As hulking and lavish as the Titanic, "Downton Abbey" appears unsinkable — especially when it comes to Emmy voters and fans. But the series, whose first episode began with news of that famous ship’s North Atlantic disaster, is not immune to rough seas. Does the disappointing fourth season of "Downton" foretell a coming crash?
At the outset, creator Julian Fellowes’ progressive twist on "Upstairs, Downstairs" fleetly commanded a sprawling cast of masters and servants through the domestic melodramas of pre-World War I Britain. Though never as diamond-sharp as Fellowes’ own "Gosford Park" (2001), directed to perfection by Robert Altman, "Downton" enjoyed the same lively energy. The title sequence, a fluid montage of sunny grounds and open shutters, gas lamps and chandeliers, distilled the series to its bright essence: "Downton" suffused even its bitterest developments (drowned heirs, miscarriages, dead Turkish paramours) with the warm glow of intimacy between upper crust and lower class. Sure, m’lady, I’ll help you move this foreign envoy’s corpse! No, valet, of course I don’t care about your mysterious, possibly criminal past!
Sadly, this sprightly idealism is now largely absent from "Downton," which earned a dismaying 12 Emmy nominations last month. The series might have been forgiven its clumsy handling of actor Dan Stevens’ sudden departure, whipping up the death of Matthew Crawley in a last-second car accident, but the latest season doubles down on the somber atmospherics.
The action resumes in February 1922, six months after Matthew’s death, with Lady Mary (Lead Actress nominee Michelle Dockery) mourning her late husband and mostly ignoring their infant son. Though it wouldn’t do to have a widow gallivanting about as if nothing had happened, Dockery — always fun to watch when playing Mary as a prickly, entitled beauty — is ill served by the heavy-handed writing and production design. In one emblematic moment, as Mary literally talks down to her mousy sister, Edith (Laura Carmichael), on the grand staircase, the camera frames her ghostly face and jet-black hair from below. The effect, imperious and forbidding, does not suggest a woman working through grief so much as a building monument to it, crushing the character’s spirit entirely.
It’s not only in Mary’s case that the spark seems to have gone out of "Downton," as the themes of loss and absence bleed into nearly every aspect of season four. O’Brien steals off in the night and Alfred (Matt Milne) departs for the Ritz; Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) grieve the untimely ends of Matthew and Lady Sybil, respectively; Edith’s intended, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), disappears in Germany, apparently victim to a gang of Brownshirts, and as a result she gives up their child to a local farmer. The high dudgeon with which "Downton" approaches these developments sends the series into after-school special territory, hectoring and humorless, and as a consequence the remaining strands of gauzy sentimentalism seem out of place. As cousin Rose (Lily James) capers with Jack Ross (Gary Carr), an African American band leader, or the butler, Carson (Supporting Actor nominee Jim Carter), patches things up with an old friend from the stage, it’s hard not to feel that such subplots lack the necessary backbone to support the grueling passages that surround them.
The most upsetting development, of course, involves Anna (Supporting Actress nominee Joanne Froggatt), Mary’s kindly lady’s maid. Raped by a visiting lord’s valet, her subsequent anguish features prominently in the season’s narrative, and of all the turns "Downton" has taken, this one leaves me the most ambivalent. Aided by Froggatt’s fine, workaday performance, the series’ portrait of sexual assault’s varied psychological consequences, which sits rather stiffly within the constellation of inconsequential fights about farming and footman’s gloves, is nonetheless powerful. We quickly come to realize that there is no one response to rape, even within a single victim, and the direct, textured treatment of this fact is laudable indeed.
The depiction of the attack itself, by contrast, comes across as faintly exploitative. As the rapist pushes himself on Anna downstairs, landing a kiss before the blow to her cheek, Anna’s terrible cries become an opera singer’s beautiful aria in the main hall: an aural match cut that appears cruel, not clever, in the watching. Shifting back and forth in this way — pausing to hear Bates and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) whisper speculation as to Anna’s whereabouts, concluding with the valet taking his seat in the audience as the assembled patrons applaud — the rape assumes the cast of a plot device, and thereby sours every searching moment to follow. "I wish [Bates] could read you, and take you out of this veil of shadows," Mrs. Hughes tells Anna later, but the crime shadowing the season remains ever at arm’s length.
This gloomier "Downton" is not without its pleasures — the deliciously witty sniping between Isobel and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, the series’ best Emmy hope) and the staff’s visit to the beach in the season finale, perhaps a glimmer of happier times ahead. (The fifth season of the series, which is co-produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece, is slated to air on PBS in January 2015.) But "Downton" has always focused, broadly speaking, on the death of the old ways. Each new kitchen invention, from the refrigerator to the electric mixer, sends Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) into a tizzy; the tension between tradition and modernity provides the foundation for every marital maneuver and conflict of kin. Forgive me for fearing, then, if the wearisome fourth season suggests that the old ways of "Downton" are similarly in decline, turning the conventional into the clichéd and the dark into the merely dreary.
"No one wants to kiss a girl in black," the Dowager Countess once warned. It’s advice "Downton Abbey" would do well to take.