TV review: Season 4 of ‘Downton Abbey’ brings new challenges for characters

Downton Abbey Season 4  Part EightFans must once again bid farewell to the glittering halls of Downton Abbey, as another season of the popular British period drama draws to a close. Whereas season 3 brought a number of dramatic and often tragic changes to the Grantham estate, season 4 was more about the aftermath of those changes, as characters sought to overcome challenges and build a new life beyond their tragedies.

One of fans’ biggest questions this season was how the show would survive without two of its best-loved characters, Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil, who both died in season 3. However, the show seemed to remain as popular as ever, continuing to draw plenty of buzz for PBS.

So, is the most recent season as good as the seasons that came before it? Critics have been a bit tougher on the show this season, its Rotten Tomatoes score dropping from the almost perfect score of the first two seasons. Overall, I would have to agree that yes, the first two seasons are the strongest in terms of writing and plot development, and season 4 may not be show runner Julian Fellowes’ strongest offering. And yet, the show continues to be just as much fun to watch. By now we’ve developed connections with all the characters, and I can’t imagine not tuning in every Sunday night to catch the latest intrigues. It’s a show that’s meant to be watched and then discussed, sharing those “I can’t believe that just happened!” moments with other Downton addicts and speculating about what will happen next.

This season pushed many characters out of their proverbial “comfort zones.” The often overlooked middle daughter, Edith, took steps to become more independent and finally seemed to have a turn of good luck. However, the sudden disappearance of her love interest, Michael Gregson, devastated her, leaving her faced with the scandal of being pregnant and unmarried. Tom Branson still mourns the loss of his wife, the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, and he feels trapped between his lower class background and the higher class world of the Crawleys, wondering where he actually belongs. Lady Mary also grieves for her husband, Matthew, but gradually learns to live and laugh again, although she’s unable to choose between her two new suitors — Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake — neither of whom are willing to give her up easily. These issues were explored in season 4 but still remain unresolved and undoubtedly will continue into season 5.

Some of the other highlights of the season included the development of the begrudging friendship between the Dowager Countess and Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley, who supplied some of the best banter in season 4; watching Mrs. Hughes take charge of the downstairs drama and (maybe?) flirt with Mr. Carson the butler 😉 ; seeing kitchen maid Daisy Mason gain more confidence and grow as a person; and the return of Cora’s American mother (played by the great Shirley MacLaine), as well as the introduction of her brother (Paul Giamatti).

The show did generate some controversy this season with a plot line involving a violent tragedy that happens to lady’s maid Anna Bates. It was a dark and shocking plot twist, but I felt it highlighted an important issue of the time that was probably often overlooked and under-reported. How Anna’s husband, valet John Bates, responded to this tragedy generated another one of the unsolved mysteries from season 4 and introduces a possible darker side to his character. His desire for revenge is understandable, but will audience members still like his character if he did take vengeance, especially if he’s trying to cover it up?

In the next season, I’m looking forward to seeing what decisions Branson makes about his future; I want to see him find love again, though I’m not sure if I like Sarah Bunting, a school teacher who seems to be developing a romantic interest in him. I’m also enjoying the love triangle plot line with Lady Mary. I know a couple weeks ago in my blog I ranted about love triangles 😉 , but I think this one has been handled well. It’s tough to replace Matthew, but I like the contrast between the Gillingham and Blake characters (Gillingham is a soft-spoken gentleman, while Blake has a sharper wit and keeps Mary on her toes) and the different sides of Mary they bring out. I’m also curious to see what happens to Edith, as she tries to provide for her new daughter but also keep her existence a secret.

So, what did you think of the latest season of “Downton”? What parts did you like/dislike? What do you hope to see in season 5?

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