The US season 5 premier of Downton Abbey meets expectations as it continues to thrive on drama from season 4 and brings a few twists of its own.
It began featuring Edith (Laura Carmichael) visiting her daughter, who was given away last season to avoid the scandal of having a child outside wedlock. Between short conversations with the adopted father, not much is accomplished besides establishing the fact that the current situation is not ideal for Edith.
As for Mary (Michelle Dockery), what seemed to be a difficult decision between suitors was strangely dismissed as Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) makes a scandalous proposition to run away with her for a week, which she agrees to easily. While it’s a relief to see her break her icy, emotionless shell, her immediate acceptance comes as a surprise for such an offensive proposal.
Downstairs, we finally learn the secret that has allowed Thomas (Robert James-Collier) to blackmail Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) into offering information. In order to stop Thomas from telling the family her secret in revenge, she divulges her criminal past to Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). This remains satisfactory for only a moment, however, as Cora begins to find holes in Baxter’s story.
This season comes a year after what felt like an uneventful season 4, at least compared to earlier seasons. In season 4, it seemed like any plot twists and turns were quickly done away with and resolved within an episode or two; for example Rose’s (Lily James) various relationships were dissolved before they could develop.
A few instances in the premier share this pattern: as a fire strikes upstairs, it is instantly put out to no real lasting effect, seemingly added for the excitement.
However, as the show delves further into the twentieth century, it becomes clear that a much wider conflict is developing: Downton Abbey’s turn-of-the-century values don’t quite fit the changing world in 1924. The premier makes this clear as a working class man is chosen as prime minister, Carson (Jim Carter) is chosen as the head of the war memorial committee rather than Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and Daisy (Sophie McShera) begins learning math as a means to move up in life.
This clash of values creates drama of its own as qualities of work and intelligence overtake the importance of birth status and inherited wealth. For Lord Grantham and Cora’s anniversary, Rose invited a common-born schoolteacher, Mrs. Bunting (Daisy Lewis), who spent the night insulting the ladies’ lack of intelligence and insistently expressing her more radical political opinions during dinner. While I found her antics both rude and annoying, they serve to show how the opinion of the wealthy was changing among the lower classes.
It seems though that a real problem for this show is keeping characters. As cast members move to other career opportunities, the writers have to create a plotline to explain it, resulting in plenty of premature deaths for the upstairs and firings downstairs, while few new quality characters make a permanent stay. Yet again, in the premier another servant was fired.
With the end of the premier, viewers got a feel for what is to come in the rest of the season. Bates’s (Brendan Coyle) possible murder of his wife’s attacker last season was mentioned in passing, but is not nearly concluded yet. Suspense builds as we still have yet to see whether Mary goes through with Gillingham’s proposal, what Edith will do about her daughter, if there’s more to Baxter’s story, or if some new plot twist will render all of this unimportant.
Downton Abbey is on PBS Sundays at 9 p.m.