Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 1: Don’t Mess with Thomas. But Please, Please, Do Mess with Mary.

January 8, 2014 @ 6:09 pm | Filed under:

Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 1

This two-hour episode took me a few nights to get through. All the time I was watching it, I was thinking, am I going to recap it this year? I’ve recently stepped away from GeekMom to take a new position as editor at (a site that more than lives up to its name, and one Scott and I have enjoyed for years), so I won’t be recapping over there this year. I loved writing those posts last season, but I admit it’s a bit of relief to let go of the self-imposed pressure to get a recap up the night an episode airs. Those were some late nights I was pulling, for a while there!

But I’ll miss the conversation, and since I’ve been getting a lot of email inquiries about the recaps, I thought I’d open the topic for discussion over here. As always, this is an open thread, not a sequential play-by-play of plot points. So I’ll throw out a few things, and you can all chime in as you wish.


Once again PBS is conflating two one-hour British episodes into one long one for the American audience. Honestly, I don’t think this serves the show very well, nor will, I’d hazard, binge-viewing it on DVD. We have too many repetitive conversations in these two hours. A week’s space between them would have rendered the repetition less obvious. How many times must we listen to Lord Grantham orate that Mary must be kept wrapped in cotton-wool? How many times must Mrs. Hughes harangue poor Carson in one night of television viewing? It’s rather amazing, actually, that with the quantities of plotlines being unfurled here (I’ll attempt a tally in a moment) we wound up with so many repeated conversations. By the end, my head was smarting from all the hammer-blows.

Now, plotlines: let’s see.

1) Mary is very sad, and not terribly interested in her baby.

2) Lord Grantham wants to sell land to pay the death duties on the estate, and while he’s at it unravel most of the work Matthew did to save said estate’s bacon.

3) Tom and the Dowager Countess are united (among others) in wanting Mary to play a more active role in estate decision-making, and they’re annoyed with Lord Grantham’s reluctance. (See above, cotton-wooling.)

3b) Matthew left a will of sorts after all! Should we let Mary read it?

3b.1) Also, the stuffed doggy. ::sniffle::

3c) Mary owns half of Downton. Stay tuned for epic showdowns. Will there be anything left for wee George but rubble?

4) Carson’s shady old theater chum wants to see Carson to set things right, and also wants help climbing out of the pit he’s in. From the moment Mrs. Hughes digs through Carson’s trash, this becomes her mission in life.

4a) Said mission dovetails nicely with a push to snap Isobel out of her own grief-induced apathy. (I enjoyed that bit very much.)

5) Everyone’s got a Valentine! Who gave whose?

5a) Belowstairs love triangle continues from last season with no apparent progress. Daisy likes Alfred likes Ivy likes Jimmy likes messing with people.

6) This week’s special guest: new-fangled electric mixer, aka the worst thing to happen to Mrs. Patmore since presbyopia.

7) Nanny DARES to tell Thomas not to touch the baby? Beware his diabolical machinations.

7a) Oh but wait! Turns out Nanny’s a horrible person. Hooray, Thomas!

8) Boo, Thomas. Saucy former-housemaid-turned-lady’s-maid Edna fills all vacancies left by O’Brien’s departure, especially Co-Conspirator of Thomas. Watch your back, Anna. That’ll learn you to be nice.

8a) Really? REALLY? Lady Grantham is that ready to believe Anna would vandalize a garment out of spite? Has she MET Anna? Not buying it. Nor the dispatching of Lord G. to have Mr. Bates bring his unkind wife in line. I MEAN COME ON. (Sorry, that was the one that really got to me.)

9) Young Rose wants adventure, and what’s more adventurous than posing as a housemaid and half-falling for a winsome young under-gardener or whatever he was. Sorry, it was noisy in that dance hall.

10) Oh, Molesley. Poor Molesley. Chucked out of Downton, no new prospects. Pounding tar. Racking up debt. Pitied by all.

10a) Just because the Dowager Countess thinks highly of her butler doesn’t mean he is above petty jealousies and sabotage. Sorry, Mose.

10b) But if your plight makes Anna sad, you’ll be okay, because Mr. Bates won’t stand for that. In prison they teach you how to sneakily give money to people.

11) You didn’t think I’d forgotten Edith, did you? What am I, her mother? I adore Edith. She’s blooming with love, wearing fabulous garments, and gearing up to shock the bluebloods with her impending nuptials to a divorceé and (even worse) voluntary German national.

Plotlines I’m really invested in: 3c. I’m sorry Lord Grantham has become so insufferable, but in a way I think his character arc is the most realistic. A decade-long series of tragedies, shocks, and disappointments has left him insecure, vulnerable, and obstinate. He has felt powerless ever since losing his wife’s fortune and imperiling the estate, and his WWI chapter (here, be a jolly good figurehead, old sport) didn’t help. The more the women and former chauffers in his life berate him for his bad behavior (and it IS bad), the more stubbornly he digs in. He’s the 85-year-old who refuses to give up his driver’s license even after the fourth time he’s backed into the mailbox.

So I may not like his character, but I buy it, and I buy Mary’s too. She prophesied her position at the end of last season and reiterates it here: Matthew brought out a side of her (I smiled at “soft”—not a word that describes even happy-bride Mary) that was buried deep before, and has gone more deeply dormant now. What she needs is a good fight, and who better to clobber than Papa? Much better him than poor old Carson. The scene between Mary and Carson when she chided him for his familiarity broke my heart—and that’s how I know it was a good scene. It was one of the few where I had a genuine emotional reaction instead of a distanced, analytical one. And the thing is? I’m a viewer who wants to be drawn in and emotionally manipulated. Really. If I’m outside the story, picking, then your story hasn’t swallowed me. And I’m sorry to say that very little in this two hours truly swallowed me up. But it’s early days yet. We’ll see where things go.

Mrs-Hughes-Downton-AbbeyWhat did you think? Favorite & least favorite bits? For once I’m not giving Best Line to the Dowager. It’s Mrs. Hughes, in response to Isobel’s “It’s none of my business”: “I never thought I’d hear you say that!”

Related: my Seasons 2 and 3 recaps at GeekMom

    Related Posts


29 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Charlotte says:

    I am also completely not buying Cora’s instant condemnation of Anna. Like you said, “Have you met her?” And while I hated the fact that Thomas was right (even though he didn’t know it at the time) the scene with Nanny West in the nursery turned my stomach. It made me physically ill. I was proud of Cora for her decisive action (but still mad at her about the Anna thing).

    And the Molesley thing just bugged me.

    Sorry to disagree, but because Lord Grantham’s spoiled brattitude is so realistic that I must award The Best Line Award to Granny, “When you talk like that, I’m tempted to ring for Nanny and have you put to bed with no supper!”

    What did you think about Mrs. Hughes butting in to Carson’s business? It seemed very unrealistic to me.

  2. Gail Gauthier says:

    I agree that running two episodes together does the show no favors. The plotlines for all the characters mean we jump from story to story with no real major story being told here. You really notice the lack of narrative drive over two hours. Really, what was the point of the Carson storyline this week? To give Matthew’s mother something to do? Is Rose Downton’s Wesley Crusher character, someone who is supposed to bring kid viewers? Otherwise, she’s pretty pointless.

    The Granthams/Anna thing was totally unbelievable. Clearly a contrived setup for something coming up. Why does the show need a downstairs badwoman? Thomas can carry that cliche by himself. I’m totally losing patience with the whole concept of people believing they can’t dress themselves.

  3. Melissa Wiley says:

    Mrs. Hughes: waaaay too buttinski. She and Carson have always been respectful of one another’s boundaries. And digging through trash is so beneath her dignity. She’s a ferret-it-out-of-you person, and I’d have believed a certain amount of direct prying, but reading his private mail? She’s always been honorable, and that was not. And then pushing and pushing Carson, chiding him—it seemed like manufactured drama to me, which is how much of this episode felt.

    That Dowager line was my #2 choice. I howled. Much deserved, Robert.

    The Nanny scene: horrible. Good point about Lady G’s decisive action; I liked that too, and I’ll buy that it predisposed her to think well of Thomas’s judgment. But then she just completely lost her common sense when she accepted his Anna tale with hardly a moment’s hesitation. I’m annoyed with the game of telephone, too: Thomas to Lady G to Lord G to Bates to Anna. If her ladyship had confronted Anna directly, the garment could have been discussed and Lady G would have at least had to do more investigating. But this generic charge of “unkind”—how to combat that?

  4. Melissa Wiley says:

    Gail, I keep thinking of Rose as Cousin Oliver. Or the Family Ties baby. Or didn’t The Cosby Show get twins at some point?

  5. monica says:

    i think the subplot (or is it sub theme?) for a lot of these incidents was the increasing tensions between the classes. I think we are going to see more of a muddle with the role ex-chauffer Tom and the return of Edna the maid. We are going to see the push-pull of the need for the servants, but the resistance to them being too familiar. I am expecting Anna to get pregnant soon and then there be the whole issue of her leaving Downton to raise the baby or baby living with family while she stays on at Downton.

    Love that its back!!

  6. monica says:

    oh, yes the cosby show’s oldest girl had twin boy and girl- Winnie and Nelson. which always struck me as odd, since that was the name of a famous husband and wife, not sister and brother.

    The whole Carson and Mrs. Hughes thing served to bring them closer because they are going eventually admit their love for each other AND to help with the grief process for Isobel.

  7. Andrea says:

    I’m rooting for Edith to live in Bohemian sin!

  8. Patricia V. (@vollmerdp) says:

    And what are your thoughts on O’Brien taking off with Lady Flintshire?

  9. Scott says:

    “Is Rose Downton’s Wesley Crusher character, someone who is supposed to bring kid viewers? Otherwise, she’s pretty pointless.”

    Well, she’s my favorite part of the show, so she’s definitely NOT a Wesley as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

    But, much as I love Cora, I’m so disappointed in her. Anna can be trusted to carry a dead man from her daughter’s room and keep it secret for years. Yet she’s going to vandalize a scarf because she’s jealous of the new lady’s maid? Puh-leeeeeeaze.

  10. Scott says:

    [Rose isn’t really my favorite part of the show–not even close–I just think she’s purty.]

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    Yeah, you can’t fool me, Peterson. Your favorite part of the show is whenever Anna and Bates beam at each other.


  12. Amy Kraft says:

    At the end of last season I swore I wasn’t going to watch anymore. And yet. Through the whole first hour I thought it was right to give it up, and then I saw Edith in that amazing green dress and I wondered if they just might do right by Edith this season. I’m with Andrea. Bohemian sin!

  13. Jenni says:

    I’m so glad you’re still going to do your recaps! I didn’t realize that they were two episodes together, but that explains a lot. I hope the Mary vs. Lord Grantham isn’t going to be a major plot point. It seems like they’ve done similar storylines before, but I agree that he is the most believable. I really liked how Mary got her fight back; she is still one of my favorite characters. I wasn’t that excited about any of the other subplots. I cringed with the Edna/Anna/Thomas thing. I thought the snooping with Mrs. Hughes was bit of a stretch. We were wondering if they’re setting up she and Carson getting together since now the doors closed with his old love. I hope that Daisy finally finds love this season, that would make me very happy.

  14. shaun says:

    I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed Downton this time. I wanted the show to have a 3-season arc and be wrapped up with Downton safely passed on to Mary’s heir, and Mary and Matthew living happily ever after. When I knew there was a season 4 it was even more disappointing (well, maybe) than knowing that poor Matthew would be dispatched with, even if it was his own choice.

    Mary is just a great character, and Michelle Dockery is fantastic. Her relationships are always interesting, if maddening, and I agree that her relationship with Carson is one of the best parts of the show. Sometimes I love Edith and sometimes I want to kill her, but she never bores me. And it was great to her see rocking the clothes while Mary was in severe widow’s weeds.

    Lord and Lady Gratham’s obtuseness with respect to their servants is the one thing on the show that routinely strains credibility for me, but how could you have a wicked under butler without it?

  15. Melissa Wiley says:

    Wicked Underbutler is my new band name.

  16. janewilk says:

    I want Daisy to get together with that adorable gardener dude from Rose’s dance club! He was such a lovely chap!

  17. Ellie says:

    Honestly, i wasn’t sure i wanted to get sucked back into DA this season. We set the episode to record and watched last night “just to see” if it would be good enough to spend time with. Bless. Well, we laughed a lot **hooted**, regularly. And,well, there hasn’t been much to laugh about here, lately, so i suppose we’re in.

    I’ve always loved Edith, feel tremendous sympathy for her: she is a very real character, I think; and have always hated Mary and that hasn’t changed!

    Hasn’t Branson settled in comfortably being a man of the manor!! **bemused snort**

    Loved Granny’s machinations, per usual!

    Thomas had definitely grown on me over the seasons, so it was annoying to see him slip back into nastiness with the creepy Edna. Ergh.

    I actually thought the Bates couple were a bit …. Much? He’s forging signatures, and she’s helping Lady Rose pretend to be a housemaid? What the what? Especially for Anna that seemed a bit much!

    Daisy et al. **deep sigh** She’s been the same age and maturity level for 12 years now. Ai yi yi. Really dislike the writing for the kitchen set. Pretty shoddy writing to just let your characters stay in exactly the same frozen plotline for years. Plus, wasn’t Daisy supposed to get her father in law’s farm? I mean, they (writers) spent all that time working up to it. Why’s she still in the kitchen? Maybe that’ll come up again? Or just get dropped …

  18. Amy says:

    I think I’m enjoying these comments as much as the show Sunday! I’m glad to know it was supposed to be two episodes…makes more sense that way. Lord Grantham’s character is totally believable to me because he reminds me so much of my own father. I’d say the only time in the whole show when I was just like, “Come ON already” was when Lady Grantham seemed more upset that there was no one there to dress her than that her long time servant had gone. I mean seriously, you had 3 kids, been through tragedies, I’m SURE you can slip your own dress on, LOL. Anyway, I’m glad it’s back despite some annoyances. I’m with you though, Lissa, I hope it spends more time next week swallowing me up and spitting me out ragged, than letting me sit there over analyzing the whole thing.

  19. Rachel says:

    Edna is the Nancy to O’Brien’s Nellie, if you ask me. NOW I’ve gone and dated myself.

    This episode felt just the tiniest bit like writers reaching, to me. It felt… I hate to say it… a little bit like a motorcycle gearing up a hundred yards from a shark tank. And I LOVE THIS SHOW SO MUCH, so I hope the next episode feels less like this and more like what we’re used to. I was so glad to see Mary’s mask-face disappear by the end. I’ve never seen anyone, even anyone knocked down by grief, wear that thousand-yard stare so unnervingly. She reminded me (another Little House reference) of Melissa Sue Anderson playing blind Mary. I’m really looking forward to seeing the showdowns between her and her father; my daughter and I are rooting hard for her and Tom to wind up together. We wanted that as soon as Matthew died, and we were a little surprised to see it being hinted at so broadly already this season. They listened to us! 🙂

    And I hope the Anna/Edna situation gets resolved quickly and isn’t dragged out for an entire season because I really don’t like feeling THAT angry. Thomas’s scheming makes me feel downright violent.

  20. Rachel says:

    Ellie, glad you mentioned Daisy’s farm. I was surprised it didn’t come up at the Christmas special last year, and then no mention of it now either? And along those same lines… if Anna and Bates aren’t expecting yet, in this time period you’d expect that to be a plotline — either of worry or of ingenuity.

  21. lesley austin says:

    Funny you should bring up the shark tank, Rachel, as my husband just said today that they “hadn’t jumped the shark…yet”. Although I feel that they did in the first season with the bar of soap/convenient miscarriage and have had to accept the melodrama ever since. Acceptance has brought much more enjoyment, tho’ please don’t ever stop analyzing, Lissa and bringing up all of the maddening bits!

    Least favorite things…Edna reappearing, she set me on edge last season and still does…making me unsympathetic to Thomas again as I really liked feeling compassionate towards him…the lack of continuity with Daisy’s storyline and the possibility of her joining her father-in-law on the farm.

    Perplexing bits…is there going to be more of a reaction (beyond Cora’s) to the Nanny’s treatment of Sybil? I kept waiting for more fall-out from that…to think of that little girl being subjected to such treatment for many months? Shudder.

    Would the mousse…souffle…whatever it was really taste noticeably different because the egg whites had been whipped by a machine? I don’t like Mrs. Patmore feeling threatened.

  22. Melissa Wiley says:

    The Daisy thing perplexed me too, to the point that I had to go back and revisit the scene in Season 3, Episode 6 when Mr. Mason tells her he’s leaving her the farm and he’d like her to come live with him. That’s summer 1820 1920 (whoops!), around the time Sybil’s baby is christened. The Christmas Special (the trip to Scotland, followed by Matthew’s death) is September 1821 1921. And Season 4 opens in February 1822 1922. So a year and a half has passed since Mr. Mason’s invitation.

    At the time, Daisy was quite uncertain about the offer. She had assumed she’d remained in service for her whole life. Mr. Mason points out that she has 40 years of working life ahead of her, and with the way the world is changing, work in places like Downton may not exist in 40 years. Mrs Patmore tells Daisy it’s a very generous offer, but we do see Daisy return to work, as furrow-browed as ever. And here she is 18 months later, still in service. Presumably Mr. Mason is still alive and Daisy hasn’t had to make a decision about her future yet, beyond evidently turning down his invitation to move in right away and begin learning how to run the farm.

    I do wish we’d been given a scene somewhere, or even a scrap of dialogue, explaining Daisy’s decision to remain in service for the present. I can see many legitimate reasons; it would just be nice to have them brought onstage.

    Ellie, I agree that Anna acted quite out of character in fetching a housemaid’s uniform for Rose! Now, if Rose had suggested it, I can see Anna reluctantly going along. We’ve seen her acquiesce in that that before (including playing along in the dance hall)—starting way back in season 1 when she gamely helps Cora and Mary drag a corpse down the hall in the dead of night. But it’s quite another thing for her to volunteer the idea. And she’s so practical…she knows no good can come of Rose stringing things out with this young man. Why abet?

  23. Melissa Wiley says:

    I also wanted to add that there were some really interesting boundary-crossings in these two episodes (some more plausible than others). Mary accuses Carson of inappropriately stepping over a boundary—the cruelest thing she could say to him—but he is acting in harmony with their relationship as we’ve seen it before, that deep avuncular affection and concern, occasionally manifesting in gentle, bristly-browed remonstrances. Mary, in this moment, pretends that familiarity does not exist and slaps him with a cold, formal, distant rendering of their relationship. I was so glad she relented later and turned to him for comfort. It was very important that she do so—for Carson’s sake, and for hers. Bit of a crossroads moment for her.

    But the scene in the hall between Carson and Isobel—Isobel pushing him on the Grigg matter, and Carson slamming down the boundary wall—that one felt like a stretch to me. It was interesting to think about whether these gradual societal changes could take these formal relationships to such a curiously personal level, but this didn’t feel organic to me. It felt like a writer’s room discussion about the blurring of boundaries.

  24. Louise says:

    Finally! I finally finished watching! I was beginning to doubt it would happen this season.


    NANNY. I am still more upset by that than anything else in the entire show, including Matthew and Sybil’s deaths. Why why why couldn’t Cora have at least gone and picked Sybie up? Or if the writers thought that was too far-fetched for her character, couldn’t they have shown us a scene with Tom and Sybie, where she’s happy and obviously knows she’s loved? Oh, that just made me sick.

    I groaned too on the whole Cora-Edna-Thomas-Anna affair. Come ON. We don’t need O’Brien 2.0. If you need Thomas to still be horrible, give him something else instead of the old “team up with the ladies maid to make Bates miserable” thing. Why does he still have it in for Bates and Anna, anyway? Especially with how Anna comforted him after Sybil’s death.

    I hate the obvious “no we can’t tell so-and-so this!” ploys. Tom can’t tell Cora about Edna (though really, all he had to say was that she behaved inappropriately toward him and he asked Mrs Hughes to give her a good reference and send her away because he didn’t want to cause trouble – there’s nothing shameful in that); Rose can’t tell Sam the under-gardener the truth (though there again, she could have just met him in her dinner frock (which was GORGEOUS) and explained the truth, apologized for the deception, and sent him on his way); etc. So contrived. The only realistic “can’t tell the truth” that I can see is Edith and her not-quite-lover, and everyone is conveniently ignoring them, so no deception seems necessary there.

    I have always loved Mrs Hughes, but she was out of character here, and that was a disappointment. Did love the scene at the end, though, where she walked back with Carson from the train station. The friendship between them is one of my favorite aspects of this show. And I loved her line to Isobel, and the bit where she helps Mrs Patmore clean up and they indulge in a little harmless gossip.

    I’ll be curious to see what they do with the rest of this season. I’ve heard rumors that next season will be the last, and I think it’s good they’re planning to wrap it up soon. People seem to get a little more disillusioned with each season.

  25. Mary says:

    Melissa just to point out you mean 1920- 1922 right?

  26. Melissa Wiley says:

    Whoops, yes of course! Didn’t notice I’d done that. 😉 Thanks!