The days are short, the fires are lit, the tea is steeping — it’s time for Downton Abbey! Last year, Downton made a big comeback after several key cast members decided to leave the show the year prior, and ended things with an excellent Christmas Special. But as Carson says, this world is in flux, and for Downton Abbey‘s fifth season, we’ve been propelled forward in time (1924), but back in terms of momentum. “Episode One” was as perfectly familiar and comfortable as Downton always is, but its repetition of certain plots, and obvious turns in others, made for a slow start to the new season. Hit the jump for why “I do love you … in my own cold, unfeeling way.”
Every episode of Downton Abbey is entertaining — let’s establish that as a baseline. Downton runs on a soap opera platform (scenes are so short that they sometimes only last one sentence or one glance), and it’s largely a winning formula. But because Downton airs here on PBS and takes place in a bygone era, it’s always seemed like it should be something deeper. However …
Downton Abbey is a gorgeous show, it’s a relaxing show, and it’s often a very funny show (just sometimes not when it intends to be).
Having said that — onto “Episode One.” There were so many different components to the hour that it’s easiest just to break them down into categories:
Molesley and his hair
What worked: Can we all agree that Molesley’s hair saga was the true highlight of the premiere? He went to York and got some dye, which was noticed and commented on by those upstairs and down, including a hilarious series of questions by Lord Grantham about Molesley looking particularly “Latin,” and wanting to know if he had Spanish or Italian blood. Molesley has been humiliated for many years for our amusement, and frankly, it’s one of Downton‘s most enduring and consistent legacies at this point.
What didn’t work: I’m glad Molesley has something to do besides be a buffoon, but his relationship with Baxter is strange. She acts like a robot, and doesn’t seem to return any of his affections, or even trust him. If something is budding between them this season, Baxter is going to need to show some personality first.
Violet running a geriatric Match.com
What worked: Violet and Isobel sparring is always great, and Violet chastising her butler Spratt (such a Harry Potterverse name) for being snobby towards Clarkson was hilarious. Downton casting veteran period piece actress Harriet Walter as Lady Shackleton was a nice surprise, as was the often clueless Cora seeing through Violet’s machinations.
What didn’t work: It was all too obvious, so I’m expecting some twists as the season goes on (hopefully). Also, Violet only just realizing that Isobel marrying Lord Merton would mean Isobel would socially outrank her seems unlikely.
Edith and her secret daughter
What worked: … let’s skip to
What didn’t work: This mess. Poor Edith. Her character never gets any of the good stories. It’s been a few years since Gregson disappeared, but was there ever confirmation of his death? Will he come back, perhaps, wrapped in bandages over his face, but it turns out he’s an impostor? (Oh wait …) Edith’s many conversations with Mr. Drew were snooze-worthy. The whole Marigold saga also has suffered plausibility because of the time jump. Mr. Drew’s wife only now thinks it’s odd, however many years later, that Edith is over there all of the time? Also, the wife thinks that Edith coming over and holding the baby and cooing over her, to the exclusion of anything else, equals a crush on her husband? And how did Edith never think of a patronage angle before? Daisy thinks she’s dense? Wake up, people!
Worst of all, though, was Edith dramatically flinging the book with Gregson’s name in it, and it catching fire without her noticing. But I loved that Mary made a catty comment about Edith “deciding to set fire to her room …” later.
What worked: Again, let’s skip to …
What didn’t work: Despite her outward makeover, Miss Sarah Bunting cannot hide her terrible manners and ill effect on all of those around her. She’s not good for Branson, and she’s definitely not good for Downton. It’s not about class, it’s about not acting like you were raised by wolves. Branson used to be fiery when it came to politics, but he was never rude like Miss Bunting, who caustically alienates everyone she speaks to.
It seemed as though Branson was giving an eye to Rose, though, which would make sense (his type: society girl with a rebellious streak). Rose seems clueless, and I don’t think she’s close to being ready to settle down, but that could be an interesting pairing.
Mary’s love life
What worked: Mary being her usual frank, cold, but totally honest self with Gillingham about how she’s not ready to marry was classic, Season One Lady Mary stuff. Her spouting off views of free love to Anna was, too (RIP Mr. Pamuk!), although …
What didn’t work: Are we really to believe that Gillingham would come to Lady Mary’s room in the night and tell her he thinks they should become lovers? Running away together for a week, maybe, but what a conversation. Mary is all about appearance — would she really risk that? Can’t they talk at Downton? They could probably bonk there, too (everybody else does). It felt so sudden and out of place, even for this show.
Thomas’ schemes and Jimmy’s love life
What worked: I love seeing Jimmy and Thomas as friends, especially because Villain-Thomas is so three seasons ago. He’s been redeemed in a few storylines, so having him berating Baxter (still) and playing games with Cora felt really, really outdated. Having Thomas save Edith was great, though, and ensured that he will be sticking around Downton for the long haul. Further, Thomas counseling Jimmy on his problems with Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor) also amounted to a number of really nice, casual, natural scenes. And while Jimmy leaving Downton would be a shame, but he couldn’t go out in a better or more Jimmy-like way.
What didn’t work: Both stories were whirlwinds. Everything with Baxter and Thomas and Cora came to a head in this episode, including a redemptive arc for Thomas? This is episode one. Take a breath, Downton, and actually build up some anticipation. The same was true with Jimmy and Lady Anstruther. Maybe Ed Speleers was looking to leave the show, because otherwise, there’s no reason for the speed of that encounter. Downton burns through plots like Edith burns through rooms.
I also want to give a special mention to Lord Grantham for being a standout so far. Not only has he gotten some of the best lines, but he remains compelling as he struggles with pushing himself to modernize, versus feeling left in the past. His progress is what makes the appearance of people like Miss Bunting that much more irritating. Robert was just getting used to the idea of Carson as committee chairmen, Mary being interested in crop rotation, and all sorts of newfangled things, and then Miss Bunting starts bashing the idea of war memorials (who does that?) and gets him all riled up again!
Ultimately, though entertaining as Downton always is, “Episode One” felt more like a wash than anything. It set up a few interesting stories for the weeks to come (particularly revolving around Mary), but it all feels like it’s been done before. At Downton, time is a flat circle (which might explain why nobody ages).
Episode Rating: B/B-
— The way the show is going, it will be 1958 by the time it’s over. And still, no one but the babies will have aged!
— I should also mention that I’m watching the ITV episode versions, and not PBS, in case I mention things that you didn’t see, or left things out that PBS edited in from a future episode (which I hate). Running the premiere as a single episode and not two as they’ve done in the past should help remedy some of that though … I hope.
— Daisy’s newest idea to learn math is just the latest in her schemes to better herself, which never seem to come to anything. I liked the teases Hughes put down about other estates having much smaller staffs these days, and about other jobs out of service. Seems like Daisy may end up on that path sooner than later. Also, Carson’s drole comments about “she’s not going to be Archimedes, either,” were hilarious.
— “Tony I do love you know, in my cold and unfeeling way” – Mary.
— Politics are also brewing around Downton, upstairs and down. Not sure where that’s leading yet, but it’s interesting everyone is involved.
— Could Anna and Bates be any more boring or useless these days? Thomas no longer being able to hold Baxter’s past over her (and by the way, their connection is finally revealed. But Thomas has a sister? What?) means that Bates’ murder of the rapist valet will stay a secret for now (and hopefully forever, because no one wants to go through that again). Anna not being able to have a baby also suggests a well-timed Christmas Special conception later in the season, I would wager.
— Did it surprise anyone else how much of a deal Bates made about someone “raising another man’s child”? The Bates of old would have gladly done that, if Anna had had children.
— “Forgive me, but you are speaking nonsense” – Robert, finally telling Bunting, “The Boudicca of the North Riding” what’s what.
— I would watch a show that was just Ms. Patmore, Ms. Hughes, and Carson sitting around drinking and talking.
— Why didn’t Baxter tell Cora the full info about her stealing? I mean, if you’re going to say you went to jail for three years, why not also cop to what you did with the jewelry?
— “Lady Edith chose to set fire to her room, but we’re all fine” – Mary.