It's a challenge being a Downton Abbey fan here in the Colonies.
We Yanks have had to wait longer for Season 4, which premieres Sunday, because PBS finds it easier to hold pledge drives in January than the fall, when the Brits had their fill. So we're left having to avoid online spoilers.
The British period drama, which began with the sinking of the Titanic and now is entering the 1920s, has become a global sensation and one of the UK's biggest TV exports. The Season 3 finale broke records for PBS, with 8.2 million viewers — quadruple PBS's typical prime-time average.
Before you sit down with your tea and biscuits Sunday night, here are five things you need to know for the coming season. Be mindful that there are spoilers ahead if you haven't seen Season 3, and some hints about what's coming in Season 4:
1. Matthew really is dead: As much as we might like to hope that some 1921 ambulance driver raced to the roadside to save the Downton heir and the love of Lady Mary's life, actor Dan Stevens walked away from the series, leaving a huge hole in the show that may be a struggle to fill this season. And remember how daughters can't inherit property? Neither do wives. That means baby George is now the Downton heir, setting up a debate over who will make decisions about the estate now that Matthew and his modernizing ways are gone.
2. Tom Branson doesn't fit in anywhere: The former chauffeur who married Lady Sybil agreed to stay on with his baby daughter after Sybil's death during childbirth. He and Matthew convinced Lord Grantham that it was time to modernize the way things are run, so Tom has been given the job of managing the land, but his working class upbringing makes him visibly uncomfortable in his starched shirts. Yet the servants aren't his equals anymore either: He averted a scandal last season when house maid Edna Braithwaite impulsively kissed him. Mrs. Hughes was ready to fire her, but Tom instead asked her to be kind, and give Edna a letter of recommendation so she could find another job elsewhere. Branson may regret this kindness.
3. Fashion tells the story, too: Emmy-winning costume designer Caroline McCall says as much about these characters with clothing as creator Julian Fellows does with a pen. This is not yet the roaring '20s, but it's coming. The hems are higher, the waists have dropped, there is more flesh and bare shoulders on display. Note that black is the color of mourning, but purple is the color of half mourning, so notice when Mary and Matthew's mother Isobele starts to wear purple, it signals they are starting to come alive again. The very short flapper dresses are still a few years away, but one dress in particular is worth looking for Sunday. The costume designers nicknamed it "Beadith" and it's a work of art in a scene where Edith arrives in a London restaurant to meet her married love interest. The men have their fashion touches too. Tom Branson may be in the big house but notice he wears a brown knickerbocker suit about town, while the aristocrats are in green tweed. The fabric is more Irish working class, a conscious decision by the costume designers.
4. Love lives remain complicated: Daisy loves Alfred. Alfred loves Ivy. Ivy loves Jimmy and Jimmy loves getting attention, so he's amused by it all. After being jilted at the altar, Lady Edith is finding freedom in London, but her married editor still has a thing for this middle sister who can't seem to find easy love. Mr. Carson's "shameful" past as a song and dance man is revisited, as well as the memory of a long-lost love. Anna and Bates are turning into a boring married couple, but we know that can't last on this soap.
5. Guest stars are fabulous: New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa appears as Australian Nellie Melba, one of the most famous opera singers of the late Victorian era, and performs during a house party thrown by the Earl of Grantham. Her performance reduced the cast to tears, producers have said. Virginia Woolf will make a brief appearance this season, and Downton gets its first black character, a jazz singer named Jack Ross played by Gary Carr. Shirley MacLaine returns as Cora's blunt American mother and Paul Giamatti shows up as her American playboy brother. Carefree cousin Rose (played by Lily James) is now a permanent Downton fixture, bringing much-needed sparkle to the dusty old place.