Downton Abbey Series 4 Episode 1 (ITV) Review

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This first episode back to Downton Abbey after Matthew’s untimely death got us where we needed to go, but it wasn’t what many of us had expected otherwise. If you wanted crying, screaming and funerals, you’d have been disappointed as, taking place six months after the events of the Christmas special, Downton is a pretty sombre place resigned to its own seemingly endless grief.

That’s not to say it was a bad episode in any way, just that it wasn’t interested in welcoming in new viewers (if there’s someone who isn’t watching it already) or showing off the gleeful fun that the show does so well. The departure of Dan Stevens is a huge hurdle for a show like Downton Abbey to have to jump, and this premiere episode did it’s best to establish the new status quo while not dismissing the gaping hole left in the Crawley family now that Matthew has gone.

And he’s not the only one missing, as we find out in the opening minutes of this episode – Miss O’Brien has also left Downton. With no word, she has departed for Scotland where she’d rather work, and no one seems particular distraught either upstairs or downstairs. Will she ever return to face the consequences of those soap-related actions so long ago? Or even the scheming that almost ruined Thomas’ life last year? Hopefully this isn’t the last we see of her, but if it is then at least it’s a sensible way to write her out.

If we thought series two and three were pretty bleak, series four looks like it’ll be taking things to a whole new level. The previously cheerful opening credits were replaced by misty shots of the abbey, shrouded in weather as if it were the family’s own personal pain. While everyone is dealing with it in their own way, Mary is the one being shielded from the world while she rediscovers her reason to live. She’s a lot like the Mary we saw in the first episode, in fact, and Matthew’s death may have ushered in a new era for Mary that sees her less loved-up and happy and more wilful and blunt.

Maggie Smith was more present than she has been in a while, and Violet was on hand to offer her sage advice to various members of the family. As well as Mary, family members obviously struggling include Lord Grantham and Isobel, the two parents to Matthew, and Mrs Hughes moves hell and high-water just to give the latter something to do other than wallow in her grief and eat dinner off of a tray. With that brings a whole new storyline for Carson, whose friend from his theatre days shows up in town. What is their history is anyone’s guess, but I’m looking forward to Carson having his very own storyline this year.

He had his moment this week, however, and proved to be the only member of the whole household able to get through to Lady Mary. Sometimes, a cuddle from her old Butler is the only thing that can sort through her pain, and the moment was a nice reminder of how the relationships on Downton Abbey are so brilliantly written. We may have lost one of our principle, and fan-favourite, cast members, but there’s still plenty of life in this show yet.

What did you think of the episode? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Downton Abbey airs on ITV in the UK.