***Potential Spoilers***Potential Spoilers***Potential Spoilers
Last season’s Downton Abbey was hobbled by an unnecessary subplot that had Anna (Joanne Froggatt) suffer a rape. While the actress handled the story line beautifully (she won a well-deserved Golden Globe for her efforts), its inclusion felt gratuitous, intent to both shock its audiences as well as make the show seem relevant and timely in 2014. The impulse is repeated in this season, albeit briefly, with a minor story line that had the dastardly Thomas (Rob James-Collier) go through some barbaric ex-gay therapy. Still Anna’s rape looms over the fifth season that extends the murder mystery: did her husband, Mr. Bates (Brandan Coyle) avenge his wife’s honor by murdering the rapist?
Alongside the murder mystery, the fifth series continues the redundant theme of “times are changing.” In fact, most of the characters stand around, giving each other resigned looks and saying variations on the line “times are changing.” The Labour government has been elected, and with that, the pie-in-the-sky optimism of the servants who think the new government will bring in a host of opportunities, while the Crawleys are unnecessarily worried that England will no longer have economic inequities. As Robert petulantly whined in the first episode, the Labour party is “committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for.”
At this point in the series, it’s become a bit of a bore to hear Robert or Violet (Maggie Smith) grouse about the ever-changing world. It’s silly and self-conscious, essentially announcing to its audiences that Downton Abbey is a period show. In a positive review of the 60s nostalgia dramedy, The Wonder Years, the AV Club wisely pointed out that the show never made its time setting a punchline – unfortunately, at times, Downton Abbey feels like a huge nudge and wink.
But writer/creator Julian Fellowes loves to throw changes at his characters only to write how difficult it is to get used to them. In the fifth series we have the rebellious Lady Rose (Lily James) doing her bit to help out the refugees from the Russian revolution. During her good works, she catches the eye of the handsome Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), who is Jewish: while the Crawleys are anachronistically fine with having a Jewish son-in-law (possibly because Lady Cora’s pop was Jewish), his own dad Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner) is put out by his son’s choice of bride (he even calls her a shiksa). While Atticus’s mother Lady Sinderby (an excellent Penny Downie) is happy about the union, her husband eyes the impending nuptial with wariness. As with Lily’s interracial relationship in series four, the interfaith marriage allows for Fellowes and company to pat themselves on their back to show just how far we’ve come when it comes to anti-Semitism.
Other plots involve the engagement of Isobel (Penelope Wilton) to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). Violet, who has become Isobel’s BFF, views the pairing with some trepidation because she’s scared she’ll lose her companion. It’s a shockingly vulnerable and open admission by the usually prickly Dowager, and a welcome side to Violet that we hardly ever see – it’s also a good way to properly use the monumental talents of Maggie Smith, who has quickly become little more than just a zinger machine. In fact, the fifth series has some of Smith’s best work, as she has to navigate the complicated feelings Violet has for Isobel’s love life: on the one hand, she’s wants what’s best for Isobel, but she’s frightened of being left behind. Free from acting as a history lesson, this subplot is probably the strongest because it’s solely a character study, and both Wilton and Smith have a marvelous chemistry and an easy way of sparring with each other (and though Smith has a near-perfect mastery of throwing out one-liners, Wilton is no slouch, and can keep up).
Because social mobility in England in the 1920s is a near-impossibility, characters are chafing underneath their socially-imposed roles, none more so than cook, Daisy (Sophie McShera), who takes to math and history books to improve herself. With shades of Educating Rita, Daisy’s story is about how some of these characters are young enough to feel that their lot in life shouldn’t be static. Because she has a future as a land owner herself, Daisy has an inkling that there’s more to life than her kitchen – she’s spurred on by the village schoolmarm, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) – to become a braniac, and to the viewers’ delight, it turns out that Daisy’s a pretty smart cookie. As Violet sees Isobel’s social ascendance with wariness, so does Daisy’s boss, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who has developed maternal feelings for Daisy. I always thought Daisy was one of the more interesting characters of Downton, and in series five, we get a more confident and assertive Daisy – not the mooney and oft-petty Daisy of the first couple seasons, but a wiser Daisy, who has some very real world experience and is arguably the only servant who will be able to ride the waves of change with success.
Though the servants’ stories are more interesting, the fifth series does have a lot going for the “upstairs” characters, namely Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Mary (Michelle Dockery), and Edith (Laura Carmichael). Unfortunately, these stories are far too soapy and melodramatic. Cora is being wooed by a charming (if very viperish) art dealer (a suitably oily Richard E. Grant), which doesn’t amount to much, but it does give McGovern a little bit more to do than just give baleful looks and simper. Mary, on the other hand, is still juggling between two suitors. And Edith is still treated like a sad, pathetic charity case, with her maternal instincts driving her to act pitifully, as she struggles after giving up her secret daughter to a village farmer, while still waiting to learn of Michael Greggson’s fate in Germany. McGovern, Dockery, and in particular, Carmichael all do solid work – but, they’re let down by the weepy plots.
And if I may, a quick note about Elizabeth McGovern – never has an actress been so let down and betrayed by a show. What started out as a fascinating and funny character in the first season has quickly become a tedious presence. She has little space for character development, and Fellowes seems to have run out of ideas for her, and is unsure of what exactly to do with her at this point.
Anyways, the fifth series of the show is surprisingly consistent and improves a bit on the fourth; I think a major reason why Downton Abbey is aging so well is because each season has about half a dozen episodes, so it’s easier to maintain a decent level of quality and to come up with interesting and watchable scripts (an American season would have about 100 episodes by the fifth season – that’s a lot of writing…)