The oldest of sayings is that you can’t avoid death and taxes. Both of those dominate the opening episodes of the new fourth season of “Downton Abbey.”
Six months after the death of the heir, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), in a car accident, the future of the great house, land and family are still in turmoil. In particular, the death taxes may mean hard decisions over land use and ownership.
But change is in the air both above stairs and below. In the first minutes of the first episode, a main character leaves, and what happens will usher in events that will affect the entire household.
The new season is set in the1920s, when many of society’s conventions of the past were being broken, especially for women.
Matthew’s widow, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), is still frozen in the depression brought on by the awful moment when she heard of her loss. Her outlook is summed up when she calls her son an “orphan.”
Finally, her practical grandmother Violet, the dowager countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), tells her, “You must choose either death … or life.” Mary wonders why. Mary’s sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) has become a writer, independent of her family and attracting the attention of her married editor.
The youthful feeling of rebellion is summed up in Downton’s visitor, Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), who loves to dance to the new music, but sometimes in inappropriate company for her social standing.
The men are locked in the battle over the future of the estate. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Irish chauffeur who married Mary’s late sister Sybil, had worked with Matthew to improve the holdings. Now Branson, lacking support, is at odds with the lord of the manor — Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville).
The servants downstairs deal not only with the death above, but the exit of a major character. Branson’s daughter, Sybil, and Matthew’s son, George, now have a new nanny who runs afoul of the staff.
One of the great pleasures of watching “Downton Abbey” is the rich settings and period dress. The fashions of the period on display are split between the richly opulent period dress and the new age of the flapper.
The show is filmed in London as well as at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England.
Looming over all is the great estate’s future, endangered by Matthew’s demise and taxes. (Spoiler: The show has been renewed for a fifth season.)