Make Canoe my Homepage

Downton Abbey has character – lots of them – as season four gets under way

- January 3rd, 2014

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Downton Abbey turned a corner in North America at a precise moment that I remember clearly. It was when people who had heard of the show only casually stopped referring to it as Down-TOWN Abbey.

The name of the show didn’t sound odd any more. It rolled off the tongue as easily as a quip from the Dowager Countess.

Now Downton Abbey is back for its fourth season, making its North American debut Sunday, Jan. 5 on most PBS affiliates. The lush British period piece, which began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, has progressed to early 1922, six months after the shocking family tragedy that wrapped up season three.

It’s impossible to set up season four without taking into account the end of season three, so consider this a SPOILER ALERT if you’re behind. Then again, we’re all kind of behind on this continent, as season four of Downton Abbey already has aired in Britain. So if you want to avoid any kind of spoilers altogether, the internet is not your friend.

For our purposes, though, what follows is a look at the predicaments and plot lines and passions facing some of the main characters on Downton Abbey in season four. Change continues to be a constant. But as with all things in life, there are those who handle it well and those who are less adaptable.

LADY MARY
(played by Michelle Dockery)
Obviously the death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) in a car crash at the end of season three has the greatest impact on his wife, now widow, Lady Mary. She had just given birth to the couple’s first child, a son. As the story picks up a half-year later, she continues to exist in a black fog of mourning. “With Matthew’s death, all the softness he found in me seems to have dried up and drained away,” Mary observes about herself. And she refers to her son Master George as a “poor little orphan.” Mary’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) counters, “He’s not an orphan. He’s got his mother. Orphans haven’t.” To which Mary says blandly, “He isn’t poor, either, come to that.” Now, Mary never was going to be the mother of the year. Nannies are hired for that sort of thing. But with her son’s future in mind, something has to pull Mary out of her funk. Hmmm, might it be an increased role in the running of Downton? Her father shan’t be happy to hear that news.

LORD GRANTHAM
(played by Hugh Bonneville)
OK, I have just one thing to say: Lord Grantham is dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Yes, he cares for his family in an early-20th-century British aristocrat kind of way. But his pompousness and stubbornness and certainty that “father knows best,” despite all evidence to the contrary, dooms him to making the same types of mistakes over and over. He already has lost the family fortune at least once, and his arrogance contributed to the death of one of his daughters (Lady Sybil, who was played by Jessica Brown Findlay). But now with the death of Matthew, Lord Grantham sees it as an opportunity to go back to running Downton on his own, dispatching with most of Matthew’s reform plans. Lady Mary may have something to say about that.

LADY GRANTHAM
(played by Elizabeth McGovern)
It appears as if Lord Grantham’s wife Cora has caught a bit of her husband’s disease early in season four. Her gullibility is increasing, especially when it comes to the servants and their overt manipulations for either benefit or spite. Come on, Cora, be a little less trusting of Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and his evil ilk, even when their “advice” turns out to be accidentally right. You have big wide eyes, Cora. Use them!

THOMAS BARROW
(played by Rob James-Collier)
I’ve been exceedingly lucky in my life that I haven’t met many individuals who I would describe as, well, just bad people. But there have been a couple. And fictionally speaking, Thomas fits the bill, having channeled his deep-rooted humiliation at being in the service industry at all, coupled with his sexual frustration, into tormenting others, often just for sport. Schemers like Thomas always need collaborators, though, and he finds an eyebrow-raising one early in season four.

LADY EDITH
(played by Laura Carmichael)
The dourness of her sister Lady Mary is an inconvenience for Lady Edith, who is in a pretty good place – by her “loser” standards, anyway – as season four begins. She has outside interests, a publisher suitor who seems to adore her, and a willingness to adapt to modern times. Lady Edith never has had much “lady luck,” though, so we’ll see how long she can keep her own curses at bay.

TOM BRANSON
(played by Allen Leech)
With his wife, Lady Sybil, deceased, former chauffeur Tom must have an even more acute sense of, “What the hell am I doing here?” If it weren’t for Tom and Sybil’s young daughter Sibby, Lord Grantham probably would have kicked Tom to the curb soon after Sybil died.

ANNA and MR. BATES
(played by Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle)
I’m not sure what this says about me. Maybe I have a little Thomas in me. But sometimes the now-married couple of Anna and Mr. Bates are so “good” and so “in love” that I just want to throw a bowl of Mrs. Patmore’s stew into their faces. But there’s no doubt that Anna in particular is the heart of this show. The very niceness of Anna and honour of Mr. Bates tends to make them victims in this world, though. Mr. Bates was jailed for a murder he didn’t commit before ultimately being acquitted. And more trauma awaits Anna, too. Hey, I said I wanted to soup up their faces a little when they’re making goo-goo eyes at each other. I don’t want anything really bad to happen to them. I take no pleasure in that.

MRS. HUGHES and CARSON
(played by Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter)
The role of Mrs. Hughes has increased substantially through the years. I don’t have statistics to back that up in terms of actual screen time, but her stories absolutely have taken on more prominence. There are many fans of the show who are cheering for some sort of romance to emerge between the widowed Mrs. Hughes and the stiff and stuffy Carson. It appears there has been an effort to soften Mrs. Hughes as a contrast to Carson, and they are an amusing odd couple at times. But I can’t imagine Carson ever would let down his guard enough to entertain any thoughts of even a hint of romance with a co-worker. Would he?

DAISY and MRS. PATMORE
(played by Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol)
Daisy, the assistant cook, and Mrs. Patmore, the cook, are tied at the hip even though they drive each other crazy. Word of advice to Daisy, though: Mrs. Patmore has proven to be a loyal friend but often a giver of poor advice. Think for yourself, young lady.

COUSIN ROSE
(played by Lily James)
A flesh-and-blood representation of the new 1920s generation. She baffles her elders and even shocks the servants. I love that in some of her scenes, with where she likes to go or the music she’s playing in her room, it’s as if we’re suddenly watching Boardwalk Empire. It’s strange when you consider that the worlds of Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire essentially exist simultaneously.

THE DOWAGER COUNTESS
(played by Maggie Smith)
Early in season four, Matthew’s mourning mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) is wondering about her place in all of this. She no longer is a mother, she laments, which in her mind means she isn’t much of anything. But the Dowager Countess points out that Isobel still is a grandmother. When Isobel says she doesn’t want to interfere with Lady Mary and her infant son, the Dowager Countess drolly observes, “It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere.” Wouldn’t you love to be the Dowager Countess, even for just a day?

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

The more the Mary-er (or “marry her?”), says Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery

- January 3rd, 2013

Maggie Smith (left) and Michelle Dockery

Michelle Dockery was asked why, seemingly against all odds, Britain’s Downton Abbey has become a pop-culture phenomenon in North America.

“It’s really difficult to pinpoint why,” said Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley. “You tell me.”

Well, I’m not sure I have a better answer than you do, Ms. Dockery. But it’s a good thing for both of us, don’t you think?

Downton Abbey returns to North American TV with its third season, starting Sunday, Jan. 6 on most PBS stations. Set early in the 20th century, the lush period drama follows an aristocratic British family and the servants in their massive house, known as Downton Abbey.

As season three begins, it’s the spring of 1920. What later would become known as World War I finally is over and the long-awaited wedding of Lady Mary and Matthew (Dan Stevens) is nearing.

But as one would expect, all is not tranquil at Downton Abbey, as world-altering social changes, romantic intrigues and personal crises pulsate through the majestic English country estate.

What of poor, wrongly imprisoned Mr. Bates, played by Brendan Coyle? Will the scheming Thomas (Robert James-Collier) be rewarded or punished for his continued malevolence? And how will a visit by Lady Mary’s American grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, shake things up?

It certainly isn’t usual for North American audiences to get caught up in a British series such as this. But Downton Abbey somehow has hit upon the right mix of eye candy, class tension, romance and quality story-telling to grab the attention of a continent otherwise obsessed with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Honey Boo Boo.

“But it feels like kind of a steady process,” said Dockery, who was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2012 and is pictured at right in the above photo, with Maggie Smith at left. “The first (season), people were just kind of catching on. It was the second (season) that seemed to really take off over here.

“So it feels like it has been a steady progression. At home (in Britain) it was quite an explosion right away, millions of people tuned in for the very first episode. And it has just grown from there, it’s wonderful.”

In many ways the fate of Lady Mary has been at the centre of Downton Abbey‘s story. So from the vantage point of the 21st century, does Dockery view Lady Mary as a sympathetic character, or as something of a brat?

“I think Mary started out as a bit of a brat,” Dockery said. “I mean, she was certainly far colder in the beginning.

“Initially I thought she would be the Kristin Scott Thomas type of character in Gosford Park, when I read those first few scripts. And then, you know, I realized she actually becomes far more sympathetic and sensitive, and I’ve really enjoyed that journey, which I wasn’t expecting.”

Not that Lady Mary becomes Mother Teresa or anything. Lady Mary certainly is not interested in anything resembling a diminished lifestyle, even as significant factors threaten the Crawley family’s stature in season three (watch for a Canadian connection in that regard!).

“Every year it gets better, actually,” Dockery said of Downton Abbey. “This year is even better than the last.”

Literally, the world is watching.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv