It’s a little bit of “shock and awe” for the characters on the new season of “Downton Abbey.” I wish I could tell you that this means Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) have a torrid love affair or Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) runs away with the local butcher. But it’s more about pushing social and moral boundaries as the Crawley’s and their servants learn to navigate the freedoms of the 1920′s.
When we last saw Lady Mary, she had given birth to a son and (spoiler alert!) her husband Matthew (Dan Stevens) died in a car accident on his way home to share the good news. The action of season four picks up with Mary still in mourning. Tom (Allen Leech) suggests that, as the mother of the Downton heir, she should assist in the future planning of the estate. Mary steps into the realm of “work” and begins to exercise her power as a decision-maker. Her changing role is meant to reflect the broader cultural shift that positioned women as more than mothers and wives. It’s an interesting change for the character and one of the more successful story lines of the season. However, if you’re hoping to see her in a more nurturing role now that she’s a mother, you might be disappointed. She spends about 10 minutes with her child on screen the entire season. But, for the purposes of historical accuracy, Mary’s limited time with her baby is probably not an unrealistic portrait of the child rearing methods used by the aristocracy of the time.
Besides, you don’t watch “Downton Abbey” to see Mary be warm and cuddly. She’s an aloof snob, played perfectly by Michelle Dockery and this season, her romantic life is looking up. She meets a few suitors, the most interesting one being the man who challenges her views on her social position. The aristocracy, he claims, is a dying breed and so are their estates which have been mismanaged to the point of ruin. Will she save Downton from the same fate?
While Mary is getting a lesson on the politics of social hierarchy, both Edith (Laura Carmichael) and cousin Rose (Lily James) are taking advantage of the decade’s more relaxed social freedoms by exploring the boundaries of their romantic relationships. The problem is that both their story lines feel like a lesson titled: See how far we’ve come? While it’s good to see Edith, always the odd sister out, making bold choices for her happiness, Rose’s escapades feel like a tutorial on racial equality.
Below stairs, Downton’s domestic servants are busy tying up loose ends from their past and forging new opportunities for the future. In a controversial plot, one of them experiences a traumatizing event. The storyline takes the series very far away from what it does best which is not take itself too seriously.
In a previous review, I argued that “Downton Abbey” works because it’s a soap opera and like all soap operas, it’s about affairs of the heart. With plots that try too hard to make a point and one that seems to be included solely for shock value, this season loses much of that romance.
“Downton Abbey” returns January 5, 2014 at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS.