The show returned Sunday with a two-hour premiere that picked up six months after the events of the Downton Abbey Christmas Special (spoiler alert!) that left Lady Mary a widow with a young son to raise. (For the full Downton primer, read our precap here.) Come Season 4, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is still a shadow of her former self.
Plus, it turns out that Matthew Crawley died without a will, leaving the bulk of his substantial estate to his infant son George. This kicks off a surprisingly tense battle for control of the estate that pits Lady Mary against her father, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville).
Here's what we learned from the season premiere:
Royalty Rule No. 1: Thou Shall Not Steal Another Lady's Maid Without a Really Good Reason. When we re-enter the fabled halls of Downton Abbey, the staff is in an uproar because her Ladyship's maid, Miss O'Brien, has snuck off in the middle of the night. She "quit" to escort Lady Susan, whom we met at Duneagle Castle, on a trip to India. Lady Susan was willing to incur the wrath of Lady Grantham, because O'Brien is "good at hair." See? Even the aristocracy struggles with bad hair days.
Feeling Sorry for Yourself Can Be a Day Job: Lady Mary is not doing well. She is completely grief stricken and incapable of even mothering her son, going so far as to refer to Master George as a "poor little orphan," a sentiment her lady's maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), immediately calls her on. Mary recants, noting that he's actually quite rich. Then Mary promises she's interested in her son, or will be. Soonish.
You Can't Pay the Reaper with Love: The so-called "death duties," an apparently burdensome estate tax, are stacking up against Downton. Lord Grantham wants to manage baby George’s money and take control of Matthew's half of the estate. As Lord Grantham hasn't exactly proven himself to be financially savvy, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) thinks this is a very bad idea and that Mary should take control on Matthew and her son’s behalf. Unfortunately, Mary is a bit too busy mourning in corners and eschewing colors to think about crop rotation.
How Mary Got Her Groove Back: Tom, who knows something about tragedy, thinks Mary needs a project on which to focus in order to pop out of her stupor. When Lord Grantham won't listen, Tom talks to Mary's other father figure: Carson, the household's head butler with eyebrows so expressive they can only be the hallmark of a former theater man. Carson accepts his mission, but it doesn't go very well. Mary accuses him of “overstepping the mark,” which is the aristocratic equivalent of wagging her finger in his face while yelling, "Oh no, you didn't!" Soon enough, Mary comes to her senses and realizes that Carson was right and she is wasting her life. She apologizes and has a good cry on Carson's tux.
All's Well That Ends Well: Now that Carson can cross "Save Lady Mary" off his to-do list, he can focus on saving his old Vaudeville partner, Mr. Griggs, from the workhouse. It annoys Carson that Mrs. Hughes interfered, but the scenario gives Mrs. Crawley (who took Matthew's death very hard) a much-needed project, so win-win. Carson makes up with everyone and sends Griggs off to his new life in Ireland.
Unemployment Is Up There with Death & Taxes: In addition to the impact on Lady Mary's tear ducts, Matthew's death has also put his valet, Mr. Molesley, out of a job. Carson finally gives him the old "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" speech. Molesley can't find work other than road repair, so Bates and Anna scheme with the Dowager Countess to give him some money and keep him out of debt.
Every Rose Has Its Thorn: Rose – the rascally Cousin Oliver of the Downton Abbey set – has moved into Downton and brought all her shenanigans with her. This time, she dragged poor Anna and Jimmy (Ed Speleers) to a dance at an unsuitable local watering hole and quickly incited a fist fight between two unruly suitors.
Hold out for a Hero: With O'Brien gone, Thomas is in search of a new mortal enemy. The nanny fits the bill. But Thomas does the household an accidental favor by making up a lie about the nanny and reporting her to Lady Cora. Cora starts to keep an eye on the nanny and catches her calling baby Sybil a "cross-breed" of half chauffeur, half aristocrat. Nanny West gets fired and Thomas looks like a hero.
Wham! Was Right: After leaving the dinner table in a scandalous tantrum, the Dowager Countess tells Lady Mary that she must choose either death or life. Mary stares at her and asks, "And you think I should choose life?" Yes, Choose Life!
They Always Leave a Letter: While cleaning out Matthew's office, a letter to Lady Mary is discovered. It turns out that Matthew intended to make Mary his soul heir. While Lord Grantham isn't thrilled by the discovery (he clearly wants the estate to himself), there are too many strong women glaring at him. When the Dowager Countess threatens to "call Nanny" and send him to bed without his supper, he relents. A newly invigorated Lady Mary, wearing purple not black, takes her place at the business table.
As King of the Hill Once Said, Germans Are a Very Tolerant People: Lady Edith has finally found love and the only thing in the way of her perfect happiness is the fact that Michael Gregson, her London-based beau, is already married. Luckily, he's done some research and all he has to do to earn the legal permission to divorce his wife (on the basis of her "lunacy") is move to Germany and become a citizen! Right after the end of World War I! Now there's a great plan that will definitely work.
It's Hard to Find Good Help: When Rose places an ad for a replacement for O'Brien, sneaky Edna, the maid who was fired for kissing Branson, applies for the job. Since Lady Cora has no idea why Edna was fired, she's hired on the spot. Wacky high jinks are sure to ensue as Tom, Carson and Mrs. Hughes try to make the best of a bad situation.
There's a Surprise Enemy at the Gates: Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) has a new archrival: the electric mixer. Who will prevail? We'll have to wait and see.