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Downton Abbey Season Four Premiere Recap: Get Busy Livin’ or Get Busy Dyin’

Downton Abbey is back, and things are both the same and a little different in everyone’s favorite hoity-toity Yorkshire country estate.

They are different, of course because — spoiler alert, although seriously: Catch the hell up — Matthew is dead, having been killed during last season’s finale in an unfortunate car accident that left his newborn son and wife Mary alone to soldier on, somehow, without him. As the more melancholy opening titles of Sunday’s Downton Abbey PBS premiere suggested, the dark cloud of that loss still lingers heavy in the air at Chez Grantham. Good lord, that was a depressing opening to season four, what with the dour piano music, and all those shadows cast across empty hallways, and the faint sound of an infant wailing out for a mother (Mary) who laid still and emotionless in her bed like some living, aristocratic corpse. At any moment, I expected Morrissey to suddenly appear in a doorway and start singing “Everyday is like Sunday.”

But who needs Morrissey when we’ve got Carson, who later in this two-hour behemoth of an episode would make this depressing statement: “We shout and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we must all die.” Yeah, that sounds like something Morrissey would sing, but it’s also a pretty fair summary of Downton Abbey, which, really, is a more refined, Masterpiece Theater-y version of shouting, screaming, wailing, and crying, occasionally rudely interrupted by random death.

Even though circumstances have shifted in the six months since Matthew’s especially rude demise, a lot of that Downton wailing, crying, etc., looks and sounds awfully familiar. It may be 1922 and times may be a’changin’, but at Downton Abbey, people still read each other’s letters without permission; the Dowager Countess still meddles in other people’s affairs while simultaneously dropping bon mots like a boss; Thomas is still a jerk even though Bates totally saved his ass a mere six months ago, which should have resulted in Thomas ceasing to be a jerk for at least a year; and Lord Grantham still thinks he knows best how to run the estate, even though we just sat through an entire season that firmly established that Lord Grantham does not know best how to run the estate.

Depending on one’s Downton Abbey devotion level, all of this repetitiveness is either: a) cause to blow off the rest of season four, or b) comfortingly familiar in a way that makes one want to sip some English Breakfast, dig into a package of HobNobs and titter happily every time Mrs. Patmore makes a wry observation. (“Nothing is as changeable as a young man’s heart. Take hope and warning from that.” Oh, Patmore. You’re both a frolicker and a poet.)

Personally, I think I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Midway through hour one of this episode, I could already sense some fatigue setting in, accompanied by a desire to write, "REALLY, LORD GRANTHAM?" over and over again, Jack Nicholson-in-The-Shining-style, and then file that as my recap. But by hour two, I could feel myself again succumbing to those refined, soap opera-y Downton charms, tipsy on the upstairs-downstairs-ness of it all. You know, sort of the way Ivy gets when she goes on a pub crawl with Hot Jimmy.

With so, so much plot stuffed into this double feature of a season premiere, here, then, is a helpful rundown of where things stand with most of the 1,883 (number approximate) major characters in Downton Abbey.

Lady Mary Crawley: Now a widow and the kind of mother who lovingly pats her son George on the head and says, “Poor little orphan,” let’s just say that Mary was not doing too well in the first half of this episode. She was like a posher, less Goth version of Lydia Deetz, Winona Ryder’s character in Beetlejuice: She constantly wore black, stayed upstairs in her room and thought no one in her family understood her. But thanks to the encouragement of Tom, Carson (whose advice she heartbreakingly but briefly rebuffed) and her stalwart grandmama, Mary eventually stepped up in her role as an equal partner, alongside her father, in the management of Downton. Big reveal for Mary: Even though Matthew didn’t draft a will, it turns out that he did write a hidden letter (always the hidden letters with these people!) that named Mary as his sole heir in the unlikely event of his death, a death that turned out to be, unfortunately, very likely. So now Mary’s the co-captain of Downton and she gets to tell her dad what to do about stuff like land and taxes, which is going to drive him nuts all season long. Hooray!

Lady Edith Crawley: This is the season when Edith finally gets some sexy time. She’s still romantically intertwined with Michael Gregson, the newspaper man who can’t divorce his insane wife. But good news: Michael’s figured out that if he moves to Germany and becomes a German citizen, he legally can divorce his first wife and be free to marry Edith. That all sounds great! I mean, nothing bad happens in Germany after the year 1922! Edith is finally happy because she’s getting to wear hot clothes — scarlet dresses and peacock frocks — and kiss Michael, in London, in public, while drinking alcohol! Whew, Edith’s business is finally turning into some biz-ness. One thing that gave me pause, though: Toward the end of the episode, Edith was wearing an unflattering outfit best described as a frumpy jumper. Was that brief costume misstep a bit of apparel-foreshadowing that suggests her passionate union won’t last?

Lord Grantham: Good ‘ol sexist Robert spent most of this episode shuffling about and suggesting that Mary was incapable of lifting a hangnail in her time of grief and that, really, everyone should just tuck her into a warm, safe cigar box like a wounded bird while he — the big, tuxedo-wearing man of the house — made all the decisions about how to run everything, forever. After he discovered that letter from Matthew naming Mary as sole heir and then discovered via Murray that it was legally sound, he said he was happy. But you just know he isn’t. REALLY, LORD GRANTHAM?

Lady Grantham: Cora’s focus in this episode was on hiring decisions. First, she flipped out when O’Brien spontaneously quit to become Lady Flintshire’s maid, a job that will allow O’Brien to create magnificent up-dos while traveling on the Darjeeling Limited. Then Cora hired Edna as her new lady’s maid without realizing that Edna was previously fired for trying to get into Branson’s pants. Then she fired Nanny West, who at first just seemed like kind of a pill and then — with absolutely zero warning — turned into Damien The Omen-Nanny From Hades. “Go back to sleep, you wicked little crossbreed,” she barked at baby Sybil. Then her head spun all the way around on her mean-nanny neck, and Cora immediately decided that was grounds for dismissal. (Side note: Does anyone else think that British Horror Story: Downton sounds like a really good idea for a show?)

The Dowager Countess: She kept on doing her Dowager Countess thing, telling Robert when he was wrong, saying amusing things to justify her Machiavellian schemes (“There can be too much truth in any relationship”) and providing solid counsel to her granddaughter. “The fact is you have a straight-forward choice before you. You must choose either death or life,” she told Mary. That was basically just a nonMorgan Freeman way of saying “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” But still: good advice.

Isobel Crawley: Isobel was the character that most broke my heart in this episode. “When your only child dies, you’re not a mother anymore,” she told Edith, referring to Matthew. “You’re not anything anymore. That’s what I’m trying to get used to.” Tears. Just tears. But being Isobel, she eventually started playing the role of life-saver again. There weren’t any available prostitutes to rescue, so at Mrs. Hughes’s urging, she took in Carson’s old theater frenemy Charles Grigg, cleaned him up, and sent him off to start a new life in Belfast. Next on Isobel’s agenda: making over a plucky Cockney girl by the name of Eliza Doolittle.

Charles Carson: Carson was reliably Carson, grousing over requests for days off from the staff and acting as Mary’s source for much-needed butler hugs during ugly cries. During his prolonged irritation with Grigg, he did reveal a softer side, noting that he once loved a woman named Alice, who chose Grigg over Carson even though, as Grigg later explained, it was actually Carson she loved more. That last part didn’t make a lot of sense, really, but it doesn’t matter because we all just want Carson to do it with Mrs. Hughes. Can’t that happen, already?

Mrs. Hughes: Meddled a ton in Carson’s business, reminding us that, really, she should be doing it with Carson.

Mrs. Patmore: Pulled the ‘ol Bart Simpson/Krabappel trick on Daisy on Valentine’s Day. Also was very concerned that she’s going to get fired and replaced by an electric mixer.

Daisy & Alfred & Ivy & Hot Jimmy: It’s the downstairs-at-Downton-Abbey love rectangle that keeps on going, especially now that Hot Jimmy might actually like Ivy for real, or at least real enough to get her drunk and, later, take her to a play.

Thomas: Thomas, who last season appeared to be on the verge of change after nearly getting fired and arrested for his attempt to get it on with Hot Jimmy, has not changed at all. He is still tattling on his colleagues. He is still determined to make life difficult for Bates and, by extension, Anna. He is still in cahoots with the devious maid to Lady Cora, although now that’s Edna Braithwaite instead of O’Brien. And he’s still making that starched white tuxedo shirt look crisp and fine as all get out.

Anna and Bates: They’re happy together. They’re good people. And they’re boring as hell. Translation: Julian Fellowes will make sure something terrible happens to Anna and/or Bates before this season ends.

Lady Rose MacClare: You may recall meeting the great-niece of the Dowager Countess last season. You may also recall how much she enjoys jazz and getting her dance on. Well, guess what? She still likes jazz and getting her dance on, so much so that she was willing to go to the York Dance Hall and get jiggy with members of the working class. Wait … a girl named Rose, who enjoys dancing with people of a slightly lower station in life — isn’t this basically the plot of Titanic? Let’s just say it is, and let’s further say that Rose clearly met her Jack Dawson in the form of Sam, who walked all the way to Downton Abbey — which is a long enough walk when you only start from the end of the driveway — to make sure she was okay after the dance hall scuffle that ensued. Of course, Rose had to bid him farewell while disguised as a maid so he wouldn’t realize she’s a proper lady. But … Sam will come back, right? If not to date Rose, then maybe just to stand around, being proper-hot?

Joseph Molesley: Last and perhaps least because that just how life rolls for this guy, we have Joseph Molesley, the valet to Matthew Crawley who, sadly, lost his job when Matthew died. We all thought about how Matthew’s death would impact Mary, or Downton, or Isobel. But no one considered how poor Molesley would go on with no Matthew as his anchor. I mean, the guy clearly wasn’t going to bounce back and pursue a career as a professional cricket player. The Dowager Countess tried to hook him up with a potential job as a butler to Lady Shackleton, but his luncheon try-out quickly dive-bombed into an extra slapstick-y episode of Fawlty Towers. But just when it seemed like Molesley would be resigned to a life of tarring pavement, Bates rescued him from debt. Molesley shall go on, and perhaps will even play cricket or even drunkenly dance again. Because that’s what people do at Downton Abbey. They choose life.

Photo: PBS