Finally, “Downton” is back. Time to put the kettle on, open a huge tin of Quality Street chocolates and start looking up words in a handy English-to-American dictionary. Firstly, why must they pronounce ‘schedule’ that way?
The premiere of Season 5 that aired on PBS stations Sunday night did most of its work catching up viewers on where all of our favorite characters left off last season and introducing a few new tantalizing plots.
It’s often hard to tell if “Downton Abbey” is a serious drama set in England’s grand homes or if it is just a comedy of manors, but either way — or both ways — the show’s one constant is that change is always upon us and always has been. Technology creeps, mores waver, sex beckons and calls with increasing fervor. The reminders are everywhere that the battle between those who want everything to stay the same and those who embrace change is eternal.
“I feel a shaking of the very ground I stand on,” says Mr. Carson and he is speaking for every generation that quavers at tremors small and seismic alike.
Downton, again, is in the midst of such change.
It’s 1924 and Lord Grantham is a bit adrift. His grandchildren call him ‘Donk,’ a Labour leader is prime minister, Socialism and Communism are taking root in Europe and the townspeople want Carson, not Grantham, to head their committee to plan a statue to the war dead. I mean Carson is a fine fellow, but he’s hardly a lord.
“Why not you?” the Dowager Countess asks her son.
“The villagers wanted Carson,” Grantham replies.
“Your father always told the village what they wanted,” she rejoins. Ouch. Mothers can cut to the quick.
The Dowager Countess’s bon mots are already in fine mid-season form.
“There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like,” she tells Mrs. Crawley. “Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.” Truer words.
Speaking of Mrs. Crawley, poor Isobel finds herself the subject of the Dowager Countess’s scheme to marry her to Lord Merton. Well, that’s the plan until she realizes such a union would place Mrs. Crawley on the same social plane as the Dowager Countess and that just won’t do. After all, a sense of superiority is only useful if you have someone over whom to lord it. She quickly recalibrates and pushes Isobel toward Dr. Clarkson instead. Matchmaking is not the Dowager Countess’s sweet spot.
(Random Aside No. 1: The Dowager Countess’s butler, Spratt, is one silly walk away from turning the entire show into a Monty Python-esque farce. As such, he’s quickly becoming my favorite character.)
Last season, Lady Edith, she of the perpetually sour disposition, had a baby that she kept secret from everyone but her aunt. Now she has arranged for her infant daughter to live with a tenant’s family on the Grantham estate. No one is supposed to know that Edith is the mother but the tenant — handsome farmer and firefighter Tim — quickly puts two and two together. Edith is a frequent visitor to the family’s small house and her keen interest in little Marigold is one only a mother could have. By episode’s end, Tim and Edith are conspiring to come up with a way for Edith to see Marigold much more often. Could this all lead to Edith adopting her own daughter? I’d watch that show.
Oh, did I mention that Edith also carelessly started a fire that could have burned Downton to the ground? Seemed a weird subplot but it did let us see Lord Grantham laboring to put out the flames, which is undoubtedly a metaphor for something. It also led to the ouster of Jimmy from the show as Grantham caught the randy footservant in bed with the naughty visitor Lady Anstruther, definitely an upstairs/downstairs no-no.
Stone Cold Mary is a little warmer this season, a few steps removed from mourning her husband’s death and ready to contemplate marriage again. But this time she seems to have her mind set on pre-nuptial nookie before settling on a suitor. Lord Gillingham visits to propose a getaway to do just that and Mary agrees, though she insists that no one must find out. Fair enough.
(Random Aside No. 2 — Mary gets extra points this week for uttering the single best line in the history of “Downton Abbey”: “I’m going upstairs to take off my hat.” Has anyone ever said anything more Downtony?)
Tom Branson, the former Irish firebrand, is once again equivocating. He’s been bought out by his buy-in to the Grantham gang but still harbors socialist ideals. Of course there’s nothing worse than a trust-fund revolutionary, so it’s time for him to either be the Man or fight the Man. You get the sense that he’ll never quite make up his mind. The re-appearance of Ms. Bunting — rebel teacher and potential love interest — may force his hand.
Downstairs at Downton, there are more shenanigans. Mr. Barrow is blackmailing Miss Baxter to get information about Mr. Bates. Blimey. Baxter is tired of being threatened and, urged on by blue-haired Molesley, decides to unburden herself to Lady Grantham and tell her that she’s an ex-con who did time in the pokey for stealing her former boss’s jewels. Lady G, who seems as stoned this season as she did last, decides to keep Baxter on and upbraids Barrow for his bad behavior. Sorry, I can’t stop with the Bs. Barrow only escapes further punishment by being the one to notice the fire caused by Edith and rescuing her from her room.
Mr. Bates and Anna are still central characters but they didn’t get much screen time this week. Although Bates did manage to manufacture the look of a vengeful killer during his brief conversation with Lord Gillingham. Did he kill his valet? I hope we don’t have to wait all season to find out.
In the kitchen Daisy and Ms. Patmore work and wonder and worry about their future if Downton were to go south. Lord knows, you can’t rely on the beneficence of billionaires forever and a Plan B is always a good idea. Daisy decides to take a math course and then confides to Ms. Patmore that she was always rubbish at math. “All the best people are rubbish at numbers in school,” says Ms. Patmore. Reassuringly, my wife confirms to me that this is true.
Why does Mr. Bates no longer have a limp?
I forgot the dog’s name is Isis. Can’t believe they didn’t change that or leave it out altogether.
Have I missed anything? Botched someone’s title? Left out any key plot points? Feel free to add and/or speculate in the comments below. Oh, and please no spoilers. Yes, we all know the show has already aired in the U.K.