Downton Abbey, Season 4

Written and created by Julian Fellowes

Directed by David Evans, Catherine Morshead, Philip John, Edward Hall and Jon East.

Starring Hugh Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Stevens

Guest Stars include Shirley MacLaine, Paul Giamatti and Kiri Te Kanawa

Masterpiece on PBS stations Sundays, Jan. 5 through Feb. 23, 2014 (9 p.m. ET/PT)

With the new year comes “Downton Abbey, Season 4,” the continuation of the spellbinding costume drama created and written by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes. It’s another season of fascinating “must see” television (usually an oxymoron).

PBS, taking full advantage of “Downton’s” popularity, as it should, has aired a Season 4 teaser program. On its website, one can also view snippets of previews, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/watch-online as well as complete episodes from past years. Synopses and pirate episodes could probably be found on the web, but they’re not worth ruining one’s anticipation and enjoyment of the regular weekly airing on PBS.

At the end of Season 3, the Right Honourable Robert Crawley, the current Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his rich American wife, Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), having suffered grave personal and financial losses, were living at the large and elaborate Downton Abbey with their extended family.

As Season 4 begins, six months have past since the end of Season 3. Tragically widowed and in deep mourning for her husband Mathew, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) also resides at Downton with her baby son, George. She takes little interest in her son or life around her.

We can count on Lord Grantham’s advice to Mary to be wrong. Perhaps an older and wiser confidant, such as Carson the butler (Jim Carter) or her Grandmother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), can help Lady Mary find her way.

There is a tussle over who should take over Mathew’s control of the estate, Robert or Mary. Thank goodness that Robert’s attempt to re-exert control of Downton Abbey is thwarted. A testamentary letter from Mathew turns up; it clearly leaves Mary in charge. Mary’s wealth, character and beauty attract many suitors, but she’s not ready to accept the thought of a new life.

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still unmarried. Sadly, she was left at the altar in Season 3. In Season 4, her relationship with Michael Gregson grows, but then turns awry. Gregson, missing somewhere in Germany, leaves Edith in a precarious condition, facing difficult choices. She can’t seem to catch a break.

In Season 3, Lady Sybil died in childbirth, leaving a healthy baby girl. The family’s former chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) husband of the late Sybil, now lives at Downton. He takes up part of the slack left by Mathew and assumes responsibility for managing the estate more profitably. Although he grows more comfortable at Downton Abbey, he feels that he is not one of the family.

Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), cousin and ward of the Granthams, is still her bubbleheaded self. In Season 4 her risky actions become more than unladylike. Both Lady Rose and Lady Edith experiment with “modern” relationships that pose serious problems for them.

The personalities of Violet, the Dowager Countess, and Mrs. Isobel Crawley, (Penelope Wilton) Mathew’s mother, grow more nuanced in Season 4. Early in the season, Violet snips somewhat accurately that Isobel Crawley is fueled by indignation. Though largely true, would you believe that Violet’s imperious demeanor moderates as she sees a softer side of Isobel?

The first-rate cast of servants still includes Carson the butler, Thomas the footman cum valet (Rob James-Collier), Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper (Phyllis Logan), the ever mysterious John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his wife, ladies’ maid Anna Bates (Joanne Frogatt).

Old servants leave while new servants and visiting servants upset the balance of the household. One dastardly visiting servant commits what is deemed an unspeakable act. Thomas the footman is still a one dimensional, much exaggerated character. If I were writing “Downton Abbey,” I would develop his character more subtly or write him out of the script.

Season 1 introduced the premise and main characters of “Downton Abbey.” The more melodramatic Season 2 presented a new mature version of the three sisters during the Great War. Season 3 had a less frenetic pace that allowed us to gain insight into the players’ psyches. New Season 4 presents formidable 20th century crises and problems, which test the characters’ strength.

Season 4 of “Downton Abbey” is terrific. Happily, it continues the lofty level of writing, directing and acting that we have loved in the prior seasons. The costumes, sets and high production values continue to shine.

Critics were sent all the episodes, except the finale that airs on Feb. 23, 2013, “The Christmas Special.” It has not yet been shipped to me. Consequently, like you, I don’t know the ending.

Although we’ll all be unhappy to see Season 4 conclude, there is good news. A new Season 5 will continue to follow the family and their servants. And “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes has revealed that he is working on a prequel about the courtship of Lord and Lady Grantham, which will be shown when Downton Abbey comes to a close. So there is more “Downton Abbey” to anticipate with pleasure.

San Francisco, CA
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.