Back at the ‘Abbey’

‘Downton Abbey’ Returns: Everyone Is Sad and So Are We

Season 4 premiered Sunday night and this is no spoiler: Mary was sad. Thomas was awful. Lord Grantham was the worst. What happened to our once fun and exciting little costume drama?

Nick Briggs/AP

I don’t want to spoil things, but by the end of the Season 4 premiere of Downton Abbey Lady Mary is wearing a purple dress.

Yes, this is Downton Abbey, where the color—excuse me, colour—of Lady Mary’s gown changing from black to lilac is the biggest thing to happen in a TWO-HOUR episode. If you’re a Downton fan, you love that about the show. If you’re not a Downton fan, you hate that. And if you hate that and watched Sunday night’s Season 4 premiere, a supersize episode that was so Downton it was as if it was parodying Downton, you may have tried to toss your TV out the window. Probably before the big purple reveal, too.

Over the course of its first two seasons, Downton Abbey implausibly won over American audiences who never thought they would be interested in an upstairs-downstairs British period soap opera that aired on PBS as part of Masterpiece Classic. And yet, we became obsessed. And then, because this is America and it’s the American way, we rejected it with a chorus of backlash, as we do with any piece of pop culture we obsess about, overexpose, and then put on an impossible-to-live-up-to pedestal.

The soapiness that was fun and scandalous became way too sudsy. There was a murder subplot with Mr. Bates that was so confusing and tangled we’re still not sure what happened. Plus, we were just really annoyed that Anna was in a romance with him anyway.

Then came the deaths. Oh, those deaths. The first, Lady Sybil’s, was poignant and heartbreaking and that’s all that can really be said about it without making me ugly-cry all over again. Then there was the shocker. Not a “Whoa! what an amazing surprise!” shocker. An “Are you friggin’ kidding me?” shocker: the death of Matthew Crawley.

Now, as it’s been said over and over again by creator/writer Julian Fellowes, the writing team was backed into a corner by Crawley’s portrayer, Dan Stevens, who decided to leave the show at the eleventh hour, giving them no time to craft a less-enraging exit than “sudden death by car crash.”

Alas, that’s what we were left with, and we were enraged. Even the show’s cast was ticked. “When Matthew died, I nearly threw my chair at the television,” said Shirley MacLaine, who plays Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson. “I thought, what is Julian Fellowes doing? It took me a few days to get over it.”

Well, now it’s been almost 11 months since Matthew’s death. The new season is back airing in America (it’s already aired in its entirety in the U.K., should you want to troll the Internet for spoilers). Rest assured, in the two-hour premiere, about the only enraging thing to happen is how unexciting and predictable Downton has become.

When Season 4 begins, everyone at Downton is sad. They are all just so freaking sad. And no one is sadder than Mary. Oh boy is Lady Mary sad. For the better part of the first hour of the premiere, Mary is just a sad sack of bones wrapped together in black mourning gowns drifting crankily up and down the spiral staircases of Downton. Occasionally she musters the energy to ask innocuous things like what the weather is like. But before Branson can answer, Lord Grantham chastises everyone not to bother Mary with thoughts like weather because she needs to focus herself on being sad.

But, you see, Mary isn’t just sad. She’s also a raging bitch. I know it was a different time and all, but Mary is so despondent and grim that when the nanny brings her son in for a visit, all she does is say, “Poor little orphan boy.” I mean!!! First of all, he’s not an orphan. He has a mother. It’s the fool who is calling him an orphan. Second of all, she said that to her son. To quote the person watching the premiere with me, seconds after Mary uttered her son’s ghastly pet name, “That’s fucked up.”

Normally when a series has been on the air for several seasons, the issue is that writers get stuck and start making the characters act in ways they never really would. Downton is having the opposite problem. Its characters are depressingly the same. O’Brien has left in the middle of the night, stranding Thomas with no one to do his devious machinations with. So he instead does his devious machinations with the new ladies’ maid, who is actually the old housemaid who made out with Branson that one time and was fired—so many plot points! It’s really depressing because a) Thomas is conspiring against poor, sweet Anna and b) remember when Thomas was outed as gay and tormented and actually empathetic and likable? Downton forgot, because he’s the worst again.

Pretty much everyone else is recycling their old plot points, too. Mrs. Hughes is meddling in the affairs of a stranger she has absolutely no business meddling with, but you don’t mind because she’s the infallible Mrs. Hughes. Isobel Crawley, in between being depressed about her son’s death, decides to also help the stranger, because about all her character does on this show is convalesce poor people. Lady Edith, who, it must be said, is actually looking quite good these days, is dating another older man who she shouldn’t marry, but she’s trying to convince herself she should marry. Daisy and James and Tall Redhead and That Other Kitchen Servant Girl are all in a love square that’s still really boring.

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Lord Grantham is still the most insufferable character ever to be put on television.

There was one unexpected plot point, and it was weirdly the most affecting. Mosley, Matthew’s old butler, suddenly became a character we were all supposed to care deeply about, as he’s now jobless. Everyone, completely out of nowhere, rallies to help him. The Dowager Countess tries to get him a job, and it’s just freaking adorable. Anna and Bates try to give him money, and it’s so sweet. This is Downton Abbey, where Maggie Smith is plotting with an old British man about how to get his butler son a good job and it is riveting. Don’t fight it.

All of this, of course, leads up to the big moment, the moment to end all moments in this two-hour affair of ours: Mary putting on the purple dress. As tired as we all get of watching Mary sulk about like a drawing in a Zoloft commercial, everyone at Downton is really tired of it. Branson tries to get her out of her funk. Carson tries. But it’s St. Maggie Smith who finally does it, in a beautiful scene in which she delivers a monologue about loving Mary unconditionally because she’s her grandmother. Our black hearts are turned a beating red again. And Mary’s black mourning dress turns a muted lilac. Mary’s back.

Was the Downton premiere good? Yes and no.

The series has an interesting problem, in that it may not be a problem at all. Or it may be a huge one. It has such a strong, unmistakable sense of itself that viewers can, at this point, practically write the show’s plot points and dialogue as it unfolds before them. What that means, basically, is that anyone who’s returning to Downton is there because they love being in the world so much that they enjoy it even when they’re not surprised by it—and there was truly not much to be surprised by in the two-hour Season 4 premiere. Unless, of course, you thought Mary’s I’m-happy-again gown was going to be pink. That purple number might have really thrown you off-guard.