Nick Briggs/PBS
Jeff Jensen
January 22, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

The fourth season of Downton Abbey begins in 1922 with one of its mainstays sneaking out of the stately English manor in the dead of night for an exciting new life abroad, leaving everyone both upstairs and downstairs atwitter and feeling shocked, jilted, and more than a little bit inconvenienced. Obviously, Downton‘s lordly showrunner Julian Fellowes didn’t have to scour his library of Encyclopedia Brittanicas to find inspiration for this particular storyline: He’s clearly drawing from and playing to the abrupt exit of actor Dan Stevens, whose request to leave the series resulted in the death of his fan-fave Matthew Crawley in the show’s not-so-very-merry 2012 Christmas special. But this is no mere passive-aggressive potshot or in-joke: The jarring departure of [REDACTED] sets the tone for a premiere that takes seriously the business of individual and collective grief, getting the season off to a focused, emotionally moving start.

The narrative center of Downton‘s typically sprawling and busy two-hour premiere is, of course, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), whose despair over Matthew’s mechanized offing has made her withdrawn and waify. She can barely muster the energy to mother her infant son George (”Poor little orphan,” she calls him) and wanders the hallways like a sad ghost. The fact that the story is set on and around Valentine’s Day ? with everyone getting cards from their respective sweeties (or mystery admirers) and love blooming between Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her still-married editor/beau Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) ? isn’t exactly helpful for her process. Dockery is a fine enough actress, but she doesn’t do Mourning Widow well: Her personality-flattened, dark shadows Mary strikes me as what might happen if Greta Garbo joined the Addams Family. I want to be alone! In a vintage black shawl! More powerful portrayals of grief come from Matthew’s mother (Penelope Wilton), who gets a heartbreaker of a line: ”When your only child dies, you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really”; and Matthew’s former footman, Mr. Molesley (an excellent Kevin Doyle), who struggles to find new employment and a new identity apart from his former master.

The many, many stories not only deal with how we suffer through loss but how we help others assuage the pain or fill the void. How much time and space do we give someone to sit in the ashes? When do we give someone a kick in the rear and say: Live again, dammit! Fellowes turns these tricky questions into twisty, complex drama that explores what happens, for better and worse, when well-meaning people decide to mind other people’s business. Example: After Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) receives a letter from someone from his past he’d rather forget and throws it away, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), both concerned and curious, plucks it from the trash and sets in motion a chain of events in which suffering souls find healing by investing in the lives of others. By contrast: Lady Rose (Lily James) ? feeling responsible for [REDACTED] ? goes rogue to fill the void of his/her absence, which ultimately leads maid Edna (MyAnna Buring) to return to Downton, and with her, new problems for Tom Branson (Allen Leech).

As usual, Fellowes uses his characters to explore the culture of the time. On the docket for season 4: Divorce, race, dance crazes, flapper fashions, and the impact of technological innovation. An electric mixer brings both comedy and poignancy to Mrs. Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) kitchen. Mary becomes more interesting ? returns more to life ? as she takes on the responsibility of co-owning and running the troubled Downton estate (the death taxes sacking the family are killer) with her father Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Tom, one of several storylines that engage feminist concerns. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess ? as full of wit and wisdom as ever ? helps the cause of progress when she verbally chastises her son for his seemingly retrograde stance on Mary coming into power with this zinger: ”When you talk like that, I’m tempted to ring for nanny and have you put to bed with no supper!”

Many of the season’s major storylines kick in with the second episode, when a house party brings an allegedly better class of people — and their servants — to Downton. Mary is wooed by dashing, good-hearted Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen); a subplot involving an Australian opera singer (Kiri Te Tanawa) reminds us that artists weren’t as highly regarded as their art circa 1922; and Gregson tries to make a good impression on Robert by bailing him out of debt to a card shark. Will Gregson really decamp to Germany to get his divorce? Will Edith really go with him? I’m imagining an ”escape from increasingly scary Germany” story in Downton‘s future and liking it.

It’s all fun and parlor games until The Thing That Happens To Anna (Joanna Froggatt), a cheap, unsettling shocker that imperils her domestic bliss with Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle). Her initial response makes so much sense, to the characters and for the times, but it produces familiar and increasingly tedious dynamics in the Anna-Bates relationship that drag into subsequent episodes.

Unfortunately, the cracks in the foundation are beginning to show as the series seems to be running out of original, compelling conflicts for its existing characters, especially the women. Much like the manor itself, Downton Abbey is still a classy place to visit, but its glory days are a thing of the past. B

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