By now, fans of Downton Abbey have come to know what to expect from this show. There are those who say it was never as good as it was in the first season, but I don't see how it drastically changed from that season at all. To me, Downton has always been a lavish period soap opera from day one (was Mary's suddenly dead lover any less melodramatic than the burned soldier or Sybil's deathbed?) So it's always been easier for me to enjoy the show without nitpicking it to death like its most devoted obsessives, who seem to expect a lot more out of it than I ever did.
So on that basis, I though the fourth season was a consistent continuation of the series, with some highly dramatic moments (the pattern seems to be to employ one really major, life-altering character event per season), mixed with the only thing that really does bother me about Julian Fellowes' writing- his constant tendency to introduce interesting stories, only to have them peter out and never go anywhere by the end of the season. All that setup for nothing.
I'll start with the big shocking moment of the year- Anna's rape in Episode 3. The entire episode was actually terrific, Downton Abbey at its best, with the whole cast being put to good use as the Crawleys threw a big party, the downstairs people having to mix it up with the upstairs set, and the smooth, Altman-esque fast-moving rhythm between all the characters was top-notch. Then comes the horrifying moment where Anna is cornered by the villainous Mr. Greene, the valet for one of Lady Mary's visiting suitors, who beats her and rapes her in the abandoned kitchen while everyone else is upstairs in the audience for a concert performance. This action set up the potential for a ripple effect that could have involved several characters, and the fallout was ultimately minimized to the point where it seems hugely obvious that Fellowes blew all possibilities to mine any good drama from this situation. It causes a problem for Anna and Bates, yet all the tension seems to be directed toward the question of what Bates will do about it, and that goes on for the rest of the season, only to amount to something that may or may not have happened off screen. I mean, what was that about? They tease Thomas's potential involvement (he keeps trying to find out what happened) only to have that completely fizzle out, when it could have provided a great story line of its own (can you imagine Thomas and Bates teaming up, or having this revelation change his own relationship with Anna?) I'm playing the writer here, but I can't help it, as I was practically shouting at the TV screen while watching this whole thing come to nothing, because the potential for explosives was so great and so completely knocked down.
So that was a major letdown to something that could have been one of the show's most intriguing storylines ever but the rest of the season was harmless fun as usual. Rose embarked on an interracial romance with a jazz singer (also a potentially interesting situation that again went nowhere- come on, Fellowes), and Mary was dogged by three separate suitors who are all in love with her and wanting to fight for her, even though she's not quite over Matthew's death. I know that Julian Fellowes has stated that from his point of view, the show is about Mary and Mary's love life more than anything else, and that's very obvious when you watch it, but these three guys were frankly interchangeable and boring, so count me as someone who hopes they suddenly shake things up by putting her with Tom next season. It won't happen but he's also one of the better characters on the show, still the out of place former chauffeur who lives on the estate with the family for his daughter's sake, but saddled with a very unlikable love interest, so I say have Tom and Mary ditch the dull outsiders for each other. Edith finally got some action this season too, as she had an affair with the married older man Michael Grayson, only for him to mysteriously vanish in the bowels of pre-Nazi Germany, leaving her stranded and pregnant, forced to make a disappearance of her own in order to have the baby and give it up for adoption in secret.
As for the downstairs cast, there was the ongoing endless flirtation between Daisy, Aflred, Ivy and Jimmy, a love square that also, again, went nowhere, not that this particular plot (by far the weakest of the past two seasons) created any rooting factor at all regarding any of those minor characters. At least it served to have jettisoned the characters of Ivy and Alfred entirely by the end of the year, good news only because it squashes that boring subplot. And the show continues to not know what to do with Thomas, preferring to keep him on the fringes of the action most of the time, which is a shame because Rob-James Collier is absolutely hilarious in this role and steals scenes whenever he appears by virtue of his smarmy delivery of just two or three lines- he's like the british James Spader. The nicest ongoing arc is the Remains of the Day-esque unspoken but clearly affectionate relationship between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, the heads of staff who get the last lovely moment of the season, as they stroll down the seaside hand in hand.
The good thing about Downton Abbey, what makes it eminently watchable is the fact that the cast is so huge and so sprawling (and usually all good except Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, who I'm sorry to say has either become bored with this role or forgotten how to emote) that if you're sick of watching one person or bored with a particular story line, you never have to stay with anyone longer than 2-3 minutes, as the show jumps back and forth between so many different characters all the time, and quickly enough so that it's always fast-paced and never dull in execution at least. The Christmas special this year was one of the best episodes, simply due to all the opulence put into Rose's debutante ball, the costumes, the dances and the presence of royalty on the estate and Paul Giamatti in a guest spot as Uncle Harold (he's so good that I hope he comes back next year). It remains a fun, mostly absorbing show and now that I'm this far in, I'll be sticking with the Crawleys till the end.