Your favorite Edwardian drama is back! Our Downton Abbey season 4, episode 1 recap breaks down the events of the premiere, which aired Sunday, January 5 on PBS.
Last year’s season 3 finale left viewers on a big cliffhanger: Matthew Crawley had died on the same day as the birth of his and Lady Mary’s firstborn. The Downton Abbey season 4 premiere jumps ahead six months as Lady Mary and family are still recovering from the loss of Matthew.
The episode begins with a dark-cloaked figure leaving the family. It’s O’Brien, who’s departing the show because the actress who plays her (Siobhan Finneran) wanted to leave. Anna discovers the letter O’Brien left in the middle of the night and news spreads quickly around the home. Anna offers to take care of Cora while they find a replacement.
Lady Mary is still struggling from the loss of Matthew more than anyone, and understandably so. Even six months after his passing, she’s still wearing all black and insists on wearing no other colors. She also has a hard time bonding with her son, Master George, going so far as to describe him as an orphan.
Out on the farm handling the estate, Branson and Lord Grantham are discussing paying Matthew’s death duties and disagree over how they should be handled. Branson insists that Lady Mary be involved with the decisions, but Robert says that since he owns half of everything, he thinks he should manage George’s fortune. Later, Cora and Robert debate keeping Mary involved with the estate. “Matthew is co-owner, and now his son is. I worked with Matthew, now I must work for his boy,” Robert argues.
Looking to get Lady out of the emotional hole, Branson goes to Carson to ask him to speak to Lady Mary. He goes through with it, but Mary is offended that Carson would disagree with Robert’s plans for the estate. She believes her father is making the best decisions possible. “You’re letting yourself be defeated,” he tells her before stepping out of the room.
At dinner, there is more debate over the managing of the estate – including comments from Violet – and it sets Mary off. She storms out of the room. Later that night before leaving, Violet goes to Mary’s bedroom and offers some advice. “I love you,” she tells Mary. “Now you must remember your son. He needs you very much. The fact is, you have a straightforward choice before you: You must choose either death or life.”
“And you think I should choose life,” Mary asks. Violet nods.
After talking with her father, Lady Mary realizes that she is being taken advantage of and goes to apologize to Carson. She gets emotional and the two embrace in a warm hug.
Meanwhile, Molesley is in need of a job after the death of Matthew, who he worked for. He asks Carson to continue at Downton, but Carson isn’t interested in him staying around.
Also in mourning is Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s mother. She is wondering what her purpose is anymore. Edith reminds her, “You’re a grandmother, and I know you’re going to be a wonderful one.” Later, Lady Violet agrees that Isobel should use George to give her purpose. While Violet is at Isobel’s, Molesley comes in and asks for a job, but Isobel doesn’t think she needs assistance. Violet is interested in helping him, however, and sets up an opportunity.
Speaking of Edith, she was tasked with putting an ad up at a local store for the open maid’s position that O’Brien left vacant. Edna – who we saw in a previous season of Downton – has been training for a position like this and applies. Edith and Cora meet with Edna over tea, and she gets the job thanks largely to a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Hughes. There’s just one problem: In season 3, the recommendation letter was given to her as leverage after a quick romantic relationship between her and Branson.
Edith also went into London to meet with Michael, who informs her that he’s interested in moving to Germany. Over dinner at the Criterion, Michael professes his love for Edith. He also tells her he can divorce his wife Lizzie if he becomes a German citizen. At tea later, Edith invites her man to Downton so the family can meet him at a house party.
Barrow and Nanny West enter into a tiff over the course of the first half of the episode over silly things related to each other’s power. Always looking to stir up trouble, Barrow rats on West by telling Cora that she has been neglecting Branson and Mary’s children. Later, Cora peeks in on West taking care of the kids and hears her calling Sybil and Branson’s child a crossbreed. She fires her on the spot.
The end of the first half of the episode concluded with Lady Mary – now dressed in purple instead of her mourning-black – entering an afternoon event with Branson, Robert, and farmers from around Downton.
The second hour of the episode kicked off with a box arriving from the office of Matthew, and in it Robert finds a letter that reveals he wanted Mary to be his sole heiress. Before taking it to his daughter, Robert presents this note to Violet, who encourages him to share the letter with Mary even if it isn’t legally valid.
Speaking with Mary privately, Robert reveals the existence of the letter. They then bring it to Isobel and the rest of the upstairs family so they can all read it together. Robert still insists they bring it to their lawyer Murray because it is not a will.
Later, Violet comes up with a plan to help Mary run the estate: Tom will teach Mary the ropes of farming. “Let her see the problems facing the estate,” she explains. Mary is hesitant about this plan because they’re keeping Robert in the dark, but in Violet’s wise words, “There can be too much truth in any relationship.”
Lady Rose asks Anna to go with her into town to go dancing. She’s not interested but is dragged along anyway. At the dance hall, Rose immediately begins batting her eyelashes at several gentlemen. Her dashing looks work – Rose picks up a man and tells him she’s a lady’s maid at Downton. It comes back to bite her later when he makes a surprise visit to Downton to see her again. In what is a great moment, Anna suggests she dresses up as a maid and says she’s actually seeing someone else.
At the end of the episode we learn that Mary does indeed own half the estate because Matthew’s letter was valid. She and Robert promise to begin discussions the next day about the handling of the farms.
Other notes about the episode:
– Barreling into modern times, downstairs receives an electric mixer, which puts off Mrs. Patmore, who doesn’t like new technology.
– Anna tries to give Mr. Molesley some money to pay off his debts, but he refuses to accept them. Later, Bates works with Violet to give him money. Anna asks how he pulled it off, and he credits prison with a proud smile.
– Carson showed his romantic side – once with his knowledge of Valentine’s Day, and second when we hear about a former flame. A plot involving a former friend of his begins and ends on the episode when Isobel and Mrs. Hughes organize a repair.
– A love triangle has formed between Alfred, Ivy, and Daisy.
“We must all have our hearts broken once or twice before we’re done.” – Mrs. Hughes
“It’s getting harder and harder to say no.” – Edith to Michael
“There can be too much truth in any relationship.” – Lady Violet
“How do people have time to write when the week is just beginning?” – Mrs. Hughes
“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere.” – Lady Violet
“It’s not for me to have an opinion, but I will say this.” – Mrs. Hughes
Episode 2 airs Sunday, January 12 at 9 p.m. eastern on PBS. Watch a trailer below: