s most dubious subplot, though, is the violent rape of lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) by Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green (Nigel Harmon). The sensationalist manner with which the series builds up to the incident is cringe-inducing in its portentousness, and following so close on the heels of the dull prison saga from the show’s second season, one has to wonder why Fellowes believes that the humdrumness that so charmingly defines John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna’s relationship, a counterpoint to so many of the other relations that fizzle around them, is in need of defibrillation. That she doesn’t become pregnant by her attacker allows the series to conveniently skirt an even thornier, more prescient moral dilemma than the rape itself, instead turning the situation into a whodunit. Dodging the difficult is apparently now Downton Abbey’s modus operandi.