Is it possible for a family to overcome major loss and still come out the otherside stronger? What happens when more chaos occurs for everyone else in the household? That's part of the premise behind the fourth season of "Downton Abbey," which had on English family learning how to survive as the world changed around them. Sure, the show still managed to entertain viewers, but the recent casting changes are still making a strong impact on the season. It's hard to tell if it's in the show's favor or against it.
"Downton Abbey" followed the Crawley family as they worked hard to usher their sprawling countryside estate into the 1920s without losing what made the house last for so long. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) managed to maintain his title as Earl of Grantham as well as his tight grasp on the past way of doing business. His wife Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) continued to support her husband, even she didn't always agree with him when it came to family matters. They watched their oldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) struggled with her grief after her husband Matthew's untimely death six months ago and her inability to bond with her son who reminded her of her late husband too much. Robert wanted Mary to still deal with her grief on her own time, but everyone else in the family thought differently; especially Mary's grandmother Violet (Maggie Smith). Sadly, Mary wasn't the only one still struggling with Matthew's death. His mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) felt like she had very little to offer the world now and needed help to live again. Mary had the opportunity for sudden happiness with the arrival of Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), but she nixed the idea believing that she still needed to deal with losing her husband before finding love, and herself, again. As for the Crawley's other daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), she was enjoying the adventure of a lifetime as she lived a very different life in London that she could never get away with at Downton, but a potential scandal could expose all of her secrets. Cora and Robert's son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) was still having a hard time finding his place at Downton after his wife Lady Sybil's death, but he grew to love the Crawleys even when he didn't agree with their politics. For some of the family's staff, they also weathered their own share of troubles. Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) were enjoying their domestic bliss outside of work, until Anna was brutally attacked during a house party. She was afraid to tell her husband the whole truth for fear that he could end up in prison after he killed her attacker. Will Anna be able to tell the whole truth or take at least part of the secret to her grave?
In terms of questions, the show posed a few big ones, but the biggest one involved whether the show could recover from the loss of three cast members who left last season. It also didn't help that the show's jumping ahead of Matthew's car accident avoided the opportunity for viewers and characters to have a certain level of closure with the popular character's exit. The season premiere could've still used the time jump, but the beginning should've showed some scenes of the family finding out about Matthew and a funeral for everyone on the show to say a proper goodbye. Viewers would likely understand that Dockery's Mary would be grief stricken, but she seemed to be stuck in neutral instead of facing things head on. The episode's only saving grace with that plot was that the other characters were also pointing out the very same thing. There was also a crucial scene when the family's butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) confronted Mary about shutting herself from the world, but the scene was extra powerful as Mary let him have it for interfering in her life. The end of the episode was the ultimate payoff as Dockery's Mary finally realized what she was doing and allowed herself to cry on Mr. Carson's shoulder after she told him that he was right. Sure, the first couple of episodes also focused too much on smaller storylines, such as Molesley's (Kevin Doyle) job search and the love triangle brewing between the kitchen staff members. It's also a little unclear about what the show was doing with its newest addition to the cast in Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) who somewhat mellowed out after her partially heavyhanded entrance last season. The character started off on the show as over-the-top party girl, but a potential romance on the horizon could be the perfect opportunity to ground the character. Only time will tell if that's the case.
As for breakout performances, Coyle and Froggatt led the pack in the show's earlier episodes as the once happy on-screen couple struggled with a huge secret between them. Froggatt demonstrated how one incident could change everything about a character's outlook on everything and everyone. Even though a fair share of Anna's attack took place off-screen, viewers could still feel the utter horror of the situation unfolding off-camera. When Froggatt returned, she looked like she was carrying the weight of everything on her shoulders alone. She designed Anna after the attack as a woman who felt like she was beaten down by life as she turned away from her loving husband for fear of telling him the truth. Froggatt temporarily sacrificed Anna's jovial personality for a much quieter personality that alarmed everyone around her. In the end, Froggatt's strongest scene ended up in the most recent episode when she told Bates most of the truth involving her attack. She expressed her fears with enough panic and sadness that would make anyone be willing enough to forgive anything she ever did. After she started crying in Bates' arms, viewers also breathed a sigh of relief that the couple was now on the right track of getting back together. Coyle, on the other hand, had the challenging task of playing the confused husband who didn't understand why his wife was pulling away from him. He embodied Bates with a sense of romantic heartache as he longed for a version of his wife that no longer existed for anyone, including him. The character's determination to find out the truth led to a truly emotional scene between the couple, and the surprise twist that Bates was still searching for the truth no matter what Anna believed. It should be interesting to see what the character does with the truth when he gets his answers. Let's just hope that a lengthy prison sentence isn't part of the equation.
"Downton Abbey" premiered on January 5th and airs Sundays at 9:00 pm on PBS.
Verdict: Dockery and Froggatt showcased impressive range as their usually confident characters both suffered from huge tragedies that made them hide from the world. The show worked very hard to show how their characters were healing at a realistic pace without taking away from the drama.
TV Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)