After three breathless seasons, any American with an enduring taste for Downton Abbey will get what they deserve in round four. That sounds bad but it is meant to be reassuring. The season premiere, which aired on Sunday, has everything its returning fans demand: shocks and quips and china sauce-boats, and overwrought manners and hats. It's a feast for the eyes and also for whichever pleasure centre gets off on sneaky, naughty behaviour.
You saw season three, which ended with Matthew Crawley dead in a ditch and Lady Sybil Crawley dead in a bed. A third actor, the one who plays the conniving lady's maid Sarah O'Brien, has now left the cast too. The first job of the first episode of the new season, then, is to explain O'Brien's disappearance and achieve a transition from all that grief to something people will actually want to watch.
Here's how they do it. The episode begins with an exterior view of the Abbey, dark save a single high window, awake and afire. We don't see her face, but it's O'Brien, sneaking away in the middle of the night to go work for Lady Flintshire, who has poached her – all the way to India. As the lady's maid's unfaithful feet descend the stairs, the reshaped inner life of the house emerges. An infant's spectral cries swell and diminish. An imposing new presence, a nanny, moves down a hall. Lady Mary, Matthew's widow, blinks in bed, alone.
At daybreak, Lady Mary is still alone, and still not sleeping. She stares at a fire, sitting spinster straight, stiff with grief. Mary's grief, which lasts for about the first half of the two-hour premiere special, is the finest work of the series so far by Michelle Dockery. Dockery seems a natural for listless self-pity. "The truth is, I don't think I'm going to be a very good mother," Lady Mary later admits. The line is utterly convincing.
Then day breaks, and the servants are running from room to room, spreading the news of O'Brien's perfidy. It's an ingenious method for showing us everyone in the cast right away, to remind us who's still around. Short-handedness is one of the defining anxieties of life at Downton, but really – a ton of people work there.
With that the season is off and running. Lord Grantham is still totally stumped about how to keep Downton from going broke. There are still some incomprehensible rules of inheritance to crank the plot. Tom Branson, Sybil's widower, has replaced Matthew as Lord Grantham's towheaded sidekick. Cousin Isobel is in mourning for Matthew, her only child, until she finds a tubercular drunk to instal in the guest bedroom and nurse. Carson is still stuck in the past, Mrs Hughes is still chiding him to go easier, under-butler Thomas Barrow is still delightfully underhanded. Mrs Patmore, the cook, whose given name, wonderfully, is Beryl, confronts an electric mixer. Daisy remains a sweethearted step slow – although the mixer's no trouble for her. Anna and Mr Bates … mercy there are a lot of characters on Downton Abbey.
Lady Edith still has an older man in her life, although her wardrobe seems to be getting crazier, with ever-larger headscarves and splashier pastels. In one scene, she has chopped a peacock in half, made an elastic tube of the fan and stuck her torso through it. A handsome publisher sees her and offers to become German so he can divorce his lunatic wife and marry her instead. "But, Germany," Edith says. "After four years of fighting, you'd join the most hated race in Europe, for me?" It's a perfect Downton moment.
By the end of the episode, a secret letter from Matthew granting his share of the estate to Mary – passing over George, his son – has turned up; Lord Grantham has bravely acceded to a partnership with his most peevish daughter; Lady Cora has found a new maid and Carson has come to terms with his past. If that sounds like a lot, even for this crew, it's because this is a double episode, enchaining two instalments that originally, in the UK, aired separately.
We'll get to the night's best quotes, the juicy bit of any Downton recap, in a moment. But first a word about the strange appeal of the series for Americans (if for no other reason than to offer at least one thing in this summary, timed to the laggard US broadcast of the new season, that has not already been done and done better in Viv Groskop's hilarious recaps from London last September).
Americans are not supposed to know much about class, or to care about it, compared to our English cousins, who, it is said, are doomed to a sharp awareness of worldly position, the way some musicians suffer from perfect pitch in a world full of wrong notes. Yet many of the most delicious conflicts at Downton are set up by the probing of and, yes, crossing of class lines. There are two excellent examples in the episode at hand: when Nanny West attacks baby Sibby for being the "cross-breed" product of an unholy union between a chauffeur and an aristocrat; and when Lady Rose becomes a walking metaphor by cross-dressing as a maid. Both scenes showcase scandalous behaviour and both are almost intolerably exciting.
Why do such transgressions, the very marrow of the show, please innocent Americans so much? Such twists have a broad pulp appeal that is plain in the programme's worldwide popularity. But it is the assertion of this recap that Americans bring a secret ingredient to the table, conducive to our enjoyment in particular: our perfect ignorance of how such things are supposed to work.
Can a housemaid really go away, take a course in hairdressing, and then come back and become a lady's maid? What is the power dynamic on an estate, exactly, between a newly arrived nanny and a long-established under-butler? Is it indeed quite scandalous for a fashionable Edwardian lady to play tonsil hockey in a bar with her boyfriend? How come the other one gets to go out dancing, then? Would a maid really risk serious trouble by getting "a little bit tiddly down at the pub"? And what's "tiddly"? Is that like shitfaced?
We don't know! We don't care! We have James Fenton's imprimatur – with exceptions – of the show's historical accuracy to go on. But most of us have long since decided to just roll with it, to consume the dramatic highs and distraught lows however Downton feeds them to us, unencumbered by any critical faculties or, you know, knowledge.
Americans are the pride of the universe when it comes to creating and enjoying stupid entertainment. As for Downton Abbey: we love it.