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Progress and the Withering Way of Life: Thoughts on Downton Abbey's Season 4 Premiere

01/06/2014 04:12 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

Spoiler alert!

Violins set a somber tone, and sunlight streaming in doesn't brighten the dark library as Thomas spreads the news of O'Brien's nighttime departure. Downton Abbey's Season 4 starts with this surprise and the impenetrable gloom cast by the death of Matthew Crawley. Lady Mary in mourning is no surprise at all, and the photography of her may be some of the series' best: she's a Vermeer-like beauty, sculpted in a bedside lamp's glow while her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, urges her to choose to live again for the sake of her child.

Sad though this is, I might miss O'Brien more than Matthew. Matthew and Lady Mary were interesting before they were a couple, and boring once they were. Was it their chemistry or the scripts that took a dive? They lost their charisma, and instead of a honeymoon phase, we were treated to heavy sighs with the loss of Downton (once again) looming on the horizon, coming between them and threatening their way of life. After a World War, a lustful scandal involving a death, each other's fiancés, and numerous threats and misunderstandings, these two were finally married, but ever on the brink of destruction.

This "way of life" has always been the main character of Downton Abbey, and the threat to it, progress, is a villain that cannot be stopped. Heading into the Roaring Twenties, Downton Abbey fans should brace themselves for an onslaught of progress on several fronts, and the characters, whether they know it or not, need to find out how they will fit into the new order (though the Dowager Countess might hope to die before it comes to that).

It's 1922. Women have won the right to vote and their advancement's on the rise in both England and the United States. Lady Edith embraces this change. Unlike generations before her, she does not have to resign herself to a sad life of old-maidenhood. Her stunning dresses reveal her modern attitude and her skin. Women can be seen dining out in restaurants, and Lady Edith's adding public kissing to this development. Far from her parents' generation already, she's thinking of living with Michael, out of wedlock, until his divorce (leaving us to wonder, advancements or not, is he worth it?).

Progress brings with it the on-going struggle of managing Downton, and that of the new ways versus the old. With Matthew gone, Lord Grantham has no choice but to throw up his hands all too eagerly and revert to the old ways in the face of impending "death taxes." (What were the old ways again? Find yourself on the brink of collapse and beg from friends and relatives?) It's impossible not to think of the historical context of the feminist movement when Lady Mary takes her seat at the Tenants' Luncheon, even if she's only there to maintain the new ways established by her late husband. Donned in a tasteful, post-mourning purple, her small step toward "handling affairs" is a giant leap for women-kind.

While the future of Downton is uncertain, the force of economic change is felt most poignantly, and is perhaps most relevant to today, in Mr. Molesley's story. His services as Matthew's valet are no longer needed for obvious reasons, and his extensive search for another job fails. A valet from Downton should be able to find another situation in the world as Molesley knew it, but with estates like Downton crumbling, there's no longer the demand for a Gentleman's Valet that there used to be. Forced to leave Downton with no prospects at middle age, he moves in with his father, his livelihood swept away by a tsunami-like cultural shift.

Progress in technology took a back seat in this episode, and Mrs. Patmore's resistance to the new electric mixer was a mild, comic diversion, as was the downstairs love-triangle of Daisy/Alfred/Ivy.

I wonder if the overall tension created by time marching on and inevitably destroying the Downton Abbey way of life makes me more forgiving of some of this show's thinner subplots, but I'm hooked on it regardless. I can't get enough of the actors and the sets and costumes they get to play in. The Dowager Countess' zingers alone are worth tuning in for.

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