Monday, January 6, 2014

Downton Abbey - Season 4

Downton Abbey's much anticipated fourth season started its US run last night. For many of us, this was the highlight (so far) of the new year - a nice Twelfth Night present and fair compensation for the imminent end of the holiday season. PBS outdid itself last night, offering a double-episode season opener, preceded by an hour-long special on Highclere Castle, the country seat of the current Earl and Countess of Canarvon, now one of the most recognized aristocratic houses in the world thanks to its role as the film site for Downton Abbey.

The two-episode season opener can be summed up in two memorable quotes. Early on, Mr. Carson, the butler, says to Mrs. Highes: “We shout and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we must all die.” Death dominates the house as the entire family - especially, of course, Lady Mary and her mother-in-law Isobel - still mourns the tragic death of Matthew six months earlier. As most of the world probably knows, Matthew - a distant "middle class" relative - had unexpectedly become the Earl of Grantham's heir in 1912 and had finally married the Earl's eldest daughter Mary after the war. In the final episode of season three, Earl Robert had finally acknowledged his debt to Matthew for having put Downton on a sounder financial footing. Alas, at the end of that same season finale, Matthew was killed in a car crash, just hours after the birth of his son, George, the new heir.

As usual, the new episodes contain numerous sub-plots which may become major as the season unfolds - Edith's continued relationship with Michael Gregson, Lady Rose's problematic high-spiritedness, O'Brien's abandonment of Downton and the resulting re-hiring of Edna as the Countess's new lady's maid, Thomas Barrow's perpetual scheming, etc. But the main theme is Mary's emergence from her deep mourning to take her rightful place in the management of Downton. Hence the important second quote - this one from the Dowager Countess herself, advising her granddaughter to "choose life." With some nudging from Carson and her brother-in-law Tom (who also knows something about prematurely losing a beloved spouse), Mary returns to the land of the living and seems set to resume her husband's role as her father's main challenger. (Her mother-in-law Isobel goes through a similar process, returning - through Mrs. Hughes' help - to her commitment to a life of active good works.)

Poor Lord Robert! He seems perennially to be cast as the maker of mistakes, the one with poor judgment, a well-meaning nobleman out of his depth in the actual running of the estate in the modern world! In Season 3, his mother-in-law had advised him to adapt. He does, but he always seems to be dragged into doing so by others. Perhaps that is how it usually happens!

As the documentary on Highclere Castle illustrates, great houses and the aristocratic traditions and values they embody still exist, but as pale ghosts of their former selves. Downtown Abbey gives us a very personalized insight into what it was like to go through that particular 20th-century trauma. It illustrates the positive benefits modernity has brought - primarily to individuals, liberated from the constraints of tradition to find their own way and define their own lives. But it also highlights the social costs that have accompanied the loss of those constraints..

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