Downton Abbey Watch: Death and Taxes

The British hit returns to U.S. screens, picking up in 1922

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Nick Briggs / PBS

Welcome back to the past and to the fourth season of Downton Abbey, which has finally made its way across the pond and onto U.S. televisions for a two-hour season premiere.

Spoilers below, obviously.

When we left off last February, life at Downton had been seriously shaken. What was once the show’s central question had been answered in the form of a male heir to Matthew and Lady Mary, the young master George (who predated the royal baby by months, FYI) — and then, while still in the ecstasy of new fatherhood, Matthew was tragically killed by a car crash and a behind-the-scenes dispute.

(CATCH UP MORE: TIME’s recaps of Downton Abbey‘s Third Season)

This season begins six months after Matthew’s death, on Valentine’s Day in 1922, with Mary still in full mourning dress and full mourning mood, barely able to summon the energy to embrace her own son. The loss of the intermediate Crawley heir, between Lord Grantham and baby George, is a reminder about what this show has been about all along. For all its retro fashion and flirting and soap-opera twists, it is, improbably, a popular TV show about inheritance law. It seems that, even in fiction, snowy Christmas-time marriage proposals may come and go but yadda yadda death and taxes.

Back in the first season, you may recall, there was a lot of talk about the entail, the piece of code that said that Downton Abbey and the title of the Earl of Grantham must pass to a male heir. That was why it mattered when poor cousin Patrick, the heir and Mary’s fiancé, died on the Titanic, and why everyone was so invested in Mary and Matthew falling in love. George means the question of the title’s inheritance is solved, but it doesn’t answer the money question — particularly because Matthew failed to leave a will, and Matthew had invested in a half-stake in the estate in order to keep Downton afloat. Because the baby now owns that half, with Mary getting merely a widow’s third, it’s an opportunity for Lord Grantham to assert his control once again and go back on the modernization plans Matthew and his brother-in-law Tom Branson (who’s still the estate manager) had cooked up. He also wants to sell some land to pay off Matthew’s estate tax in a lump sum, though Tom seems to disagree. Tom thinks that Mary should assert herself, as George’s guardian, but her father wants to shield her from business matters — and protect his own power.

As is usually the case, Lord Grantham is pretty much alone in his old-fashioned insistence that he knows best. He fails to recruit Lady Grantham to get Mary to let him control the whole estate, but Branson succeeds at getting Carson and the Dowager Countess to come out on Mary’s behalf (even though Mary initially rebukes Carson for speaking out of turn). In Downton‘s world, you either have to be a servant or elderly to understand the way emotions work; those caught up in ceremony and the old ways are bound to be unhappy. In the end, Robert’s forcefulness backfires. Repeatedly telling his grown daughter to go to bed rather than worry her pretty little head about finances doesn’t sit right with said grown daughter.

Just as she decides to take an interest in the estate — a decision that, as predicted by everyone except her father, makes her more lively and a more attentive mother — a mysterious box of Matthew’s possessions arrives from his office. It contains the good-luck charm Mary gave him during the war, and a very sweet letter that, drumroll please, says he intended to name Mary as his sole heiress, and also he loves her and sigh he’s dead. Though Murray the walrus-looking lawyer doesn’t show up in person, he certifies that it will hold up as a legal document, meaning that Mary and her father are now each in charge of half of the estate, as the old guard’s loss of power continues.

The legal-snafu-meets-changing-world theme applies to Edith as well. Michael Gregson has learned that under German law insanity is grounds for divorce, which means that if he becomes a German citizen and he and Edith move there, they could get married. He throws her a party with his smart literary set, she wears a dashing headscarf and uses the phrase “living in sin,” and they have dinner at a fancy restaurant — even though her mother brought her up never to eat in public, much less unchaperoned with a man — and they totally smooch in front of everyone there. It looks like she’s going to go for the Germany plan (probably a bad idea in the long run, especially if this show’s timeline continues for another decade), but she wants him to come to a house party at Downton and spend more time with her family.

All the legal stuff isn’t exactly the most gripping plot in the world, at least so far this season; anyone who has decided whether to pay quarterly estimated taxes or wait till April has probably gotten enough of that in real life. But Downton Abbey has often excelled at using those dry and lifeless problems to generate excitement (the entail!), so that may be where we’re headed. The combo of Matthew’s will and Gregson’s divorce could set up Mary and Edith for a season of important decisions to make, about matters far more entertaining than death duties.

(MORE: How Americans Almost Missed Out on Downton Abbey)

Meanwhile, in the land where people don’t talk about taxes all the time, life goes on…

As could have been predicted by pretty much anyone, Miss O’Brien decides to ditch the Crawleys to go be a lady’s maid for Lady Flintshire in India. She does so in the dark of night, without telling anyone, so Lady F’s daughter, cousin Rose, feels guilty and places an ad to find a replacement lady’s maid for her aunt Cora. The woman who answers it is kind of sneaky, but it turns out she worked at Downton before as a housemaid and has a good reference from Mrs. Hughes, so Cora hires her. But aaccccckkkkk it’s Evil Edna, the housemaid who seduced Branson last year! Carson, Mrs. Hughes and Branson decide that they must keep an eye on her and never let the family know that their dead daughter’s husband strayed. But with O’Brien gone that’ll be more difficult, because now Thomas has nobody else to be sneaky with. Almost as soon as she arrives, he’s got her whispering in corners and blaming Anna for damaging one of her ladyship’s garments. Also Edna laughs evilly to herself while sitting by the fire. Not a good sign.

Speaking of evil, Thomas has it out for Nanny West. At first it seems Thomas is just being vindictive, telling Lady Grantham that the nanny leaves Sybie and George alone sometimes, but it turns out she’s the evil one. When Lady G overhears her calling Sybie a “wicked little crossbreed” for being a chauffeur’s daughter, she’s fired her on the spot.

Mr. Molesley is out of a job, since his valet-ee died, so the Dowager Countess sets up a scheme to get him a new butler gig, but it backfires. This is partially because the old ways are changing and people don’t need so many butlers and partially because Isobel’s butler sabotages it and partially because Molesley maybe not cut out for butler-dom. Molesley is in debt, so Anna and Bates set up a scheme to get him some money. They get cash from the Dowager and use the pretense of a card congratulating former maid Gwen on her wedding to get Molesley’s signature — though, let’s be honest, Gwen also needed to be mentioned so viewers could keep her and Edna straight. Bates forges a loan agreement saying that Molesley gave him £30, and then “pays it back” with the money from the Dowager Countess. Also, Molesley stares sadly at the moon.

Mrs. Hughes snoops in Carson’s waste basket and finds a letter from Charles Grigg, Carson’s ex-friend from his theater days. Grigg has fallen on hard times and is in a workhouse but Carson wants nothing to do with him, so Mrs. Hughes convinces Isobel Crawley to take him in and fix him up. Just as getting involved with the estate helped Mary’s mood, doing good helps Isobel’s. Isobel eventually gets Grigg a job in Belfast, and Carson finally decides to come say hi/bye at the train station. The reason they fought was a girl, who ended up telling Grigg before she died that she should have chosen Carson all along — which, for real, is not a very nice thing to do to either guy.

The other characters downstairs don’t have all that much to do, mostly wondering who sent their Valentine’s Day cards. Daisy thinks that Jimmy sent one to Ivy, which must mean that Alfred sent one to her — but it turns out Alfred sent Ivy’s and Mrs. Patmore, very sweetly, sent Daisy’s so that Daisy wouldn’t feel left out. Alfred is upset that Jimmy is leading Ivy on, but it’s starting to seem like Jimmy’s feelings aren’t just a joke anymore, since he takes her to a pub (she gets drunk and barfs) and then buys them theater tickets. Cousin Rose also dresses up like a maid after she makes Anna take her to a thé dansant to dance to ragtime with commoners, and one of those lads comes looking for her; Jimmy sees her kiss him and she says she’ll be his friend forever if he keeps the secret, which may be worth remembering later.

And, clearly the most important thing of all: the kitchen gets its first electric mixer.

Dowager zinger of the week: “Just because you’re an old widow, I see no need to eat off a tray.” (To Isobel Crawley, who definitely will continue to eat off a tray.)

History lesson of the week: Dance the one step, just like Rose!