A new page is turned in the opening episode of the fourth season of “Downton Abbey.”
Six months after the car crash death of Matthew Crawley, the estate's heir who had survived World War I, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) continues to grieve the loss of her handsome husband. The warmth and vitality we saw her gain as she fell in love is gone, and she has retreated into the shadows, shrouded in black and leaving the care of her infant son, George, to a somewhat creepy nanny.
Meanwhile, life goes on with the usual intrigue at Downton. Downstairs, the departure of Lady Cora's personal maid has created an unexpected opening, which will be filled by a dubious character from the past. The past is never far away in this Julian Fellowes drama, anyway. Chief butler Carson's old vaudeville buddy shows up out of the blue, and as usual, the proper servant keeps his feelings tamped down. But his concern for Mary's sorrow will unexpectedly lead him to speak out.
Upstairs, Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), seeing himself as his widowed daughter's protector, begins to make decisions about the estate's future, although he has already proved to be a bad businessman. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) continues to be the nurturing wife and mother, trying to help everyone without being intrusive. The death of her daughter Sybil in childbirth last season has left Sybil's husband, Tom (Allen Leech), once a servant now elevated to chief caretaker, in the awkward position of trying to help with the running of the estate while having no real power. His daughter, too, is being cared for by the suspicious nanny.
Mary's remaining sister, Edith (Laura Carmichael), has blossomed as an assertive woman, and her affair with a London newspaper editor is headed in an unexpected direction. The addition of young cousin Rose (Lily James), who's ready to take on the Jazz Age, is already proving to be intriguing and likely the source of numerous high jinks down the line. Penelope Wilton as Matthew's mother Isobel Crawley is lost in pain as she mourns for her son, while always displaying a British reserve.
Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess turns out to be the rock in all of this. In the past, the character would often be good for witty upper-crust utterances and little else, but this season Smith gets to add weight to the role. It's a pleasure watching the marvelous Smith pull out her full arsenal.
There are numerous other changes ahead for this year, but it's best to let most of this unfold for fans. “Downton Abbey” is, of course, a highbrow soap opera. It was in danger of running out of steam, but from what has been seen of season four, with the Crawleys and their staff facing the changes of the 1920s, it seems like the series is ready to reinvent itself. Perhaps not too much — it doesn't want to lose all its elite British charm — but enough to keep viewers tuning in.