Downton Abbey is back! Just in time for us to scratch that January itch for fancy nobility and their long-suffering servants. In its fourth season, while it may be back to its old habits of hooking us with soapy fun, part of that fun is in screaming to the rooftops (or to the stables, we suppose) about how some of these characters are driving us up a tapestry (we'll stop with the English country manor metaphors just as soon as we run out of them). It's not as fun a viewing experience if we can't roll our eyes at Mrs. Patmore for breaking yet another dish, that sweet blinding klutz.
With that in mind, we present the first in our weekly series of the Downton Abbey Insufferability Index. Which characters were working our nerves? Which were surprisingly handling their stuff? We'll divide the week's more prominent characters into three categories: the Sufferable (think Mrs. Hughes), the Insufferable (never forget O'Brien), and the Most Insufferable (basically a plaque of Bates sitting in jail for no reason).
Edith: After three seasons of being a harbinger of sadness whenever she came on screen, Lady Edith has finally found a guy who seems to be genuinely into her and has decided not to take the requisite crap from her family. So she's wearing dresses with slits up the side and kissing Michael Gregson in public and seeming to have a grand old time. Her happiness makes her so much more pleasurable to have on screen.
Thomas: Though I suppose we should get used to calling him Mr. Barrow now, or just "Barrow." He's earned it. Thomas generally manages to skirt insufferability on this show simply by virtue of being so damned entertaining about his scheming, sneering ways. And now with O'Brien having sneaked off in the night to take employment elsewhere, Thomas takes a back seat to no Downton schemer. What's even better is that this week, his plotting managed to stumble ass-backwards into virtue, as his stories to Lady Grantham about how the new nanny was mistreating baby Sybbie turned out to be shockingly true. Nice call there, Barrow.
The Dowager Countess: It may sound like sacrilege, but ol' Granny was feeling quite repetitive by the end of last season. That's why it was so refreshing to see her doing much more than quipping haughtily. No, Violet was taking care of business all over Downton, from trying to fix Mosely up with a job to taking on the burden of bringing both Mary and Isobel back from the precipice of their grief to needling her son on a near-constant basis as Lord Grantham was acting like a monstrous blowhard when it came to Mary making decisions about Downton. We like Idle Rich Violet, too. But it's nice to remember she has real value.
Lady Mary: In a way, we feel horribly guilty in labeling Lady Mary as insufferable. She lost her husband; she's got a right to be a little ornery. But until the second half of last night's episode—when she decides to stop moping and move on with her life—Lady Mary is terrible. She's nasty to her small child—"poor orphan," she says—and to Mr. Carson, one of the few people who actually likes her and who was just trying to help. On the subject of Edith's new man friend: "Well, he's not bad looking and he's still alive, which puts him two points ahead of most men of our generation." Womp womp, Mary. Womp womp.
Edna Braithwaite: This woman! Braithwaite, who if you remember was ordered to leave Downton last season after coming on to Tom Branson too strongly, is back with her insufferable flags flying. She clearly is scheming the moment she sees that Downton needs a new ladies maid, and for some reason, Rose and Cora don't even question her previous employment at the house. She gets the job, much to the dismay of Mrs. Hughes, and promptly sets about allying herself with Thomas (not that bad in this episode!) and blaming Anna for ruining Cora's clothes. Just insufferable.
Anna and Bates: Okay, so we're on Anna's side against Braithwaite, obviously, but for the rest of this episode, these two were the worst kind of nauseatingly happy couple. "I love you, dearums!" one would call to the other. "I'll be making the Lady's bed and missing you terribly, darling husband!" the other would reply. "Shining Lord Grantham's shoes made me think of your gleaming beauty, my love!" over the servants' table at breakfast. Good lord, to imagine living with these people. Even the act of slipping Molesley a little cash so he wouldn't have to move to London and become Oliver Twist was little more than an excuse for Anna and Bates to bat their eyes lovingly at each other about how wonderful they were being to such a wretch. Who knew when we were begging Bates to quit being such a sad-sack already that this is what we'd end up with?
Lord Grantham: Last week, Amanda Dobbins wrote a highly accurate piece for Vulture explaining why everything on Downton Abbey is Lord Grantham's fault. Clearly, nothing has changed. For some reason—sexism, sexism is the reason—Lord Grantham is insistent on the fact that Mary not be involved in the running of the estate. When Mary announces that she has "ideas" about running Downton, he cuts her off: "My dear, I know I'm right in this." Seriously? No, you shut up. You have consistently proved inept at running Downton. Even when Matthew's letter arrives, eventually making Mary his sole heiress, he's similarly pigheaded. At least he elicited an inspired jab from the Dowager Countess: "When you talk like that, I'm tempted to ring for nanny and have you put to bed with no supper." Serving as the excuse for a line like that is the only thing you did right all week, Lord Grantham.