As with last year, we're getting a double episode to kick off PBS's season even though the two parts aired separately in the UK; as such, I'm going to divide the coverage in two even though PBS is presenting this as a single unit.
It's 1922 and Matthew's been dead six months. Let's start here: Thomas clashes with the nanny for the two babies in the house (Branson's and Mary's) and tells Cora she's an unfit caregiver. Although he's typically twisting events for his own benefit, his mostly-lie becomes truth when Cora overhears the nanny nastily telling young Sybil that she's a filthy half-breed (she's talking about the different class origins of her parents, not that that makes it any less vile). Cora dismisses her on the spot and personally stands guard over the kids; the next morning, she thanks Thomas for his warning, so his stock is once again on the rise.
It's Valentine's Day and the mail reveals Daisy has a secret admirer. She convinces herself that it's Alfred, even though he's still pretty clearly into Ivy (and still annoyed at Jimmy James for stringing her along). Mrs. Patmore confesses that she sent it so Daisy wouldn't feel neglected, and Daisy takes the news in the kind spirit in which it was intended. Speaking of Mrs. Patmore, she's up in arms when the modern innovation du episode shows up… an eggbeater. She worries that such advances will end up costing all of them their jobs, but when the mousse Daisy makes with it is a big hit, Mrs. Patmore breaks a bowl taking it for a test drive and despairs to Mrs. Hughes about being an old dog whose time for new tricks is past. Also worried about his place in the current landscape is Molesley, as Matthew's death left him without a position; with Carson unable to keep him on in what's basically a charity situation any longer, his father and the Dowager Countess worry that he won't find anything in service with the world changing as it is. The Dowager Countess then conspires to arrange an impromptu on-the-job interview for Molesley with "Lady Shackleton," played by the absolutely wonderful Harriet Walter (in far too small a role), whose butler is retiring. However, the Dowager Countess' butler, thinking Molesley has designs on his job, sabotages his efforts, so Molesley's identity as the Eeyore of the show is still completely intact.
Via snoopery, Mrs. Hughes learns that a "Mr. Grigg" wrote to Carson (think back aaaaall the way to the second episode of the show and the "Cheerful Charlies") and goes to see him in a Dickensian sweatshop; it turns out he and Carson were old friends in Carson's performing days, but they fell out, and now Carson doesn't want to be reminded of that time in his life. The health-challenged Grigg also seems -- as was indicated in his first appearance -- to have had some legal troubles, as his work detail seems to be some kind of punishment, so being stonewalled by Carson, Mrs. Hughes the humanitarian appeals to Isobel for help, and while Isobel at first hesitates given her distraught emotional state, she eventually agrees to take Grigg in. Carson is aghast that Mrs. Hughes would impose on her at a time like this, but Mrs. Hughes inform him she's doing it for Isobel's sake as much as Grigg's, and later, Isobel tells Carson that the whole affair has made her feel compassion for the first time since Matthew's death. Indeed, when Grigg arrives Isobel seems more like her old self, so Mrs. Hughes continues to do good wherever she can.
As we who read casting news unfortunately expected, O'Brien has departed Downton to join Lady Flintshire in India, and as news of her sudden disappearance -- she didn't even breathe a word to Alfred, her nephew --- spreads through the house like wildfire, Mrs. Hughes and Anna scramble to fill in waiting on Cora. Rose comes under a bit of fire for her mother having snaked O'Brien as she did, and it turns out she did get wind of her mother's plan, but didn't think she'd actually go through with it. Thus feeling guilty, Rose takes it upon herself to advertise locally, which results in Edna, the one who was so smitten with Branson AND WHO COULD BLAME HER, applying for the job. Edna has learned hairdressing and has gotten some small experience as a lady's maid in the time since we last saw her and with Cora having been at Duneagle (and as such ignorant of what went down with Branson), she hires Edna on the spot. Mrs. Hughes is obviously stunned, but she can't say much without exposing Branson to embarrassment, so she keeps her disapproval general, which does nothing to dissuade Cora. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and Branson then have a summit meeting in which Carson rules they're going to have to suck it up and deal with Edna, and Branson looks more terrified even than that time the Dowager Countess ordered him to wear a tux.
Moving upstairs, Edith and Michael Gregson are now seeing each other semi-openly, with Cora very much in favor and Lord Grantham decidedly not. Gregson also discovers that if he were to become a German citizen, he'd be able to divorce his clinically insane wife, and Edith is overwhelmed by the gesture, not least because the dust has barely settled from the Great War and he'd risk becoming a pariah. Lord Grantham is basically like, this girl and her romantic choices, and it's maybe hard to completely blame him at this point.
Lord Grantham and Branson are co-managing the estate, even walking the grounds as one, but the place's assets are complicated as ever due to Matthew having died intestate, leaving his infant son technically in possession of most of his interest. Regardless, Branson wants to get Mary involved in the place's governance, but Lord Grantham won't hear of it with her haunting Downton like a black-clad specter and not even spending much time with her boy "Master George." With Matthew's death creating imminent and significant tax burdens, Lord Grantham wants to represent Mary and as such have controlling interest on Downton's management. Branson still thinks Mary getting involved would be good both for her and for the estate, so he appeals to Carson for help, and Carson's mild lingering distaste for Branson is overwhelmed by his unflagging love for Mary. Mary takes Carson's head off for his impudence, but Carson is unbowed and tells her she's giving in to defeat, and the Dowager Countess unwittingly backs him up at a dinner from which Mary flees in grief. Later, however, the Dowager Countess gently tells Mary she needs to choose life (her words, essentially), and like Isobel, Mary starts coming to herself again, eventually apologizing to Carson before breaking down in his arms. In the end, Mary attends a big tenants' meeting, wearing something other than black for the first time since she became widowed and ready to represent her and Matthew's progressive ideas for Downton's future. If only it were that easy!PART TWO:
Let's dispense with the harebrained/pointless stuff: Anna runs into Molesley in town, and seeing that he's been reduced to laying tar to pay off his debts, she offers to lend or even give him some money. When he won't accept, Bates goes to the Dowager Countess on his wife's behalf, and she gives him money he then pretends he borrowed from Molesley a long time ago. There's the usual twaddle with Ivy and Alfred and Jimmy James and Daisy; also, Rose wants to hit a thé dansant that's beneath ladies of her station, so she asks Anna to take her on the sly; while Anna won't go that far, she does get permission from Mary to chaperone her. On an errand in the same town, Jimmy James spots them and dances with Anna, while Rose lies to her hot-but-common date that she's in service at Downton. A fight then breaks out from which the Downton crowd flees, but her true-hearted bloke makes his way to Downton to see her, so Anna gets Rose into a maid's uniform for some nervous flirting and a late but sensible lie that she's promised to someone else, as well as an aside to Jimmy James she'll have his back if he keeps her secret. Oh, and Gregson is planning to go through with the Germany plan, and thinking their future is becoming more solid, Edith invites him to a house party Cora is throwing at Downton, which doesn't even happen this episode. Now:
Whether sensing a kindred outcast spirit or attempting to make a political connection with the new lady's maid, Thomas makes overtures of friendship to Edna, which Anna warns her about. When Edna ruins a garment of Cora's, though, Thomas helps her get Cora to believe it's because Anna was unkind to her; when Anna and Bates figure out Thomas' involvement, they realize they now have two enemies for the price of one.
Mary gets a package holding the contents of Matthew's old office, but Carson and Mrs. Hughes decide to give it first to Lord Grantham in case there's anything therein that will upset his daughter. It contains some mementos… and a letter from Matthew stating that he intended Mary to be his sole heiress. Thinking the letter will have no legal bearing, Lord Grantham hesitates to give it to Mary, for which the Dowager Countess reproves him, adding that he's obviously only balking because he'd prefer to resume having sole custody of Downton. Lord Grantham reluctantly shares the letter with Mary before announcing its contents to the principal players, but although they're heartened, Lord Grantham cautions them it may not change anything. He then continues to behave like a pompous fool, trying to intimidate Mary with all the Downton issues she'll have to bone up on if she wants to share the management responsibilities, but this only serves to rally literally everyone else to her side.
Dr. Clarkson examines Grigg and pronounces him fit for some honest work, but Grigg is bummed that Carson still doesn't want to see him. Through her returned force of will, Isobel gets Grigg a job interview for a stage-door manager position in a theater in Belfast before bustling over to Carson and suggesting he patch things up with his old mate. Carson, typically, is staunchly against the idea at first, but Saint Mrs. Hughes sets him right, and Carson shows up to the train platform for a reconciliatory heart-to-heart.
The Dowager Countess calls Mary and Branson in and decrees that Branson will be Mary's teacher; he'll take her on his rounds and instruct her in the issues of Downton. Mary and Branson are amused at the way the Dowager Countess flouts her idiot son, and soon, Branson has her out on the grounds chatting about the death duties, about which she later tells her flustered father he's entirely wrong. That's especially relevant because in the end, Lord Grantham announces that the legal opinions are in and the letter actually is valid as a will, so Mary officially owns half of Downton. I do apologize/I do not apologize, Lord Grantham!
As in the recaplet, I'm dividing this into two parts to acknowledge that it was aired as two separate episodes in the UK. Welcome to Season Four!
Skipping the opening credits, we push in on Downton bathed in darkness before venturing inside. After a quick montage of "someone" (it's an O'Brien stand-in, as we'll quickly come to learn) leaving a couple notes in sealed envelopes, we hear crying babies on the soundtrack and a see a stern-looking nanny walking the halls to attend to them. Mary then opens her eyes in bed -- on one distinct side despite the other being empty -- and we then pull focus to a nightstand photo of her and Matthew in case we need extra help with the notion that she's in her Widow's Bed Of Sadness.
In the dim light, "O'Brien" exits Downton. After we see Mary sitting up forlornly, Anna flips on an electric light switch (I can't be sure, but the circuit may be a new thing here), and then we see Mary, her Black Kimono Of Bereavement and her even-more-pallid-than-usual complexion making her appear fully qualified to haunt the earth at night. There must be some moors not too far away, right? Regarding the beautiful day in front of her with no amount of positivity, she woodenly rings her bell. Downstairs, Anna tells Carson she'll have to go despite the brouhaha O'Brien's letter has unleashed. If you read casting spoilers (or the recaplet) you know that O'Brien fled under cover of almost-night to join Lady Flintshire in India, which was strongly indicated as a possibility from O'Brien's behavior up at Duneagle. With it now official, a flustered Mrs. Hughes says she'll take Cora the letter and her breakfast for today, and Anna offers to fill in going forward until they find a replacement for O'Brien, as Mary will just sigh and guess that suffering is now her lot in life… I mean, she "won't mind." On her way up, Thomas asks what's got Anna in such a right state, and Anna doesn't slow down as she breaks the news about O'Brien, which, given their animosity last season, doesn't have the sting it might once have. Indeed, Thomas goes running into the next room and excitedly tells Ivy and Jimmy James, so I guess whatever friendship the two boys forged is still intact. The news spreads quickly among the whole staff, as well it might.
Cut to Cora telling Lord Grantham she can't believe it, and I love and will miss O'Brien but you can hardly blame Lord Grantham biting out, "I can." He's talking about her sneaking off in the night, but Cora's more aghast that Lady Flintshire poached her maid like that, and I don't know if a Miss Manners For British Nobility actually existed back then, but it does seem like a serious breach of etiquette to the layman. Cora disbelievingly reads aloud from the letter -- "Lady Flintshire has booked my ticket for India, and it seems too good a chance to miss" -- and when Lord Grantham inquires if there really was no warning, Mrs. Hughes admits there was a telegram for O'Brien the day before. Cora is fairly despondent, while downstairs, Carson is acidly grilling Alfred about whether his aunt really let nothing on to him. Alfred assures him she did not and he's surely a good company man, but let's acknowledge that even if there were any subtle clues, he wouldn't likely have been the first (or tenth) person to pick up on them. When Carson is gone, Alfred worriedly tells the kitchen staff that he really didn't know, and O'Brien may be his aunt, but "she's a dark horse." Mrs. Patmore, gleefully: "No one will contradict you there!" Hee. It's not like she's my all-time favorite or anything, but if you're talking reliably hilarious line deliveries Mrs. Patmore at least deserves inclusion in the conversation.