How 'Downton Abbey' Became an Addiction Again

It seems passé to be a big Downton Abbey fan, but after a very slow first episode, this season got me hooked. Why? Well, for one, Lady Mary's suitors.

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It seems passé to be a big Downton Abbey fan, but after a very slow first episode, this season got me hooked. Why? Well, for one, Lady Mary's suitors.

There really shouldn't be any reason to get overly excited about the fourth season of the British import, which tells the tale of the Crawleys and the people that work for them. The show has never been as good as it was during that first season, when a Turk died in Mary's bed, Lady Sybil (RIP!) wore harem pants, Matthew Crawley arrived, Bates and Anna made moon eyes at each other, and O'Brien and Thomas schemed. The show has never been quite as consistent—or maybe everything looks rosier in retrospect—but it can still churn out powerful episodes. The Mary and Matthew proposal was heart-swelling and romantic; Sybil's death was engineered to make you bawl even if it had been spoiled during the series' months-long trans-Atlantic television passage.

Still, people seem ready to leave Downton, especially after the show seemed to be bleeding stars like Dan Stevens (Matthew) who saw a career beyond the period drama. Unfortunately, the first episode of this season—a two-hour mashup of the first two episodes that aired on ITV in Britain—proves dissenters correct. (At the outset of the season the British critics responded with pans.)

The premiere is a slog that seems to rehash old plotlines under slightly new circumstances. There's a question of Mary's inheritance with her husband Matthew now dead from a car accident and Stevens' desire to be a movie star. Lord Grantham is being an old fashioned pill. The new—or, well, not so new—ladies maid who replaces Siobhan Finneran's O'Brien schemes equally well, if not better. With the fog of grief over Matthew's death—no one seems to be as sad about the fact that Sybil also died—hanging over the episode, it feels a little like zombie Downton. Anything fun—a dance outing with rebellious Rose—is tempered by a laborious story involving someone from Mr. Carson's past.

But though the two-hour premiere may be disappointing, it's worth sticking with the show. As soon as Mary gets out of her funk, the show gets some serious life back to it, and I for one could not stop watching. No, it's not perfect. Downton creator Julian Fellowes never seems to really like the downstairs characters as much as the upstairs ones. The plot line following an extremely tragic event that befalls maid Anna quickly returns to the previous uninteresting question of whether her husband Bates is a shady character and likely murderer. There are other characters the show simply can't make me care about no matter how hard it tries. Sorry, Mr. Molesley.

But upstairs, Downton's young ladies are behaving badly—or, in Mary's case, making men wish young ladies would behave badly—and that's where Downton gets back to its roots. Downton has always been at its best, at least for a fan like me, when it's been about passions and romance. It stalled last season when Mary and Matthew were married and their love was solid. Their fights over the fate of Downton may have been more realistic than their sidelong glances of earlier seasons, but they were certainly more boring.

With Matthew out of the picture Mary has to contend with two equally dashing suitors, one which falls under her porcelain spell immediately, the other who needs to see her get dirty with some pigs to see her virtues. Cousin Rose's dalliances resemble Sybil's of earlier seasons, though whereas Sybil loved the underling Branson, Rose is more driven by a desire to be the family rebel. And Edith, poor Edith. Well, things just can't seem to go right for her, though at least she seemed to have a little fun while she could. Downstairs isn't totally devoid of intrigue. Thomas, who is not around for nearly enough of the season, has an odd and mysterious relationship with a new ladies' maid, who seems sweeter than she perhaps ought to be considering she somehow knows Thomas.

Considering Downton's focus on class, it's amusing that to appreciate the show fully it takes accepting that as a show it's more Tom Branson than Lord Grantham. Tom's struggle this year has to do with feeling like he doesn't belong among the hoity-toity upstairs members of the family. Downton may look like a member of the upper classes of TV dramas, but it's best when it's just being good scandalous fun.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.