Sunday, January 5, 2014

Downton Abbey Season Premiere Review: "Episode 1" - Grief and Loss

Lady Mary grieves and grieves and grieves.

As I wrote in my Best of 2013 series, I believe that Downton Abbey is a good show capable of creating great moments.  I’ve never really cared a great deal for its characters, but when it needs to craft a tearjerker, or a stunning twist, or a lavish ball, the show always comes through.  What startled me most, then, about the fourth season premiere of Downton Abbey (which actually aired as two episodes in the UK back in September) was how much I actually cared about the plights of several of the characters.

One of the most frustrating facets of Downton Abbey is how incredulous the series can be regarding the actual lives of the lower classes in early-20th century England.  The servants at Downton are often portrayed as being privileged to be able to work at such a lavish estate.  The townspeople who actually work the land that Grantham owns are only rarely seen or heard from.  With the exception of The Great War, any time there is a look at the larger issues of the day it is generally from an outsider’s perspective.  When the show wants to talk about the Irish Revolution, the family gets a new Irish driver.  When they want to talk about racism and classism, the family hires a racist and classist nanny. 

For the most part, while all of these changes are happening around it, Downton and its inhabitants remain largely removed from the influences of the outside world, except for the kitschy period touches we see added to Downton every now and then like electric lighting, telephones, and an electric mixer.  But Matthew’s death changes all that.  Matthew’s death and his decision to name Mary his heir have the potential to start a revolution among the Granthams and really lead Downton into the new age.  I honestly couldn’t care less about the estate’s death duties and whether they should sell some land to pay them off, but I feel like the show doesn’t really care that much either.  Rather, they manufactured this “crisis” as a way to bring Mary out of her extended funk.  The prospect of Mary and Branson (I’d call him “Tom” but will refrain to prevent confusion with Thomas) running Downton and transitioning the estate into this new age is actually really intriguing to me and far more interesting than Mary entertaining yet another never-ending string of suitors. 

Still, it all seems to come just a little too easily.  Mary has her big breakdown with Carson and is immediately ready to sit down at the investors’ lunch.  Nobody questions her presence or complains.  Robert clearly believes it’s in the best interest of the estate for him to be in charge, but he relents fairly quickly when Matthew’s wishes become known.  For an estate that’s typically portrayed as being more progressive than most (if often reluctantly so) everybody else seems to be ready to see Mary as the co-owner of Downton making this whole storyline far less progressive than I think Julian Fellowes believes it to be.

The other character whose story I’m really enjoying right now is Molesley.  Molesley has spent the first three seasons as the butt of every joke, the constantly put-upon servant.  I’m not entirely certain that’s not the point here, but even if it’s an accident, the eventual sacking of Molesley (owing solely to Matthew’s death) is a marvelous look into how difficult life can actually be as a servant of the house.  Despite having worked as a valet, butler, and footman in the last several years, his employers (and everybody else apparently) still insist that he’s only suited for the job for which he’s been trained.  For all the talk of how the downstairs servants are members of the Downton “family,”* they are still more than willing to jettison those family members when they’re no longer needed.

* Note that Carson and Mrs. Hughes are formally referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Grantham and that Molesley himself was called Mr. Crawley during his brief tenure as Matthew’s valet.

Most of the plots for this opening episode were uninteresting, but I think that was mostly intentional.  They seemed largely to be there in order to set things in motion for future episodes: bringing Mary into the operation of the estate and Rose’s interest in boys, jazz, and all things modern.  I honestly could not care less about Thomas’s and Edna’s behind-the-scenes trouble-making at this point, but so long as it isn’t interfering with the actual character development, I’ll let it slide, because I’m actually enjoying what little of that there has been so far.

A couple of spare thoughts –
Seriously, are any of the side plots in this episode worth discussing?  Mrs. Hughes finds an old colleague of Carson’s working in a factory.  Edith’s man Michael is plotting a move to Germany so that he can divorce his wife.  Thomas and Edna are being dicks for no particular reason.  I’m more interested in the idea of Edith’s plot than in the execution and the only way I’ll care about Charles Grigg is if it ends with Mr. Carson anachronistically doing the Charleston.

I really didn’t care for the filming of Mary’s breakdown.  It feels like they wanted a shaky-cam vibe, but that the director didn’t really know how to pull it off, so it ended up more like an “unsteady cam.”  It was just out of character for the show and wasn’t executed well either.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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