Dullsville Comes to Downton Abbey

Three Atlantic staffers discuss the premiere of the fifth season, which has the estate in status quo.


Every week for the fifth season of PBS's period drama Downton Abbey, Joe Reid, Sophie Gilbert, and Katie Kilkenny will discuss the intrigues, upstairs and downstairs, of public television's favorite Yorkshire manor.

Reid: Well, it's 1924 in Yorkshire, and while the committee down in the village is looking to erect a war memorial, our gang at Downton appears to be content to commemorate the past by repeating it over and over again. I understand that comparatively little time has passed between the season four Christmas special and this premiere, but it's a bit dismaying how many old threads have been picked up, whether we're terribly interested in them or not.

Mary is still being courted by Lord Gillingham and putting off marriage for still more arbitrary reasons. (It's admirably modern that she'd like to take Tony out for a test drive or three before she commits to wed.) Tom Branson continues to raise eyebrows by bringing willful schoolteacher Sarah Bunting and Her Opinions around Downton. Thomas is still hounding squirrelly old Baxter for whatever she knows about Bates and Anna (oh God, the Bates storyline that will not die quite so easily as Lord Gillingham's valet did).

This was an episode that gave a lot of lip service to sweeping social change. Lord Grantham couldn't stop huffing and puffing about the newly elected Labour government (a development that led to some unusually politically boisterous talk below quarters as well). Even Carson, that immovable stone edifice, admitted to Mrs. Hughes that "the nature of life is not permanence but flux." And yet while history moves on and the residents and servants of Downton fully notice it, their lives continue to rehash old patterns.

Even the new stories feel like variations on the old ones. Daisy's quest for personal betterment through mathematics feels like the umpteenth revision of the classic Daisy story of striving to mature while the adults around her alternately tsk-tsk or pat her on the head. Thomas continues his scheming for scheming's sake, this time with Baxter as his punching bag. At the very least, the show has the grace to out her terrible shame (she stole from a previous employer), and with Baxter telling Cora before Thomas could, it took some of sneering wind out of his sails. But even in this case, it's screamingly obvious that Baxter had A Good Reason to steal (sick child? sick parent? Church choir in need of whiter robes?), though she won't say it to Cora … yet.

It all just feels like we're settling in for a season of the same fundamental conflicts and situations with different window dressing. Am I being unduly pessimistic so early on?

Gilbert: Egad, Joe, the echoes of Downton seasons gone by, and the continuing allergic response to any hint of change on the horizon. Julian Fellowes is a conservative peer in the House of Lords, but it’s hard not to think he’d be better matched with UKIP, given the show’s handwringing when it comes to progression. Take the new Labour government, which, according to Lord Grantham, is hellbent on “the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for.” “We’re not living in your grandfather’s day,” Lady Mary told her jurassic chauvinist of a father later, shortly before he gently patted her on the head when she tries to discuss grain sales. Meanwhile, even Carson had to acknowledge that “things are changing.” All this episode needed was Mrs Patmore weeping hot tears over a newfangled kitchen implement to crystallize the thumpingly unsubtle message that Things Do Not Stay The Same Forever.

And thank goodness for that, because although Robert’s benign fiefdom is being threatened by the winds of change, things might actually be looking up for everyone else. Servants are hard to find now, according to Mrs Hughes, because so many poverty-stricken villagers are taking jobs in factories and shops, where the hours and easier and you don’t have to constantly listen for bells or live in fear of encountering a sooty aristocrat in his nightgown (more on that later). Women are uttering opinions at the dinner table. They’re even having premarital sex (!), according to Lady Mary, that noted blushing ingenue, who was chatting to “Lady Cunard’s daughter the other week, and she was so graphic I almost fainted.”

The reasons I love/hate Downton are the same reasons I love/hate Love Actually: Both are preposterously cliched and disingenuous portraits of English life interspersed with some very entertaining characters. Lord Grantham, who appears to be in need of a wah-mbulance in the worst way, isn’t one of them, but it’s hard not to have a soft spot for his long-suffering wife, whose grasp of the subtleties of human nature is brilliant at times and unfathomably terrible at others. How many times has Thomas been almost fired now? Fifty? Is it not possible for anyone to perhaps put two and two together and realize that he’s a pantomime villain? Does he have to march through the main drawing room in a Hamburglar outfit carrying a sack and giggling?

Downton’s always loved the evil servant archetype, from Thomas to O’Brien to the godawful Nanny West, who channeled Lord Voldemort last season when she bullied Sybbie for being a a ”wicked half-breed.” But for every scheming villain there’s a village idiot, whether it’s Molesley dying his hair with boot polish to impress Baxter (and earning the scorn of half the village for looking “Latin”) or Mrs Patmore being confangled by modernity, or Daisy not knowing how to read/count/make the salmon patties while Mrs P. gets on with the lemon mayonnaise. I’ll take it, because it’s infinitely more entertaining than the war memorial storyline, which is so boring even Lady Cora wants to change the subject. Let us not forget Lady Anstruther, played by the brilliantly glacial Anna Chancellor (that’s Duckface to you Four Weddings and a Funeral fans), who’s not afraid to make the first move, or Miss Bunting, who was so ridiculously grating that one sympathized with Lord G. when he told her that she was “talking nonsense” for having a really very valid opinion. If a character makes the audience start to identify with Robert, something is seriously wrong.

I’ll not talk of Lady Edith and her horribly unsubtle affection towards Marigold, because like Lady Mary I believe Edith’s best left alone, even she does insist on carelessly setting fire to her room in fits of pique. “We must alert the estate’s fireman,” said Lord G. “And save the dog!” Even though, being called Isis, she’s obviously not long for this season. But no, my hopes are not high for the next seven weeks, even if it will be lovely if Isobel gets married and suddenly outranks the Dowager Countess.

Kilkenny: I'm with you, Sophie: Why won't the coming tides of change just come already? For the sake of the servants, who are inspired this episode by the appointment of Ramsay MacDonald, the son of a crofter, to the office of PM. But primarily for the sake of the viewers, who this episode were made to suffer, with the primary plot arc being that Lord Grantham is ticked off he wasn’t the first choice to head a committee planning the neighborhood’s WWI memorial and all.

It's a shame, because there are residents in the abbey much more miserable and deserving of such character development than snoozy Grantham. Poor Edith, for instance, has been abandoned again, after things were going so well with Michael Gregson, whom she met when he wanted to publish her column in the Sketch (how progressive!). She’s now relegated to sobbing into her pillow with a picture of her child, Marigold, and accidentally setting the house on fire. Or Mary, who appears to be accepting the advances of the forward and very dull Lord Gillingham for no good reason. He's so certain he’s won her heart over Charles Blake that he posits she will agree to marry him after spending a few days—and of course nights—by his side. Mary makes some snide remarks, but overall seems rather too chill about being romantically bulldozed by the potential future stepfather of her child, who's handy with a shotgun but not with pickup lines ("Do you dread the future?" "Only if I have to live it without you").

What gives? The episode does not reveal any good reason for plaguing its corseted characters except for verisimilitude purposes—as we all know, women weren't treated so well in these days. Just as it's shown in Mad Men or The Hour, their sad situation is all part of Downton's semi-historical accuracy and a convenient way of distinguishing which of the younger men are progressive (Tom) and which are just pure evil (Mr. Green). The older men are generally given a pass—Carson makes backward thinking look quaint, partially because he’s challenged so often by the wonderful Mrs. Hughes. Bates’ old-fashioned sense of nobility meets its match in Anna, who doesn’t appreciate his skewed priority of justice over her feelings. Undoubtedly this episode of Downton is setting the elder statesmen up for more lessons in womankind made possible by this brave new world.

But like winter on HBO, better female storylines on Downton are always coming, never actually arriving. Early last season was all right for Lady Edith, who had a fabulous wardrobe and a bright future as a writer—now she’s no better off than the past servant Ethel, and once again the wet blanket on a fabulous dinner party. It doesn’t look like the world is changing fast enough to accommodate women like her, anyway. The show’s latest feminist figure, the teacher Sarah Bunting, is more a militant stereotype than equal-rights angel, like Sybil (R.I.P. Jessica Brown-Findlay, for your unfair end on Downton and later finding yourself in Winter’s Tale).

There is a bright spot here: The elder ladies of the estate kill it this episode. Violet Crawley is up to her old tricks, introducing Lord Merton to the magnificent Harriet Walter (Lady Shackleton here, Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility) when she’s afraid he’ll make Isobel his wife, and therefore a Great Lady to rival her. Isobel’s obviously peeved, but please: Dr. Clarkson’s the man for her, if only she’ll come to realize a manor and drawing-room receptions are no match for the fulfillment his clinic could provide. New dimensions to Violet and Isobel will keep me coming back this season as the younger women get sillier—but honestly, what else is new?