Warning: This article may contain spoilers
It would be a stretch to say that Downton Abbey has ever been a lighthearted show. The trials of the wealthy Crawley family and their tireless service staff have never exactly made for easy watching, but for a while, it was a show that went down rather smooth. There was a brief period (okay, mostly just season one) when much of the drama revolved around little more than who was in love with whom, and what to do if the dinner burns just as the distinguished guests are arriving, and when was underbutler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) going to stop being such a conniving prick?
Even when the second season opened with the onslaught of World War I, most of the major characters were safely out of harm’s way, not on the front lines. Only a few people actually worth caring about were ever in any real danger. Other problems, like Mrs. Patmore’s blindness scare, Mrs. Hughes’ brush with cancer, or Matthew Crawley’s temporary paralysis, were usually waved away in several episodes with either a flourish of Lord Grantham’s money or a miraculous misdiagnosis. Everyone was shocked when Sybil married Branson the chaufer and ran away to Ireland, but eventually they got over it. And when larger characters did die – William Mason, Lavinia Swire – in certain respects it almost came as a relief, freeing other characters from burdens they’d rather not have. The show was good, but it was all getting a tad overwrought.
All of that changes in season four. By far the darkest season yet, season four opens six months after the events of season three. It’s 1922, and the Roaring Twenties are in their infancy. There’s Prohibition in America, and new hair and clothing styles in Yorkshire. While electric mixers and sewing machines confound and fascinate the members of Downton’s staff downstairs, upstairs, the Crawley family is still stuck in the past. Still reeling from the shocking deaths of first Sybil and then Matthew, the Crawleys attempt to move out from under the shadow of their memories.
When the season opens, Mary (Michelle Dockery) can barely drag herself out of bed in the morning, much less have anything to do with her new son, George. While Branson (Allen Leech) struggles to get her on board with co-managing the estate in Matthew’s stead, her father Robert (Hugh Bonneville) insists she needs to be protected and shouldn’t worry about such things.
Lady and Lord Grantham struggle to parent Rose MacClare (Lily James), the charming yet spoiled 18-year-old grandniece of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who’s visiting from Scotland. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still trying to find herself a husband, but her suitor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) is married to a woman in an asylum and can’t get properly divorced. And the servants are stunned when key staff member Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) quits with no notice, leaving Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) scrambling to find a replacement.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Rape, abortion, murder – all of these troubles find their way to Downton this season, in one form or another. This is a very different Downton Abbey than fans of the first three seasons could have possibly predicted. It’s suddenly like the British aristocracy’s version of Breaking Bad. That’s sort of meant as a joke, but it’s certainly no surprise that along with all of the other shows nominated with Downton at the Emmys this year – Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, Mad Men, all of which unabashedly chronicle the lurid side of humanity – that Downton would be any different?
Downton Abbey never becomes quite the same level of brutal as those shows; most of the violence happens off screen, leaving us solely to see the repercussions. But there does come a time when a show that takes such turns becomes harder (though no less compelling) to watch, and Downton, while still great, no longer goes down smooth.
There’s more that’s different about this season than just the thematic elements. A casual observer in season one who happened to peek in on season four would find a very different cast than the one they originally met. One of the show’s strengths is the way it honestly depicts the changes a workplace goes through over a number of years. Different people come and go, some staying only a few months, others a few years, and a few for longer. In this way, the show manages to remain fresh, bringing in new characters with new dynamics and new relationships all the time.
One of these newest cast members is a very welcome addition – the first black character in the series. Jack Ross (Gary Carr), the head singer of a nightclub band in London, wishes to court young Rose. Predictably, the two face an uphill battle in that regard – there might be electric mixers in Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, but the Abbey isn’t that progressive yet.
Late in the season, the Dowager Countess says, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. The first one, and the next and the next, until at last we die.” While this might seem rather bleak, it also betrays the M.O. of how Downton Abbey operates as a show. Rather than follow an overt season-long arc, the show finds its rhythms in depicting one complication after another, allowing its characters to react and grow. Season four is no different, although the problems do become much more dire.
Through it all, the show never loses sight of its sublime characterization. When a woman from the village confronts Branson about his seeming comfort with the Crawleys, saying, “As a rule, I don’t really warm to their type,” he answers honestly, “I don’t believe in types. I believe in people.” Thankfully, Downton Abbey believes the same thing.
Three brief but interesting featurettes (no longer than 15minutes each) are included with the season four Blu-ray three-disc set, one of which is a video diary following several actors and actresses around on set for a day. It’s jarring to see them in full costume outside of their normal environment, and gives some revealing insight into the decisions that drive the show.