Thankfully for Branson, Julian Fellowes will always create a more annoying character with an even more annoying plot to go along with him or her. Usually they go away fast enough to not become too bothersome, but in the case of Rose, the daughter of Marchioness of Flintshire, whose purpose on the show is to be the young, irresponsible element in the stuffy estate, her annoying presence last season was actually a harbinger of things to come — namely her mother suddenly absconding to India with O’Brien. Once again, one of the show’s best characters is gone. O’Brien’s absence is very noticeable throughout the season premiere. Rather lonely is despicable old Thomas; only — gasp! — his normal shenanigans and spite for a fellow servant turn out to be warranted, for once, as the quarrel between him and Nanny West escalates from a downstairs- vs. upstairs-servants pissing contest to the nanny getting nasty with Sybil and Branson’s baby: “Don’t let that chauffeur’s daughter disturb you. Go back to sleep you wicked little cross-breed.”
Of course, we aren’t going to have any sympathy for the nanny, who is immediately canned after Cora overhears her nasty command. This is emblematic of one of the show’s biggest issues at this point: it looked like Downton was setting up some sort of interesting rivalry between the nanny and Thomas, now that O’Brien is gone. But then they pull the rug out from under us by not only making the nanny out to be a horrible, racist witch but also getting rid of her almost as soon as she’s arrived. This might just seem like business as usual at Downton Abbey, but it underscores a problem that threatens to become worse than ever in the fourth season — the massive amount of fat we’re given to chew on when what we expect is delicious steak. The nanny plot, along with so much else on the first two hours of Downton we’ve seen this year, seems almost pointless: the secret admirer Valentine cards, Carson’s old song-and-dance partner showing up, and poor old Edith getting mixed up with a married man who’s on the fast track to becoming German all coalesced into one inane blob of a premiere that left me worrying that this season of Downton could be a treacle of a mess.