‘Downton Abbey’ recap: Mary struggles after Matthew’s death

Yes, it’s finally time for season four of “Downton Abbey” to cross the Atlantic, and while U.K. fans have soaked up the entire season, we’ll just have to make due with this week’s two-hour premiere. The story picks up six months after Matthew Crawley’s untimely death in last season’s very unhappy Christmas episode (happy holidays!), and as you might expect, Mary is not her usual, spunky self. At least, not at first. The heavy lifting in this episode seems to be left to our downstairs crew and, yes, Violet (Maggie Smith). It’s actually heartening to see everyone trying to help out, given how deadly last season was for our poor (but very rich) Crawleys. But then, it seems everyone realizes that leaving the family (or more specifically, Robert) to their own devices will create a debacle from which Downton can never recover. 

Mary gets a shove: The first hour of the episode shows Mary (Michelle Dockery) in what can only be described as somnambulist state — when she sees her son, she pats him absently on the head and mutters, “Poor little orphan,” inspiring Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to point out the kid still has his mother, whether she realizes it or not. Even when Mary is being self-pitying, her expression doesn’t shift. It’s spooky, and no one seems quite sure what to do about it — well, no one except Violet and Branson.

While Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) seems to be in her own bubble (she clearly isn’t over losing Sybil, of course) and Edith is too busy playing the role of the other woman to worry herself with Mary, Violet clearly sees that Mary is just as depressed as she was immediately after her husband’s death. Though her meeting with Mary isn’t exactly warm and cuddly (I wouldn’t call their shared moment huggy, exactly),Violet drives home the point that Mary needs to pick between life and death — and Mary is clearly more dead than alive. 

As for Branson, he is well aware that Mary needs to emerge from her grieving if any of the plans Matthew had to save Downton are to be implemented. While he feels Mary’s pain (he’s been there, after all), he knows that getting her involved in the running of Downton is a win-win — she’ll feel better, and maybe Robert won’t make a mess of things. As we all know, Robert would like nothing better than exactly that. 

Robert tries to snatch the reins — and gets a royal beat down: If you ask me, no character on this show is more face-palm frustrating than Robert (Hugh Bonneville). I’m not sure how he ran Downton for as long as he did before almost driving it into insolvency, but he sure hasn’t learned from the experience. I don’t want to say he’s happy to have Matthew gone so that he can snap up baby George’s share of the estate and run amok with it, but let’s just say he’s found a silver lining in Mary’s horrible luck.

When a box comes and a letter written by Matthew to Mary (which is essentially his hastily scribbled will) tumbles out, I was surprised Robert eventually did the right thing in giving it to her. Of course, I think the shaming from Cora and Violet helped push him over the edge. While I’m not sure if the contentious dinner during which the ladies of the house and Isobel (with the exception of the still shell-shocked Mary) gave Robert a hard time would really happen, it was still a relief to see that Branson is getting some back-up. 

Carson has problems: – First, Branson bugs Carson to have a word with Mary, which, to put it mildly, does not go well. Feeling picked upon, Mary takes it out on Carson, though later this gives her a reason to apologize and, finally, cry on his shoulder. It’s a heartbreaking scene, but promising — once Mary actually cries, we have some hope that she might no longer be a zombie. But dealing with Mary is only one issue Carson has to face. In addition to Edna coming back (which is really a bigger issue for Anna, but we’ll get to that) and Nanny West getting the boot (again, we’ll get to that, too), Carson has Mrs. Hughes nagging him about Mr. Grigg.

Yes, the blackmailer is back, and this time he’s in the Ripon Workhouse, choking on toxic mold and desperate for help. Hughes, probably eager from a distraction from all the mourning at Downton, encourages Isobel (who really needs some help getting over the loss of Matthew) to take him in. Carson is furious about all the efforts on Grigg’s behalf (which makes sense — didn’t Robert already kick his ass out of town?), but when Isobel finds the deadbeat a job at the opera house in Belfast, Hughes manages to guilt Carson into mending fences with Grigg.

The scene in which Carson and Grigg say goodbye feels like it was ripped out of a bad romcom — Carson even walks out of a wall of engine steam when everyone has given up hope that he’d show at the train station. I half expected Carson to be carrying flowers or an engagement ring. No one mentions the blackmailing — no, Carson forgives Grigg for stealing his girl back in the day. They shake hands, and all is well. This would all be more heartwarming if we hadn’t already met Grigg and had him presented as an insufferable jerk, but it’s always nice to get more of Carson’s backstory, even if it feels slapped on. 

Mary rises up: In the second half of the episode, Mary is no longer grief-stricken, putting her black clothing in the closet and heading off to the regent’s luncheon to learn a bit more about the business of running Downton. Though I could easily see a version of the show in which Mary fades into the background or focuses on finding a new husband, the idea that she’s going to learn about running things — and will possibly face off with her father to do it — is a cracking good idea, even if it does seem unlikely for the time period.

While we’ve heard a lot about how Dan Stevens’ decision to leave the show “devastated” Julian Fellowes, I think his exit has opened a lot of doors for a show that was getting a little stale — and let’s face it, Matthew’s character was all too often a plot device at the service of other characters instead of a passable person. While Robert says he’s happy to see Mary up and about, I think his fatherly goodwill is going to be severely tested — and very soon.

No good deeds go unpunished for Bates and Anna: This “Downton Abbey” super couple just can’t stop being adorable. Bates “repays” a debt to Moseley to help him out of debt, and Anna takes Rose to a commoners’ dance (and even gets her a lady maid uniform so she can give the nice boy she met a proper goodbye after lying to him about her rank in society — a plotline that seemed to be much ado about nothing). Anna even tries to give horrible Edna, who manages to snow Cora into giving her the lady maid gig after Mrs. O’Brien takes off in the middle of the night, a warning that Thomas Barrow isn’t someone with whom she should hang out. So, what happens? Thomas concocts a story about Anna trying to sabotage Edna that’s apparently convincing enough that he gets the Crawleys on board. Oh, that Robert…

Sidebar: Did anyone else think it was odd when Bates mentioned he “learned a lot in prison” as to how he got together the 30 pounds to give Moseley? Can’t help but think that’s a detail to be explored later. 

Thomas is back to his bad boy ways: Even with O’Brien gone, Thomas (Robert James-Collier) isn’t inspired to be the nice guy we saw glimmers of in previous seasons. No, he’s still miffed about being stuck downstairs and losing his valet position to Bates, and when Nanny West tries to give him orders, he spins a tale to Cora about the nanny leaving the children unattended. Cora doesn’t seem to give this much thought — until she catches Nanny West calling baby Sybbie a “half-breed” and snapping at her to go to sleep while she coos over George. I loved seeing Cora not only order Nanny West to leave, but insist that the woman not spend another second with the children. Given that Cora seemed muted (though not as much as Mary) in the episode, it was a relief to see that she’s still the tiger mother (now grandmother) that we remember from the past.

Unfortunately, Cora now thinks Thomas is not only on her side, but a great defender of the Crawleys. It’s funny how quickly we got Mrs. O’Brien 2.0 with Edna, but Carson, Hughes and Branson are clearly keeping their eyes open to any funny business from Edna. Of course, I’m not sure Branson is the best babysitter in this case.

Edith and her boyfriend get closer to making it legal: Although Edith seems very happy with Michael Gregson, I can’t help but think something is likely to go awry with his plan to become a German citizen so he can get a divorce. Edith may be absolutely fine with making her own tea (and he does warn her that he’s not going to be able to give her a Downton Abbey existence), but Robert already seems to be doubting that this is the direction he wants for his little girl. Edith has invited Michael to Downton, which seems like a big mistake to me, but hey, he might as well see what he’s asking his girlfriend to leave behind.

What did you think of Mary’s change? Were you surprised to see Edna back? What did you think of Rose’s insistence on going to the dance?