A shadow has fallen across the halls of Downton Abbey, and tragedy has struck the Grantham estate. Last season, the popular British period drama shocked fans by killing off not just one but two well-loved main characters. In season 4, the wealthy Crawley family will have to deal with the fallout of these losses, as well as the rapidly accelerating societal changes that are bringing an end to the way of life the British upper class has enjoyed for centuries.
My local PBS station hosted a sneak preview screening of “Downton Abbey” season 4 earlier this week, giving fans a chance to watch the first episode before it airs Jan. 5. As a diehard “Downton” fan, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. 😉 Although I wasn’t sure how well the show would survive after the deaths of Matthew and Sybil ― two of my personal favorite characters ― the preview has me excited about the show and new developments for the characters.
The series has followed the rich Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley, and their daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil, who occupy an elaborate estate in England called Downton Abbey. The show highlights both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” residents of the abbey, incorporating storylines about the wealthy Crawleys and their servants.
Season 4 picks up six months after the death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who would have been the heir to the Downton estate and was married to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). I’m glad the show runners chose not to start the season immediately after Matthew’s death. Fans were very upset by Matthew’s death, even though it was a necessary plot point since the actor playing the character decided to leave the show. If too many of the early episodes of season 4 had focused on the Crawley family’s grieving process, I think it would have made accepting Matthew’s death that much harder on the fans.
I was a bit concerned how the show would work without Matthew and Sybil, but even though I do miss the characters, there are still many reasons to love the show. The changes in season 3 offer several interesting character development possibilities for season 4.
Tom Branson (Allen Leech) ― the family’s former chauffeur who caused a scandal when he married the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil ― has emerged as one of the most intriguing characters on the show. Although he still holds onto political ideals that are radical for his time and are in sharp contrast to the Crawley family’s more traditional ways, he’s learned to temper his political passion with compassion. The loss of Sybil brought him and the Crawley family closer together, and he’s taken a more active role in managing the family estate. However, he still must deal with the challenges of being caught between two worlds ― his lower-class past and the upper-class society of the Crawleys ― and I think this struggle will occupy much of the plot in season 4, especially if the show runners decide to introduce a new love interest for Branson. Will it be a girl from his own social class, or will the Crawleys fully accept him into the upper class and expect him to remarry within that class?
Lady Mary also finds herself in a unique position this season. One of the show’s most complex characters, Lady Mary at times seems cold and unfeeling, but her sharp tongue often serves as a defense mechanism to make herself appear stronger than she really feels. In the first few seasons, she was pressured to marry well, and then when she did marry, to quickly produce an heir. Now that she has a son but has lost her husband, she feels hopeless and adrift. Branson has been encouraging her to become more involved in the management of the estate, and I’d like to see the two of them become friends and for Mary to take on more of a leadership role.
Societal change has always been a major driver of the plot in “Downton Abbey,” and the Crawley family will be confronted by more shifts in the new season. Roles for women are changing, and Lady Edith is taking advantage of these changes to become more independent. She has found success as a writer for a newspaper and is traveling on her own more frequently. Roles for servants are changing too, and the abbey’s “downstairs” residents are beginning to dream of careers other than waiting on a wealthy family. Even the family’s staunchly traditional butler, Carson, has a surprising moment of boldness in the season 4 premiere (a moment that got a round of applause at the preview screening). 🙂
I know many “Downton Abbey” fans were upset about some of the plot developments in season 3, particularly the deaths of Matthew and Sybil, but I’d encourage you to still tune in to season 4. The first episode teased quite a few possible story lines this season, and I’m excited to see what happens to the characters.