Downton Abbey Season 4 premiere: Who Run The World?

As the new season begins, the women of Downton start to experience new found levels of power, influence and camaraderie.

Join me as I raise a glass to the ladies of Downton Abbey. The new season is all about female empowerment and friendship.

The central conflict following the death of Downton heir Matthew Crawley is the same that has hung like a cloud of sleep-inducing gas over the plot since the beginning: the fate of Downton. Will Matthew’s stake in the estate pass to his wife, Lady Mary Crawley, or to their infant son, George? George was only a few hours old at the time of Matthew’s death in a car crash in last season’s finale, and in the six months that have passed, Mary has neither left the house nor bonded with her son.

Always the respectful patriarch, Robert wants to relieve his grieving daughter of any responsibility. Women can’t handle these things! She must be left alone, because “she has enough on her plate." Besides, men need to handle these things. Ladies should not be bothered.

Mary, glacial and austere throughout the show’s first three seasons, grew warmer as her love for Matthew blossomed last season. But following Matthew’s death, like a night-blooming flower at dawn, Mary closed again, caustic at best through the first half of the season four premiere.

By the end of the second hour, however, a door was opened. Matthew left an informal will, (conveniently written with tragic passion the day of his death) bequeathing his half of the estate to Mary - not to their son, as the patriarchal inheritance system dictates. After a brief consultation, the will was deemed legal, and now Mary, Tom and Robert share decision making power over the future of Downton. It is a feminist turn that we probably saw coming, but it feels no less rewarding upon arrival.

Mary’s fear that Matthew was the only one able to see warmth in her will no doubt be countered left and right this season, as the role of the show’s women expands. Mary’s spirit comes across strongest in her love for her family, for their way of life, and for Downton. It is through the prism of her cordiality that her passion is felt, a characteristic she shares with her grandmother. (It goes without saying, but Dame Maggie Smith is already nothing short of fabulous, as usual.)

In the wake of the news of the will, Tom Branson - ever the champion of a lady’s right to have an opinion - encouraged Mary to wake up and find a purpose. No stranger to the death of a spouse or single parenthood, Tom was Mary’s guide as she emerged from her black hole, donned a pretty lilac frock, and returned to the land of the living.

Even more compelling than Mary’s bond with Tom this season are the friendships between the women of Downton - upstairs, downstairs and in-between.

Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s mother, was as racked with grief as her daughter-in-law. She felt no purpose, a rudderless vessel tied haplessly to the freighter of Downton. Mrs. Hughes, the true captain of the Downton Abbey ship, saw Isobel’s distress and sought to draw her back up to the surface. An old friend of Carson’s was in town, and Mrs. Hughes enlisted Isobel to help him leave the workhouse and find a job.

“Set aside your grief and use that strength for another's good,” she said.

With her doting faculties back in use, Isobel brightened.

“I'd almost forgotten I had either energy or kindness in me.”


Downton Abbey women


What the men of Downton can’t yet see (and indeed, few men of the time could see) is that the strength these women possess is in their very femininity. It is their love and their grace that equip them to handle the most daunting, complex problems that all members of the house face.

In another interesting development, Cousin Rose has come to stay at Downton. A child of the new century, Rose is utterly unbound by the conventions upheld by her historic family, and does as she pleases. We can be sure that her antics will be one force challenging the status quo in the household, as we’ve already seen in her trip to the dance hall and her class-defying friendship with Mary’s lady’s maid, Anna. Anna has always been both a mother and a sister figure to the Ladies Crawley, and is one the most beloved, smartest and most powerful figures downstairs.

Lady Edith, independent and single-minded, is finally growing up a character. Taking her life by the horns and pursuing a career in journalism, she is finally casting off the shadow of romantic woes that have plagued her in the past. And lo and behold, she has met a married man willing to become a German citizen so he can legally divorce his infirm wife and be with her forever. Cue eye roll. Where is my chaise? But drama aside, I see where this might be going, Mr. Fellowes.

I can only hope this show lasts long enough to delve into the second World War, and flesh out all the potential conflicts that arise. The first war was the catalyst for the show’s inception: with so much changing, what is the future of the estate, and the way of life it represents? The second war can only bring further change and insight - not to mention deaths and new roles for the men and women of the house alike. But that is nearly a decade away.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the wave of changes happening at Downton is the lack of resistance by the usual suspects. Robert, though at first indignant and insistent that Mary does not know enough to run the estate, rolls over easily when he learns that Matthew’s will is legal. Perhaps he is learning the strength of his daughters’ character and will, and coming to terms with the shrinking privilege his gender provides him. Though clearly displeased by Edith’s career, he no longer threatens to stop her.

Carson, too, is softening his iron-fisted hold on the conventions of the Edwardian era. His fatherly love for Mary compels him to tell her she is “strong enough for the task” of helping to run Downton, a statement less out-of-character than indicative of character development (even if it does feel a bit fast). His friendship with Mrs. Hughes, with some gentle nudging, is also deepening and shedding its punctilious exterior. I would root for a romance between them, but I’m not sure Carson’s loosening of the rules would go so far. Plus, their platonic, unspoken love is so lovely as is.

The second episode preview set up Robert’s financial risk-taking (predictable?), the arrival of a charismatic stranger who makes Mary laugh (so soon?), and a twinge of jealousy between Anna and Bates (NOOO!). Although uncertainty is the norm at Downton, and we have come to expect cyclic drama and resolution followed by the somewhat exhausting return of same old problem, one thing is becoming clear. The women of Downton, high and low, are coming alive.

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