A facepalm was a completely justified reaction to season three's surprising, but ultimately lazy cliffhanger ending. The death of poor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who met his demise in an old-timey automobile accident, felt unnecessary. It wasn't that I felt like Matthew should have stuck around being a father to his newborn son, putting up with Mary's (Michelle Dockery) general stiffness until old age finally set in; it was that the cliffhanger seemed to be grasping, trying to hook viewers in a show that has survived this long without using natural cliffhanging conventions. It felt thrown together. Sloppily pasted onto the end of the season. A seemingly last gasp from a show that's more popular than ever. It was an odd choice.
So, how does season four deal with the departure of Matthew? A couple people, chiefly Mary and Matthew's mother (Penelope Wilton), are unable to shake the depression, but for the most part it seems that the inhabitants of Downton have moved on rather well. Which, if you've followed 'Downton Abbey' this long, you'll know that the writing breezes through conflicts faster than you can keep track of them. So many times introducing characters or situations that seem large, only to dispatch them as soon as the next episode airs. It's only been six months since Matthew's death, but since the people of Downton so easily move from one dramatic plot twist to the next, most of the household appears surprised that Mary has yet to move on.
Season four is much of the same. By now you either love the way 'Downton' is constructed, or you don't. You understand its conventions, its faults, and the things it does well. You forgive its shortcomings because it's so easy to overlook them with dozens of stories happening at once. There are stories which are completely uninteresting to me, however, the show moves so quickly from one character to the next that it's easy to forget about the duller developments.
There is one huge development that gobbles up much of season four's drama. To divulge it would be too much of a spoiler. 'Downton' is a strange case, seeing as the Blu-ray of the entire season gets released before the whole season has actually aired on American television. So, I won’t spoil that which hasn't already aired.
This season settles down into a watchable groove. There's a real, noticeable formula present now, which is fine if you already enjoy the show. Every character is dealing with their personal demons this time around. We watch as the servants bicker, backbite, and belittle. While the upstairs residents do much of the same thing. Only they're a little coyer about it. Their biting remarks come from a more refined arena. So many secrets though. So many shadowy whispers and "This stays between just us," declarations. Yet somehow those secrets are always uncovered. Usually because the show needs something (anything) to happen to keep some sort of lifeblood driving the plots forward.
The main arc, besides the tumultuous travails of Anna (Joanne Froggatt) which won't be spoiled here, is that Downton – along with all large estates in England – are on the verge of collapse. The War brought a new world, one where the class systems are beginning to blend. Aristocracies no longer have the power they once wielded. The world is changing and the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is having a difficult time staying ahead of the curve. He reluctantly enlists the help of Mary, while Thomas (Rob James-Collier) provides much needed service after Matthew's early departure. Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) continue on as the show's punching bags. It's almost too difficult to watch after a while. Watching these two characters try to simply live is as frustratingly heartbreaking as it is witnessing Charlie Brown try to kick that football, knowing full well he's going to land flat on his back. And so it goes for Edith and Molesley, a spectacular string of life-altering pratfalls that defy description and make one wonder if the writers have a morbid, comedic hatred for them.
There's a bunch of new faces that appear every now and then. Mary is courted by the handsomest men in England, but she can't help but wallow in the "what could have been." Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is still a scheming, conniving jackass, but pay him no mind because no one else does. Then there are around a dozen or so storylines that come and go like a English summer rain shower. They're so fleeting, and such non-issues that it's hard not to describe them as filler.
Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, continues scene thievery, as she simply owns every damn moment she's in. There's a part where the Dowager Countess is sick, and still she's able to act circles around everyone else. Smith's masterclass of smartass acting is one of the pleasures of 'Downton Abbey' and makes wading through the other fluff totally worth it.
Last season 'Downton' appeared to falter. Its ending felt tacked on and didn't fit into the context the show had created for itself. It was too abrupt and screamed audience retention desperation. Yet, season four seems to clear that hurdle and settle back into a nice easy-going groove. It's sappy and soapy that's a given. Though, if you've made it this far the sappier, the soapier, the better, right?
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Downton Abbey: Season 4,' brought to us by PBS (and viewers like you), comes to Blu-ray in a 3-disc set. Each disc is 50GB. They come in a standard keepcase, with each disc having their own hub. The case indicates that this is a Region A release.
For whatever reason the 'Downton' Blu-ray seasons have been a mixed bag in the video department, with the visuals tending to be more good than bad. There's always something to highlight in the "could've been better" sector though. This time around there's a lot of good, but also some lowlights that keep the presentation from reaching the higher echelons of the TV-on-Blu-ray elite.
The pros are many. There is a wide amount of spectacular detail presented here. Absolutely exceptional detail in the mid- and long-range shots. The wide shots of the English countryside and the exterior of the Abbey are pretty breathtaking really. There's just so much to take in visually in those scenes and the 1080p presentation presents it in all its glory. Close-ups, as long as the area is well-lit, are just as sumptuous. Fabric, textures, and facial features are all very clear. In short, most of the presentation here is great, bordering on amazing.
Yet, there are a few hangups that keep it out of demo-quality conversation. Chief among those concerns are how prevalent crushing is throughout the proceedings. Darker areas gobble up details, clothes, texture, anything really. If a character is wearing dark clothing in a darker scene, just forget about it. There are also some noticeable areas where banding is easily scene in darker spots on screen and during transitions.
Like I said though, there's a lot to love here. Ultimately the good far outweighs the bad, but when it's bad it's far too obvious for its own good.
I don't know what to say, because the audio on 'Downton' has usually been pretty good in HD. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix leaves a lot to be desired though. I don't mind the non-surround sound-ness of it all, I'm used to that. But this mix is far too one-sided. Too many distractions for me to give it a good grade.
The distractions I'm talking about are ambient sounds that glaringly take over the soundfield and distract from the dialogue and score. Shuffling fabric, clanging silver wearing, tinkling jewelry all sounds as if it's been amplified as much as possible. Since the show is all about getting dressed for dinner the sounds of coats and dresses coming on and off is almost unbearable. Really! It's like the volume on the secondary noise has been turned up as much as possible.
Dialogue is clear on its own, but the excessively loud ambient sound only serves to undermine it at every turn. I can't understand how anyone could listen to this release and not end up getting annoyed at how unbalanced this mix is.
There's a coziness that watching 'Downton Abbey' provides. It's easy to curl up and binge-watch it without thinking twice. At this point I'm simply riding along with the characters. Emotionally I don't feel the impact of some of the weightier issues like my wife does. Make no mistake though, 'Downton Abbey' is a soap opera. A high-budget, slickly produced soap opera, but a soap opera nonetheless. If you can get around that aspect, you'll enjoy it. Season four is a lot of the same. 'Downton' follows the ebbs and flows of the changing world after the war. Will Downton survive under the guidance of Lady Mary, or will the world's changing winds blow it down like so many other large English estates? That's a question I'm willing to explore in future seasons of the show. Even though it isn't my favorite show, and I'm willing to acknowledge many of its dramatic drawbacks, I still consider myself along for the ride, however long that ride may be.
The video looks good, and is comparable to past seasons, if not a little better. The audio here is a real unbalanced mess though. The more I think about it the more it gives me the chills. Seeing that we're this deep into the show's run this is definitely a release for fans