Sometimes it’s difficult, while watching Downton Abbey, to feel sympathy for any of the show’s characters, be it the various members of the Grantham clan or the servants who run the household. For me, the obvious plot that comes to mind is Bates’ prison stint for the murder he didn’t commit. All we should want is for the goodhearted Bates to live free with his beloved Anna, but he is always such a martyr that we stop feeling bad for him anymore. Downton Abbey‘s biggest problem is that it makes the characters so saccharin and so proper that it’s hard to genuinely like or relate to them.
Season 4 starts out begging us to feel bad for one of the show’s main characters from the get-go, as we see Lady Mary, six months after the death of her husband Matthew in a car accident, clad in all black and still mourning for her dearly departed. Mary is one of the few characters on the show whose schtick (for lack of a better, more English term) tends not to wear out as easily as others’, so seeing her unable to pick up the pieces and get on with being a mother to her infant son isn’t as tedious as some of the miseries we’ve had to endure with other characters. Mary is often the show’s iciest character, so watching her deal with grief is interesting, even if, for the show’s sake, it doesn’t last too long. She will obviously not get over Matthew’s death, but she will carry on.
Much of the season premiere is based around the question of how characters pick up the pieces after a devastating season that not only saw Downton’s heir die, but also Sybil, the youngest of the Grantham girls. While the grieving widow has old, reliable Carson to pep her up in a great scene where the butler resumes his role of dispenser of fatherly advice to Mary, whose connection with Carson seems stronger than with any other member of the household (not to mention the Dowager Countess telling her “I love you” while trying to cheer her up), Branson is settling into his position as the estate manager, as well as the closest thing Lord Grantham has to a buddy. Branson provides the perfect counterbalance to Mary, because Mary has always been the same character that we love and hate in equal measure, but Branson has always been a little creepy. His early days with Sybil, the way he talked down to her and seemed on the verge of getting violent with her, were unsettling. Now, with Mary, he’s pushy and annoying in his attempts to help break her out of her mourning. He often comes off as one of the top two or three disposable characters on the show.
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.