Downton Abbey Season 1: Episode 4 on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Downton Abbey Season One: Hugh Bonneville as  Lord Grantham © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE

The curtain fell with a heavy silence on the final episode of season one of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic last night. What a cliffhanger. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes is such a tease. Luckily, there will be a season two. I cannot imagine being left dangling with (oh I will not spoil it for those who have not seen it yet) the international events that have been announced in the final scene. The summer of 1914 is such a pivotal point in European history. From this moment on, the life as the Crawley’s have known it at Downton Abbey will never be the same.

There were many, many plot points churning in this episode. We barely had a chance to take in one shocking event and another was thrust upon us. Here is a brief synopsis from the good folks at Masterpiece Classic.

Recap of Episode 4 (spoilers):

Change is in the air as the politically awakened Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) rallies for the women’s vote, in direct violation of her father’s rules. But when Sybil is swept up in the violence surrounding the reading of the election results, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) wins a heart by defending the girl and bringing her to safety. Meanwhile, back at Downton Abbey, persistent rumors about a family member cause a rift between Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) and Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith). And, a surprise announcement from Cora complicates the larger issue of Downton’s fate.

In London, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) gains a shocking insight, and her Aunt Rosamund (Samantha Bond) – displaying a more than passing resemblance to her mother, Violet — freely dispenses dubious advice to Mary. Meanwhile, the footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and the ladies maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneranen) list the reluctant, smitten kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) to bring about the valet Mr. Bates’ (Brendan Coyle) downfall, but Bates seems determined to do it himself, much to the distress of parlor maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who finds an opportunity to delve into Bates’ past. Concerned about the security of her position, O’Brien sets her spite on a new target, and a misunderstanding provokes a dangerous act of sabotage. Again, Downton is to be hobbled by the entail.

At a resplendent garden party, actions and betrayals come home to roost, and important news arrives that dwarfs the issue of inheritance.

My Review:

Whoosh. What fun. I will spoil the rush and mention a few quibbles. There were many gripping moments in this episode. Too many in fact. I felt overwhelmed at times. We were not given a time to recover from one to the next.

The plot made big leaps in time too. When the Crawley family returned to Downton from London in the summer of 1914, we are only told in passing that Lady Sybil had a coming out party! What? We missed a ball. No way. Big oversight. Everyone knows that all the best stuff happens at balls! Jane Austen knew that and used it to her advantage. Julian Fellowes must have forgotten, or the budget did not allow. Anyway, even if I felt slighted for not being invited to her big party, we did get all sorts of other eye popping personal events. Sisterly feuds, bickering, scheming, murder, fights and more fights. I had a friend tell me he felt that Downton was really the new Dynasty of prime time TV. Remember the wildly popular 1980’s American drama with glitzy clothes, big stars and melodramatic plots? It was an American drama mind you, but I can see the similarities. Big house, family money, family squabbles over power and money. If anyone recalls Dynasty’s most famous scene, will we have a cat fight in the Downton pond with Violet, the Dowager Countes and Mrs. Crawley to look forward too?

Cast of 1980's TV drama Dynasty

There were many great performances, but I will focus on my two favorites: Lady Sybil and the kitchen maid Daisy. Two young ladies on opposite floors of Downton Abbey who could easily be in each others shoes, but for their side of the blanket.

Lady Sybil is developing into a little firebrand! Her political activism is a total puzzlement to her family who think her charitable causes are extreme and her politics even more so. She is a Liberal. Her father is a Tory. He believes that the radical Irish chauffeur Branson (Allen Leech), who claims to be a socialist, has fueled her notions. After she attends a political rally against her father’s wishes, the family dinner conversation becomes very heated – in front of the servants no less. Oh, of course the Dowager Countess must have her share of the conversation and rhetorically questions her granddaughter’s being there at all.

Does this mean you won’t be presented next month?” – Violet, Dowager Countess Grantham

Certainly not. Why should it?” – Lady Sybil

Well I doubt I could be curtsying to his Majesties in June when I had been arrested at a riot in May.” – Violet, Dowager Countess Grantham

*Snort* We witness Lady Sybil’s further wrangling (by dishonorable means) a trip to the election rally which turns violent. Poor Branson, who drove her to the rally, knows better and that her father will be furious, but Sybil feels no fear of anyone it seems. She is passionate about politics and women’s rights and determined to exert hers. Matthew Crawley appears at a critical moment when the rally is crashed by the opposition party ruffians and throws a few punches. Yeah. Go Matthew. He saves the day and whooshes Sybil to safety while poor Branson, who is sweet on her, must watch and take orders.

There is just something so appealing about Sybil’s character. She does not care about her two older sister’s petty squabbles, nor the “great matter” of breaking the entail. She is looking outside her family for her future, while her sisters are dependent upon it. She represents the future for women, even aristocratic ones. The contrast between women being dependent on their family or their husbands, and her ideals of wanting the vote and working in a career to better themselves are a great divergence. I see future story lines including her, much more interesting than her sister’s romantic plights or petty fights.

Daisy. You gotta love her. As kitchen maid she is low man on the totem pole in the servant’s hierarchy. She looks like she is about fifteen and acts about twelve. We know that she is from a large family and probably had little formal education. Mrs. Patmore the cook browbeats her, Thomas taunts her, and William is sweet on her. The plot featured her quite prominently in this episode. Thomas the sleazy footman has her wrapped around his little finger. She openly admits she will do anything for him and later we see this in action when she fibs to Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) the butler about seeing Mr. Bates coming from the wine cellar. Later riddled with guilt, she comes clean, and admits to him that she lied for a friend. Again she is influenced by pressure when in the cook Mrs. Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) absence, she follows her wishes and spikes the food with soap so the Crawley’s will not like the new substitute cook Mrs. Bird’s (Christine Lohr) fare better. More yelling. I am not exaggerating when I say that half the conversation to Daisy is in a decibel above common polite conversation. Everyone is always reprimanding her in stern and angry tones. She looks as frightened as a rabbit and beyond hope half the time. Kudos to actress Sophie McShera, who portrays this terrified, impressionable girl. Her looks and facial expressions are just brilliant.

One last observation – no two. Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley has not been given much to work with up until this episode. Besides having blue eyes that you could drown in, he is really a fine actor. I loved him as honorable but confused Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility 2008, and he proves to be a wicked wit on Twitter. I think Hugh Bonneville’s influence as an actor and tweeter bring out a positive rivalry that inspires him. His scenes when Lady Mary is waffling over the decision to marry him and later says yes, but he knows that it is no good, are really brilliant. He gives Matthew enough angst with empathy that we are compelled to watch and wonder what he will do next. Season two might see him in uniform and away from the wretched wench Lady Mary. I hope he meets a nice nurse in a trench, or someone more worthy.

Final observation. The lifestyle at Downton Abbey revolves around one very important ritual. Formal dinners every night. Think about it. If they all sat down to a causal family dinner and passed their own potatoes, the whole aristocratic hierarchy thing would be out of business. No need to dress for dinner in frocks created by seamstresses and maintained by ladies maids. No need for valets to dress earls and starch their collars. No need for maids to dress daughters hair. Dowager Countess’ wouldn’t need to advertise for new ladies maids. Chauffeurs wouldn’t need to drive guests home in an expensive automobiles. Cooks and kitchen staff would be at a minimum. No footmen to serve. No butlers to butle. Oh, I could go on, but all those servants would be out of work. The whole system is predicated on fancy food, fancy frocks and fancy service! Take formal dinners away, and there would be no more Downton Abbey. Interesting to think that the British social hierarchy was created because of hunger.

Downton Abbey continues next year. We will just have to wait to see who dies in the Great War, and you know that is coming. If the heir is killed, one wonders if there is a fourth cousin in the wings? Oh, they might be an American! It could then be Dynasty Abbey.

Images courtesy © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com