“I hate black,” Lady Mary Crawley once complained – all the way back in the Downton Abbey pilot, when she was forced to mourn the man she was supposed to marry to keep Downton’s fortune in the family after he sank with the Titanic. She needn’t have worried: As it turns out, death becomes her.
Mary spends half of Downton Abbey Season Four’s jumbo-sized two-hour American premiere gliding around Downton’s halls like a goth ghost. She grieves her late husband Matthew, who survived the Great War only to be done in by a car accident (and actor Dan Stevens’ off-camera wanderlust), in three primary ways: using her razor wit to blot out the happiness of anyone she comes across, like a cloud blocking the sun; leaving their son George in the hands of a nanny, in the belief that she herself is unfit to nurse anything but her own death wish; and looking preternaturally pale, artfully devastated, and absolutely fabulous.
Mary in mourning is Downton‘s pleasures personified. For one thing, no plot twist yet has gotten so much mileage from the simple fact that Michelle Dockery is striking to look at and listen to – just like most of Downton‘s cast, whether (like Dockery) they’re matinee idols in the making or (like, say, Jim Carter as Carson) they’re character actors with faces and voices that wouldn’t be out of place in Game of Thrones‘ Night’s Watch. Indeed, the very intro to the show follows suit, as the customary hustle-and-bustle credits montage is dropped in favor of sumptuously bleak shots that shroud a depopulated Downton in darkness, while the opening theme is melodically inverted into something strange and sad.
But more than that, Mary’s grief gives the show grist for its great thematic project – and no, I don’t mean the whole times-they-are-a-changin’-for-the-aristocracy thing, which would have a bit more weight behind it if any storyline, ever, deviated from the “Lord Robert is wrong at first, but he comes around in the end” model. No, Downton‘s true strength lies in its nuanced exploration of long-running, fundamentally functional relationships, between employers and employees, relatives, and most especially couples. Mary’s devastation over her husband’s death affects all three.
On the upstairs/downstairs front, Mary uncharacteristically reverts to snobbery she hadn’t displayed since the first season to tear a concerned Carson’s head off despite his years of loyal service and guardianship. She uses gallows humor to cut herself off from her own flesh and blood in a memorably mordant exchange with her lady’s maid Anna: “Poor little orphan.” “He’s not an orphan. He’s got his mother. Orphans haven’t.” “He’s not ‘poor’ either, come to that.” Contrast her hands-off parenting to her father Lord Robert’s: “She is broken and bruised,” he says of her, “and it is our job to wrap her up and keep her safe from the world.” A full 180 from Mary’s abandonment of her kid, it’s nonetheless equally destructive.
Most importantly, the loss of her lover causes Mary to question the life they’d made together. Matthew had once told her that he thought she was a nice person despite popular opinion to the contrary “because I’ve seen you naked, and held you in my arms, and I know the real you.” “Mine is the True Mary,” he later put it. With him gone, Mary wonders if the Mary he saw in her is gone too: “All the softness he found in me seems to have dried up and drained away. Maybe it was only ever there in his imagination.” When the Dowager Countess describes Mary’s plight to her as a decision between “death or life,” Mary’s quiet, sardonic response – “And you think I should choose life” – is a subtle and shocking depiction of her despair’s depths.
In other words, this is fine, fine television. And it’s why complaints that the show is too soapy, or too deferential to the aristocratic values of Lord Robert and company, are so misguided. Obviously Downton knows it’s a soap, its storylines rooted in scheming and snooping and snogging – you don’t end the first hour of the season premiere with a laugh line like the perpetually meddling Mrs. Hughes’s “It’s not for me to have an opinion, but I will say this…” without a healthy self-awareness. And while Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ obvious sympathy for Lord Robert’s plight indicates a coziness with the ruling class that any progressive worth their salt should find more than a little suspect no matter how many Dickensian workhouses he depicts, for crying out loud, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.
No, Downton does too much too well to write it off, even if it’s not doing it with the structural surefootedness and savagery of what’s normally considered Great Television. It’s gorgeous to look at, almost unnecessarily so – think of Lady Edith and her editor boyfriend framed by his apartment’s beautiful bay window, or of the red glow of the lamps and fireplace in Robert’s room as he tells Mary about Matthew’s letter, or of Carson’s backlit silhouette in his office as Mrs. Hughes confronts him about his old acting buddy, or of Thomas standing next to the foyer’s massive fireplace in his finery like someone out of The Shining, or of Mary and Branson overlooking the entire estate together in the episode’s capital- and lowercase-r Romantic highlight.
And it’s quietly confident in depicting the unpredictable little eddies and currents of how human relationships (between people who don’t murder other people for a living, unlike virtually all of its prestige-drama competition) progress. Think of Daisy discovering that Mrs. Patmore faked her Valentine to spare her feelings and simply being happy she has such a thoughtful friend. Think of Molesley staring up at the moon and telling his father he believes he never lived up to the example the old man set. Think of the unspoken subtext of Edith coming into her own – resplendent in red, gorgeous in green, able to command attention in a room full of family and willing to buck tradition in public – only after the sisters who outshined her either died or diminished due to the death of another. Think of Thomas’s lies about Nanny West turning out to be the truth. Think of Carson and his former partner Charlie Grigg shaking hands after decades of ill will, with a civil exchange of “Let’s part as friends, eh?” “All right, I wish you well.” You needn’t, and honestly shouldn’t, believe that society would be improved if it better reflected Downton Abbey, but this episode makes a strong case that television sure would be.