Tonight is the American debut of the fourth season of Downton Abbey, a period soap opera currently taking place in rural England during the Roaring 20s. Certain sniffing intellectuals who only watch PBS will debate to the death that it isn’t a soap opera. But they are wrong and boring and need to blow their noses. If you aren’t familiar with the story so far get thee to Wikipedia for all the details of years past. (Like when Mary killed a guy with her vagina.) But before tonight’s episode here’s a character-based summary of where things stood when Season 3 ended with the most awesome car crash since Cameron Diaz flipped Tom Cruise off a bridge in Vanilla Sky.
First the Family and all their associates, the rich upper class people who inhabit the titular estate.
Sybil, the lovely, sweet, rebellious youngest daughter had run off to marry the chauffeur (after spending the war years as a nurse). An Irish Catholic chauffeur who ended up on the run from the law for some political thing. Bouncing potatoes off his English landlord? Getting drunk on Guinness in an Anglican church? I don’t remember but it was sure to have been stereotypically Irish and lower class. They fled to Downton for sanctuary, Sybil pregnant with the first grandchild. There was much upper/lower class conflict that ended with Sybil dying just after giving birth because the titled upper class doctor refused to treat her for the toxemia the local middle class doctor recognized from 3 miles away. So she won’t be in this season but they’ll talk about her a lot. Oh, and she was a Lady, capital L. All the daughters are.
Thomas, the former chauffeur, snotted all over the place in his grief, named the baby after her mother, baptized her Catholic, and took a job running the estate so the baby could be around the family. Also because watching him sit alone in the dining room when they vacation without him is hilarious.
Edith is the most awesome daughter and the middle girl. She’s had a serious of unfortunate romances including being left at the altar by an old guy. She spent much of Season 3 wandering about listlessly, picking up books and putting them down with a sigh because the life of an upper class unmarried girl during the Jazz Age is boring. For lack of anything better to do, and because it really pissed off dear old Daddy, she took a job as a columnist for a woman’s magazine. Many trips to London to meet with her editor led to a star-crossed love affair ripped straight from the pages of Jane Eyre. The editor has a wife, bat shit crazy and locked in an asylum, but he can’t divorce her because she doesn’t have the mental capacity to consent. He tried to get a blessing for a torrid affair from Edith’s brother-in-law, Matthew, but he declined and assured Edith it was for her own good. Edith was like, “Your wife is a bitch and that dude loves me so bring on the scandal!” I openly admit that as a middle child Edith is my favorite character.
Mary is the oldest daughter, a spoiled bitch who thinks the world owes her worship for allowing herself to exist in it. She finally married her true love, Matthew Crowley. Matthew, a four hundredth cousin 7200 times removed, was the heir of Downton because English entitlement law only allowed the estate to be inherited by men. She’s snotty and hateful to everyone but her father, her husband, and their butler, who are all male and therefore worthy of her admiration and love. I can’t even with how much I hate Mary. When Sybil died Edith floated the idea that maybe they should stop being such utter bitches to each other. Mary dismissed that without a thought as being a bitch to Edith is 80% of the reason she lives. For no reason except that if they didn’t hook up there’s no show Matthew loved her hateful ways. She gave birth to the newest male heir and 10 minutes later Matthew died in a car crash and I laughed for ten minutes. Fair warning, I was widowed at the age of 35 when my husband died in a car crash and it’s a guarantee that Mary feeling sorry for herself in the lap of luxury is going to piss me right off. (It was years ago and I’m doing well, no need to worry about me. Well, maybe worry slightly that hating Mary will give me a stroke.)
Robert, Earl of Grantham, is currently the owner of the estate. He married an American heiress years ago to get her money and keep the estate going. This was a huge trend at the time as many of the estates were low on money but big on obligations. The estate isn’t just the house – it’s all the associated land and tenants, the farms, parts of the town, and a hub of the community. To Marry an English Lord is a great book if you want to read about how the English ascended on America to snap up all the rich girls. Robert and his wife grew to love each other but only had daughters so despite many attempts to get around the law the estate will pass to Matthew’s newborn son. Robert is set in his ways and hates anything new. His stubbornness on this matter caused the death of his daughter, the alienation of his wife (which is just barely healed), and almost bankrupted his estate. He gave in to Matthew’s plans and agrees to let Thomas run the place only because Mary bullied him into it. He’s kind of an ass but Hugh Bonneville makes him a charming, befuddled ass you love despite yourself.
Cora, Robert’s wife, is American but has lived in England for decades. She speaks with this weird baby voice that makes me want to punch kittens. But she has a good heart and tries to make peace between Robert, Mary and everyone else in the world. Her heart was broken when Sybil died and she lives now for her grandchildren.
Violet is Robert’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. She has little plot impact except for some behind the scenes manipulations on behalf of her granddaughters. She exists solely so Maggie Smith can make hilariously acerbic remarks at everyone.
Isobel Crawley is Matthew’s mother/Mary’s mother-in-law. She’s the widow of a middle class doctor and lives in the nearby town. She and Violet clash about almost everything as Isobel is fairly modern with her new fangled ideas that whores are people too. The local doctor tried to propose to her at the end of the last season but she kindly shut it down before he could. Isobel likes her life just fine and has no desire to marry. Though now that her son is dead in a ditch she may change her mind.
Rose is a cousin of Mary and Edith and coming to live at Downton. Her parents are off to a post in India and she’s ready for her debut. She’s flighty, recently had an affair with a married man, and embraces the Jazz Age enthusiastically (with her vagina). She’s here to take up Sybil’s work as the youngest and most rebellious daughter.
Then there’s the Downstairs lot, the servants who do all the actual work in the house. Their storylines last season were kind of boring and less fleshed out and most of them don’t really get their own storylines.
Mr. Carson, the Butler, is the head of all the servants. Although the female staff are technically under the Housekeeper Carson is over her. He’s old-fashioned, a hard task master, and has a soft spot for Mary. He’s a likeable character despite that.
Mrs. Hughes is the housekeeper. It’s unclear if she ever actually married since female staff in positions of authority were always called Mrs. She too uns a tight ship but also thinks the staff should be given the occasional break and can usually charm Carson into being nicer to them. She’s mainly there for everyone to tell their troubles to for plot advancement purposes.
Mrs. Patmore, the cook, runs the kitchen and its staff. She quit for a while but returned. It seemed like she might get a romance at the end of last season but it turned out he just wanted her cooking, not her loving.
Thomas is currently the Under Butler, which makes him just below Mr. Carson in the rank. He should be called Mr. Lastname but I can’t remember it or be arsed to Google it right now. Thomas is not-so-secretly gay in a time and place that would jail you (or worse) for it. He started out as a footman, and then was Robert’s valet while Bates was in jail. He also went to war and injured himself to get sent home. He is basically a self-serving slimy worm that keeps downstairs from being a snooze fest. Last season he had a huge crush on one of the footman and eventually tried to kiss the man while he slept. Which is sexual assault no matter your orientation but let me point out that if he’d done that to a maid she would have been the one blamed, not him. He was eventually was fired over it. The general attitude of Carson, Robert and everyone else was, “Well, that’s gross but he can’t help who he is and we can’t risk him kissing them all.” Which felt really out of step with actual attitudes of the time. The footman who was assaulted wanted him fired but later changed his mind after Thomas saved him from a beating from local thugs. Another footman then called the police but Carson and Robert claimed none of it was true. They unfired and promoted him which rather sends mixed signals on the whole “don’t sexually assault the other staff” front.
Bates is Robert’s valet despite an injury that forces him to use a cane. Sometimes. Sometimes he can walk in circles in the prison yard without it just fine. He went to jail for murdering his ex-wife but it was a set up and he was eventually released from jail. He’s married to Anna and their story is supposed to be romantic. It’s really just very boring and that whole jail thing was pointless. He really hates Thomas, who is now technically his boss.
Anna is Mary’s Lady’s Maid. She should be called Bates but it’s too confusing. She used to be the head housemaid but was promoted when Mary got married. She is fond of Mary for reasons unknown. Then again, she thinks Bates is dreamy, so Anna’s taste is rather suspect. She sweet but epically boring. Other than Bates in jail her big storyline last season was learning a Scottish jig in secret to surprise him. I’m not evening kidding about that, secret jigging was her big plot point in last year’s Christmas special. NO ONE CARES.
O’Brien is Cora’s Lady’s Maid. She used to be BFF’s with Thomas but now hates him. She once caused Cora to miscarry by leaving a bar of soap in the floor for Cora to slip on. She’s a scheming, manipulative, hateful witch and thoroughly awesome in all ways. She spent most of last season convincing Thomas to make a pass at a footman she knew wasn’t gay just to get Thomas fired. Then she convinced that footman to forgive Thomas when she was threatened that Thomas would out the whole Bar of Soap Plot. At the end of last season she seemed to be trying to get a job as Rose’s mother’s lady’s maid so she could go to India.
Jimmy is the straight footman Thomas kissed. His only other defining characteristic is that he looks like a young Simon Baker. He’s ambitious, currently the First Footman and determined to move up.
Alfred is the second footman and O’Brien’s nephew. He wanted to be First Footman but was kind of crap at it. He really wants to be a chef but men don’t cook in the big houses. He’s the one that called the police on Thomas and takes after his aunt in his inability to forgive and forget.
Daisy started out as the scullery maid but is now the second in command of the kitchen under Mrs. Patmore. She’s a widow, having married a former footman on his deathbed after he was injured in the war because she’s too nice to deny a dying man his last wish. She’s close with his father who has offered to give her his farm if she moves there now and learns to run it. She wears a lot of lovely hand-knit hats.
And there you have it. Tonight is going to be all about the aftermath of The Great Car Crash. Everyone will be grieving Matthew’s death. Mary will be intolerable. The servants will talk about how sad it all is. I will want to punch Mary a minimum of 14 times. It’s going to be awesome!