Downton Abbey: Season 4 (Original U.K. Edition) (Blu-ray)

After the shocking events of the third season finale—in which heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was killed off in a bloody car accident—one wouldn’t blame viewers for hoping for a sunnier fourth season. However, in the wake of major changes both upstairs and downstairs, and a time when large estates like Downton were struggling to stay afloat as the 1920’s roar on, sunnier times were perhaps too much to expect.

WARNING! POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!

The season begins six months after Matthew’s death. Mary (Michelle Dockery), seems barely able to cope, a widow clad in black, staring off into space and unable to do much of anything. The rest of the Crawley’s are concerned; unsure whether to shield her from the realities of the world, or attempt to bring her back in, as a full, functioning member of the household. Mary and her widowed brother-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) initially find common ground in their grief, but that storyline seems to fizzle after a couple of episodes. Though I will say I’m glad the two weren’t thrown together in some sort of romantic entanglement. That would have been too much.

Matthew’s death, and the sudden departure of O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran)—she decided to serve Lady Flintshire, on her way to India—meant the loss of two significant cast members. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but feel that the producers weren’t sure how to replace them. As a result, several plots are either resolved very quickly, or not at all. Other plot points are left dangling as potential storylines for season five.

It has been nice to see Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) come into her own. In previous seasons she was always the sister left in Mary’s wake, or crying because something didn’t go her way. Here, Edith finally blossoms, becoming a modern woman with her own set of ideas and desires. When Edith enters a gorgeous London restaurant to meet married editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), it quickly becomes clear that she’s one of the few in the Crawley clan eager to embrace the future and its changes. Carmichael clearly enjoys leaving Edith the victim behind, instead making her character the heroine of her own story. This season finds Edith going through some intense personal issues, and handling them in a surprisingly mature manner. Her storyline is probably the most interesting this year, but season four leaves us hanging in numerous way (I’m being intentionally vague for those who haven’t seen the entire season yet.)

Meanwhile, after a couple of episode Mary sheds the outfit of a widow in mourning, and becomes a single woman with various suitors:  Lord Gillingham (Anthony Foyle), Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden); and Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks), who has his heart broken many times by Mary. While Mary avoids commitment because her heart still belongs to Matthew, she also realizes that that she will fall in love again when she is ready. As bright as Mary’s future looks, Lady Mary’s lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) must deal with the ultimate betrayal when she is raped at Downton during a concert. Naturally, this sends Anna and others into a bit of a spiral.

Needless to say, Downton Abbey still has the ability to deliver plenty of drama. However, this season definitely has some strange twists involving forgery, theft, and blackmail, an appearance by the Prince of Wales Oliver Dimsdale) and his mistress, Freda Dudley Ward (Janet Montgomery), as well as Paul Giamatti as Harold Levinson, Cora’s playboy brother (I’m being intentionally vague again).

Downton Abbey is at its best when it tries new things with established characters and plots. While there is still a lot to like about the going on at Downton this year, there are just too many characters coming and going. This year was clearly one of rebuilding, so hopefully next season finds producers putting the focus on the core characters that made the show what it is.

Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Downton Abbey: Season 4 is similar to previous releases; in that it’s wonderful in places, and problematic in others. Black crush is an issue throughout, leaving very little texture to be seen. Some mild motion blur is detected as well. Daylight sequences look spectacular, sporting crisp colors that bring everything to life. Skin tones look natural throughout, while fine detail and depth are appropriate.

The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix is fine for the program. While not particularly expansive, Downton is all about the dialogue, and that is handled well enough. Accents are easy to understand, without distortion. Scoring cues are boosted when dramatic moments in the series call for it. While the track is nothing special, it does the job.

English subtitles are available.

The following extras are included:

  • Downton Diaries (HD, 13:27) Follow Laura Carmichael (Edith) and Sophie McShera (Daisy) as they prepare for filming. It’s neat to see the actors as themselves rather than their characters.
  • Making Of (HD, 12:22) A look at costuming with Caroline McCall, who shares her ideas on conveying mood through fashion, and more.
  • Meet the New Cast (HD, 9:22) A brief look the new cast members for Season 4, with cast and crew interviews.
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