The Grantham Ghost of Downton Abbey

By  · Published on January 6th, 2014

There’s a presence haunting Downton Abbey. Ink dark and vaporous, it drifts along the baseboards pushing back against the sunlight and screaming toward anything with a pulse. Considering the Crawley House history, it’s probably not alone. After all, this is the same space that has seen plenty of life extinguished within its walls: from characters we know intimately to spirits from WWI who never made it beyond its ad hoc hospital threshold.

It’s a mournful place heading into 1922, and its newest ghost is Lady Mary. With somber detachment, season four of Downton Abbey lunges forward from the shock of her husband’s death, a tragic end that has hollowed out the household and left its older daughter devoid of life.

The show returns having lost its center – a character who opened the show as a breath of fresh air inside struggling opulence. Matthew was the original spark that lit the first fire of change within the antique home, arriving as a stranger who shared the same blood who would go on to change the lives of the entire family. Now that the first domino has fallen, the story feels a bit unanchored in an appropriate way. Floating back through its own memory to find something new to focus on. In a sense, Matthew’s death signaled the end of Downton Abbey as we knew it, and it came for viewers on the gut-punching heels of losing Lady Sybil.

Fortunately, the series has worked so strongly as an ensemble that neither character was the only compelling focus. They were central pillars, but they’ve left behind many grieving faces in a show has always been about transitions. If it needed a firmer reminder, the two children playing with nanny down the hall are a perfect symbol of what Matthew and Sybil leave behind, and what we hold hands with as we head into the future. To that end, the imagery of Lady Mary blithely holding baby George – a tiny, new heart next to her broken one – is maybe the most difficult optic of the whole episode.

There are subplots to the first half of the season four premiere, but they’re only entertaining distractions from the quiet storm who has holed up inside her room. Without Matthew (Dan Stevens), Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has reverted in her grief to the human-shaped ice sculpture that we met years ago, only this time everything from her voice to her gait is heavier. Everyone wants her back, but how to do it is up for debate. Robert (Hugh Bonneville) has donned permanent kid gloves while Branson (Allen Leech), The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and even Carson (Jim Carter) believe she needs a solid shove into the land of the living.

All offer poignant scenarios that dance around death as if it were a campfire. Robert – who began the series on the verge of losing his entire estate – has now instead lost two children while gaining two grandchildren. His usual schtick as a father who is laughably stuck in the old ways being zoomed past by modern children becomes something more revealing here. Matthew’s death has pushed him back into a seat of power again, and there’s clear internal conflict even as he actively tries to shoo his daughter beyond responsibility while protecting her from feeling any more pain. He’s culturally wrong, as usual, but Mary’s breakdown at the dinner table proves that he’s at least empathetical to the numb needs of someone touched by loss.

Branson is a mirror – having also tragically lost a spouse and come out the other side – consistently nudging her to join him by taking an interest in something. The Dowager, as the oldest member of the family (and thus closer to death according to the natural order), proves once again to be wiser and more tender than her typical barbs suggest. Carson, who has always been the more motherly father figure to Mary, is brave enough to speak outside his station in a move that’s both laudably radical and somehow expected.

All of this culminates in a black cocoon-shedding moment where Mary takes her husband’s position as an active decision-maker for the estate (and potentially as the driving engine of the series). It’s a poetic move that it’s Matthew himself, in the form of a letter stating his intentions and faith in her, that propels her to loosen the shroud.

On the edge of all this is Matthew’s mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) who has seen her identity erased. She’ll always be a mother despite the loss, but the grief blinds her to that reality, and she resigns politely to a muted role as grandmother in an effort to avoid butting too deeply into Mary’s rightful place. She finds some energy in a piece of plot padding from Carson’s theatrical past, and while it’s forgettable, it’s likely that it will launch her back into her do-gooderism on the road back to normalcy.

For now, the world revolves around Mary, but the show does a deft job of acknowledging the despair without dwelling in it. The house is too busy for that, and while the other stories are only taking toddling first steps (or coming to near-meaningless, instant conclusion in the case of Charlie Carson and the Random Lost Love), seeing the rest of the world turn helped what could have been a sadness-mired experience. Again, as the sweet babe and the wretched mixed breed down the hall remind us: life finds a way.

As such, it was encouraging to see the soap opera drama swirl yet again, and so I’d like to introduce you to the Dowager Countess Pearl-Clutch-o-Meter – our way of definitively gauging each episode this year. This week, owing to the appropriately sullen tone, the gasps were fairly low, but the stage was set for dropped jaws in the future.

Art by Derek Bacon.

Here were the pearl-clutching moments:

See you next week. Bring a tux or an evening gown because there’s going to be a party.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.