‘Downton Abbey’: Series 4, Episode 1 Review

A new series, a new viewer and a new side to Lady Mary!

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Having never tuned in to Downton Abbey before, I sat down to watch the new series expecting lavish scenes of country estates, period costume and a dash of scandal. What I got was death, mourning and the fleeting signs of scandal past and future…enough to satisfy, but not quite enough to fully entertain and keep my undivided attention. It was sort of like going to a BBQ and being offered a nut roast instead of a hog roast.

I completely understand, that, being in its fourth series the majority of Sunday night’s viewers will have been hardcore fans (if you can call Downton Abbey viewers ‘hardcore’) and were probably glued to their screens – excited to catch up with the household. However, even after trying to remove my ‘new-viewer’ perspective and attempting to watch the programme as if these characters were familiar faces – there were many aspects of the episode that I thought required a little more ‘ooomph’.

The fourth series kicked off ten years after the first, in 1922. Undeniably, the opening episode delivered a dose of era specific imagery. The costumes were swish, new technologies were introduced, yet there was still that sense of WW1 hanging over the household linked with the slump that hit the country during the twenties. The workhouse is still very much present, with budget cuts and a runaway maid meaning that Downton is forced to search for a suitable replacement (cue dramatic re-introduction of a shady former character).

The main storyline of the episode focused on Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), mourning the death of her husband Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Her depression even reaches the point where butler Carson (Jim Carter) steps in and recommends she get up and running again, perhaps throwing herself into managing the household. However, this only angers Lady Mary and she swiftly rebukes Carson for overstepping his mark as butler, before quickly resuming her depressed state…It’s not until later when the wonderful Maggie Smith aka. Violet Crawley, steps in with a heart to heart and emphasizes that new baby George needs his mother that Mary starts to come around to the idea of getting more involved with ‘life’ again.

One aspect of the episode, which I thought worked really well in amongst the grief and black attire was the theme of Valentine’s Day, which ran alongside the more serious storylines. This light relief and scenes of excited interaction between the ‘sculleries’ provided the light in the dark, which is a key ingredient in a good period drama. This tangent also enabled myself, as a new viewer, to establish some sort of character differentiation, which could easily have been a problem with the majority of the cast wearing the exact same uniform.

Having decided to take a more hands on approach to motherhood and life in general, the climax of the episode came right before the credits, as Lady Mary turns up to the household meeting wearing something other than the black bin-bag style dress she had been sporting for the majority of the sixty minutes- instead, she decided to wear purple. Although this may have been slightly cheesy, I think that this simple technique used to show the change in Lady M actually worked really well. She regained her belief and hope in the future of life and Downton, and by the end of the episode- despite having found myself drifting off slightly half way through- I had joined her and was back and excited for the next installment (hopefully containing less bin-bag clad women). Essentially, this wardrobe change was exactly what the audience was waiting for.

Undeniably, writer Julian Fellowes and the star-studded cast made up a great team and what we’re left with as viewers is a feast for the eyes. I think that Downton Abbey works well as a Sunday night, feet-up-with-the-family type drama. The images are beautiful and the cast is undeniably amazing. However, for me, episode one got a tad depressing after thirty minutes of continuous mourning and moping. I guess that for the seasoned viewers, they were mourning too – but I just thought it needed to pick up a bit of momentum and introduce some sort of scandal or drama; something to really shake the household… but by the looks of the ‘next week’ clip – this could all be on the horizon and I have to say, I am excited to see what happens next.