Downton Abbey Episode 04.01 is the premiere episode of the fourth season (fourth series in the UK) of the long-running UK-US period soap opera, Downton Abbey The episode focuses on the changes that have taken place six months after Matthew Crawley was killed in a car accident, and the advent of Lady Rose MacClare living in Downton Abbey while her parents are dealing with their issues.
This episode marks the final appearance of Sarah O'Brien (although the character is a stand in, as Siobhan Finneran, who had played her for the first three seasons, had already left the series). It also marks the debut of Jeremy Swift in the role of Septimus Spratt, the stuffy butler of the Dowager Countess; and the elevation of Lily James as Lady Rose as a regular member of the cast. She would remain with the series as a regular and guest for the final three seasons.
The episode opens where Sarah O'Brien, the lady's maid of Cora Crawley, leaves Downton under dark of night, after she was offered a job by Susan MacClare, the niece of Violet Crawley, the dowager countess of Grantham, when she and her estranged husband, Hugh "Shrimpie" Flintshire, move to Mumbai, India.
The sudden departure of O'Brien has repercussions all through the Servants Hall. Alfred Nugent is thrown by the news of his aunt's departure. Anna Smith Bates, who was now officially Lady Mary Crawley's lady's maid, would help dress her mother for the time until a replacement was named.
That morning, however, Mrs, Hughes, the head housekeeper, would serve as lady's maid for Cora. While Cora was upset about O'Brien leaving, her husband, Robert Crawley, was rather thrilled about the idea, as he had never liked O'Brien.
Susan's daughter, Rose, feels quite guilty about what happened, since she was staying with them, and her mother pulling the stunt that she did. To make up for it, she goes to the Post Office and puts an ad up for a Lady's Maid. There is one candidate for the job.
It turns out that the new hire would be Edna Braithwaite, a former Downton housemaid, who had been sacked for trying to seduce Tom Branson, at that time, the chauffeur of the family. However, Rose knew nothing of Edna or the trouble she caused.
This leads to a powwow between Mrs. Hughes, Tom and the butler, who thinks that they should just keep an eye on her. However, both Tom and Mrs. Hughes have a feeling, rightly, in fact, that she is a ticking time bomb.
Mary was still reeling from the death of Matthew, and she returned to her hard-hearted and cold ways, even being content with her son being raised only by the nanny. Matthew's mother, Isobel is also reeling from her son's tragic death, and gets a visit from Edith. She feels that since Matthew was gone, she was nothing, and Edith makes her see that she is a grandmother, and that she will make a wonderful one.
Meanwhile, Edith, who had been spending a lot of time in London, was seeing her current paramour, her publisher, Michael Gregson. She is at a party that he threw with all his literary friends. The two fall even more in love as time progresses.
However, another war was beginning to brew when Thomas Barrow, the under-butler, would end up gaining an enemy in one Nanny West, who had been recently taken on as the nanny of the children. The children, who had been born in the previous season, Sybbie Branson and George Crawley were two years old and an infant, respectively.
Thomas' war with the nanny stemmed from when he was talking and admiring Sybbie, whom he had a fondness for, as he had been friendly with her late mother, Lady Sybil Branson. Nanny West ordered him to not talk or get near the children while she was in charge. She would act the same way later on with George's grandmother, Isobel, who wanted to see him, but the nasty nanny would not allow her to do so. Thomas pointedly told the nanny that he had known the child's mother from when they worked together during the war, and that Nanny West did not.
The cruel nanny did not care, and ordered Thomas to go to the kitchen and tell the cook, Mrs. Beryl Patmore, her orders for the children's luncheon. Thomas refused to give the orders, telling her to go do it herself. Thomas had a suspicion that the nanny was not treating Sybbie well and was not feeding her properly as opposed to George, whom she clearly favored.
Tensions continue to escalate between Thomas and the nanny when he refuses to give anyone her orders. When she tells Thomas that she was higher than he was, because of her position, that proves to be the last straw. A furious Thomas plots revenge against her, but unlike his previous revenge schemes, this one was more colored for concern of the children.
Thomas goes to Cora and tells her that the nanny was neglecting the children. This concerns the Countess and Thomas tells her what he thinks she is doing, especially towards Sybbie. He tells her what he suspects, that she was neglecting and not feeding Sybbie well, her leaving the children without anyone to look after them, while she is doing other things.
Tom and Robert are working with what could happen to the estate, now that Matthew is gone. Robert seems to think that he should take over the estate himself again, leaving Mary out of it, and deserting the reforms that Matthew had planned on for the estate. He believed that with the death duties, which would be astronomical, that he and only he would know best of how to deal with the estate and the duties therein.
Tom, worried about Mary, goes to see Charles Carson, the butler, and his former superior in the servants hall, asking him to give her advice, which he thinks she needs. At first, Mary rejects the advice, telling Carson that he was overstepping his bounds and that he should be thinking about what her father wanted, and that it was astonishing that he would go behind his back.
Meanwhile, Carson gets another letter from his former cohort/adversary, Mr. Grigg, (whom was last seen in the second episode of the first season) who was in need of help. He crumples the letter, but Mrs. Hughes finds the letter and goes to the Ripon Workhouse where Grigg is sick. She convinces Isobel to help her bring the sickly former entertainer to Crawley House. At first, Carson is infuriated with Mrs. Hughes and her interfering in his private affairs, but he would eventually relent, as he seemed to do with her.
Meanwhile, Joseph Molesley, who had lost his job as valet when Matthew died, was even more despondent when Isobel told him that as it was only her anymore, she felt that she did not need a butler.
Violet plotted with Edith to help Molesley get a job with her old friend, Prudence, Lady Shackleton. However, her stuffy butler, Spratt, does everything possible to scuttle it, as he thought that Molesley was going to take his job, and didn't realize that it was for Lady Shackleton.
That night, while Cora was on the gallery, she overheard Nanny West insulting Sybbie. She is horrified at realizing that Thomas was right about the nanny's behavior. She overhears the nanny calling her granddaughter, a "wicked little cross-breed" and denigrating her because she was a mere "chauffeur's daughter".
Infuriated, Cora rings the bell and then she fires Ms. West on the spot. She tells Mrs. Hughes to make up a room for the now sacked Nanny, while she packs. She then has a maid sleep in the room with the children until a new Nanny is engaged. Presumably, before the maid comes in, Cora comforts her granddaughter as she was visibly upset that someone, charged with caring for the children, would viciously insult Sybbie.
The kitchen would get some modernity, when Lady Edith would purchase an electric mixer, which gives the kitchen maids a bit of help. While Mrs. Patmore isn't sure what to make of it, Daisy Mason, her assistant, and Ivy Stuart, the recently-hired kitchen maid, embrace the new machine. Daisy, in fact, uses it to help prepare a mousse for the family's dessert. Later on, Mrs. Patmore tries the new machine, only to smash one of the bowls. Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore clean up the mess, and talk about Nanny West being sacked.
Later on, Mary goes down to the Servants quarters and goes to apologize to Carson for her curtness earlier on. Also earlier, her grandmother, Violet Crawley, the dowager countess, comforts her as she is still mourning Matthew as intensely as she had when he died six months previously.
Carson is pleased that Mary is coming out of the veil of shadows with mourning; then Mary breaks down in tears, being able to finally mourn her husband's death. Carson, who had always been there for Mary, ever since she was a little girl, goes from his desk to comfort her.
He tells her that he has faith in her and how she will steer Downton in the right direction, knowing what she does about Matthew's plans. She is also reassured that anytime she needs some more encouragement, she will always find it with Carson and the rest of the servants.
The next day, at a Tenant Farmers luncheon, at first, it was only Robert and Tom in the dining room, but a few minutes later, Mary, finally out of mourning and ready to face the world once again, comes in. A relieved Tom offers her where he was seated. At first, she tells him that Carson would seat her, but Tom insisted she sits where he had been sitting. Carson gives Mary a knowing nod, and an encouraging look.
Robert is worried if she is able to handle it. Mary assures her father that she had been looking forward to it, and, to his amazement, he sees his eldest daughter, handle things beautifully and with professionalism. The luncheon goes on, while Robert realizes that Mary is clearly in her element.