Reviewing Downton Abbey became so common a job for me during 2012 and 2013 that I came to think of my Monday mornings as ‘The Downton Watch’. Regularly clients would want me to write a review or do an interview on what had happened to this British household the night before. That’s because this stoic period piece clipped from the pages of a Victorian novel seems to have carved out an unexpected niche in Australian hearts. But will we be just as satisfied with the fourth series?
The opening episodes of this season pick up months after last year’s close, in the shadow of the death of Matthew Crawley, the heir of Downton. It’s hard to think how it could have been a more tragic finish. The practical young solicitor and the well-bred Earl’s daughter Mary had taken three seasons and as many Christmas specials to finally tie the knot and give birth to a son – only for Matthew to die in a tragic car accident on the way home from the hospital. Mary’s distress sets the tone and the moral challenge for the series:
“Because somehow with Matthew’s death, all the softness that he found in me seems to have dried up and drained away. Maybe it was only ever there in his imagination.”
If the first three seasons of Downton Abbey focused on the beauty of service – to a heritage, to employers, to spouses, to the poor and the sick – then this series will be about the ‘tough love’ that service might require. Isobel Crawley feels she has lost all of her life’s meaning with the death of her son, and it’s up to housekeeper Mrs Hughes to bring her out of herself. Mr Carson also comes in for some sharp words when he abandons an old friend to the workhouse because his connections are undesirable. Even the cook Mrs Patmore needs some bracing words to face the feeling of uselessness that arrives with a modernized kitchen. And Mary? Trust the doughty butler to call a spade a spade in the most respectful tone possible:
“You’re letting yourself be defeated my lady. I’m sorry if it’s a lapse to say so, but someone has to … You have a simple choice before you: life or death.”
We live in an age where possibly the most impolite thing we could do is tell someone they’re wrong, that their choices will result in both pain for themselves and others. It’s because the individual is so highly valued that the right to choose is almost unassailable. But I find it refreshing to look back with Downton Abbey on an age where people were prepared to call people out for their behaviour. The wisest characters, like Isobel, value these ‘faithful wounds’ the Bible ascribes to real friends:
“I’d almost forgotten I had energy or kindness in me, so that’s something, isn’t it?”
It’s no surprise the Bible recognizes the bracing love of well-chosen words. Turning a friend from a path that leads to death is praised in Proverbs. And warning people off the easy road that leads to eternal destruction was Jesus’ primary concern. There are more unforeseen love stories and bitter tragedies ahead for the cast of Downton Abbey as they move further into the 20th century. But I think if we can tune in to this new form of service then it will continue to be a show worth watching.
Distributor: Seven Network
Release Date: Sundays, 9:00 PM