Downton Abbey: Returning to Form

[Ed. Please welcome the first of what will hopefully be many contributions from Robin Write (@WriteoutofLA). Robin will be covering television happenings from across the pond.]

Like a lot of these grand shows we watch, viewers have to wait and wait for the new season to finally begin. Personally, my enthusiasm for Downton Abbey had waned slightly in this time. That is not particularly reflective of how much exactly I like the show, more a parallel of how I feel about this genre of TV (or movie) and my indifferent excitement when the wife and I first started watching it. Being British myself, I should of course be salivating at the mouth at the anticipation of season five and then dabbing it away with a folded handkerchief.

Whether or not class period drama is your thing, Downton Abbey rarely fails to have something for everyone. Or nearly everyone. We can’t live on a diet of car crashes and alien invasions. The opener for season five of the Julian Fellowes creation then brought back to me, in its hour-plus running time, exactly what I and many others found captivating about this show (minor spoilers ahead).

This first episode certainly quenched my initial longing for a “last time on Downton Abbey” recap as scene-by-scene we are reacquainted with the vast array of characters and the plights or engagements or what-have-yous they left for us to ponder at the close of season four. And in doing so this allows us to comfortably get into the swing of things without it feeling like a checklist.

We open with Edith on a bicycle and we realize she is visiting the tenants to whom she gave away her baby, and she is struggling to contain her maternal torment. Edith has also seemingly not heard from Gregson, though the discovery back at the Abbey of a German book that he has inscribed his name into offers perhaps a clue of his situation. He has not been forgotten.

Robert, the Earl of Grantham, and Mr. Carson are their usual uptight selves, though his Lordship does appear to be putting a sense of humor of sorts into practice with the odd retort here and there. He soon returns to his old disapproving self though, firstly when the villagers ask Carson rather than him to head the committee of a proposed war memorial, and then at his and Cora’s 34th wedding anniversary when the local teacher, Miss Bunting, clashes with him on their views of the war. The whiff of romance between Miss Bunting and Tom is brought to the air by her invitation to this dinner. Tom, nor Robert, knew of this as it was Rose (match-maker or pot-stirrer?) who asked Cora’s permission for Miss Bunting to attend.

Meanwhile kitchen maid Daisy has purchased books on arithmetic to improve her prospects, but only feels more stupid when she discloses this to others. While Mrs Patmore and Carson appear unsupportive, it is Mrs Hughes who offers some encouragement. Molesley also dyes his hair to hopefully appear more appealing to Miss Baxter – but again he becomes a bit of a mockery. Thomas is also shadowing Miss Baxter, harassing her to confess her secret, believing it in relation to the valet’s death and Mr Bates’ potential involvement. Miss Baxter eventually confesses her secret to Cora, and the Countess later questions Thomas’ intentions, calling his future at Downton into question.

James and Thomas’ friendship seems to be thriving in the midst of James’ pursuit by his former employer Lady Anstruther who has a soft spot for him. Speaking of hot-blooded chases, Lord Gillingham is still open about his longing for Mary, and subsequently asks her if they can be lovers. She soon agrees but insists on keeping it a secret. Obviously.


It seems to be these secrets that form the main ingredients of Downton Abbey, a show that builds tension by those things the characters are not willing or able to share with others. What the audience knows and the characters don’t offers some rather juicy dramatic irony. That is not all the new season has to offer though. While each of the main characters is given their screen time (yes, even Violet and Isobel have a semi-important sub-plot), Edith’s prominence in season five is most refreshing. Bookending the episode with Edith visiting her child and then accidentally causing a small fire at the end, kind of brings her out of the shadows. Her secret will surely keep us dangling the longest.

The episode’s pacey recap format is garnished with some minor additives. For example, the local farmer who is raising Edith’s child also appears to work for the fire service. Should we take for granted this was how things were then? And how the fire service arrived so very quickly is head scratching. Additionally, we kind of feel that there is more to Miss Baxter’s story, but as of yet we know not if there is more to tell. On a more whimsical note, Robert is named ‘Donk’ by his granddaughter – an endearing shortening from the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game. On a side note, the amount of kids currently residing in the Abbey makes me feel I can envisage seasons eleven and twelve. They are the future.

It is thankful while on this emotional and clandestine carousel ride that there is some real humor. The exchanges between Isobel and Violet can be relied on to provide some of these moments. Robert asking Molesley (with his noticeably darker hair) why he suddenly looks Latin also brings a few laughs. Or Mary simply stating (with eye-roll perhaps) that Edith chose to set fire to her room, suggesting that sibling rivalry is still going strong.

The episode wraps up rather nicely. Not to say a fire is nice – absolutely not – but when Robert tells everyone they can go back inside because the excitement is over, it kind of dumbs down the whole dramatic climax. The fire was just in the one room and nobody was hurt, but they treated the event like Downton Abbey’s The Towering Inferno. And, because he carries Edith out of her smoky room, Thomas suddenly goes from having no future to a loyal hero in Cora’s eyes.

The coverage of these storylines, whether big or small, will continue to fluctuate, mend themselves here, and drag out there. That’s fine with me because above everything else Downton Abbey is back, and I am pleased I had not quite forgotten how much I enjoyed it before I had to wait so long.

Downton Abbey Season Five has its American PBS premiere on Sunday, January 4, 2015.

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