Now that the holidays are behind us and we’ve all recovered from spending excessive amounts of forced bonding time with relatives, it’s time to start another season of Downton Abbey on PBS. Which, in many ways — at least in this first episode of the fifth season — is a lot like spending forced bonding time with relatives.
There’s a lot of whispering about long-held secrets that no one is willing to openly discuss. At least two cranky old conservative men are constantly sharing their cranky old conservative opinions with anyone in earshot. (On Downton, it’s Carson and Lord Grantham; on Christmas Eve, it was your grandfather and Russell, your divorced aunt’s outspoken new male companion.) Pretty much everyone is still talking about the same old shit they were talking about exactly one year ago. And at some point, someone either: (a) weeps uncontrollably; (b) accidentally starts a house fire; or (c) manages to do both at the same time. On the season premiere of Downton Abbey, they went with (c).
Dear Sad and Despondent Edith, for Whom I Have a Shocking Lack of Sympathy:
Thanks for almost burning down Downton, you careless almost-arsonist. Christ, you’re useless.
Your Devoted Sister, Lady Mary.
Yet despite it all, you still love these deliciously uptight Downton Abbey–ites, for the same reason you love all those relatives with whom you’re forced to consume lukewarm Trader Joe’s appetizers while having awkward conversations about current events: Because they’re family. And even though they never, ever change — particularly during seasons three, four, and, thus far, five — you enjoy seeing them for a little while every year.
So ask not whether Downton Abbey is actually truly good anymore. That’s beside the point. You’re going to watch this entire season no matter what, for the same reason you sent holiday cards to your cousins and spent the evening of December 31 with one eye trained on New Year’s (allegedly) Rockin’ Eve: because you always do those things, and you no longer know how not to do them.
So let’s get down to it. This season’s Downton Abbey premiere got super Downton-y in what felt like record time. Within the first seven minutes alone, the following things happened: Lord Grantham — or, as I and little Sybbie shall refer to him from now on, Lord Donk — vocalized his concerns about the cultural demise of his value system (“What worries me is that our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for”); Mrs. Patmore told Daisy at least once to can it and get back to work; Edith, now a mother forced to keep her distance from the daughter that, improbably, no one knows is hers, once again established herself as the most tragically shat-upon member of the Crawley family; the Dowager Countess dropped a delicious bon mot — “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends: That’s the real test.” — which is destined to be paired, memelike, with a photo of Dame Maggie Smith assuming her wryest possible facial expression; and Carson used the word smutty while sounding completely appalled by other people’s relatively benign behavior. Again: That was only in the first seven minutes! Flag down the footman and pass the buttered scones, because it is on, full-blast, at Downton Ab-BEY.
Truly, the way that Julian Fellowes dresses up previously used narratives in newer period frocks so that they look fresh again is impressive. I mean, what is Thomas’s abhorrent turned heroic behavior if not a rehash of the whole freeing-Isis-from-the-shed situation from the season-two Christmas special? Mary’s decision to potentially get it on with Tony while keeping it a secret: Does this not smack of her not-so-discreet fling with Kemal Pamuk back in season one? And even Edith’s turmoil over her daughter very faintly rings of the difficult choice that Ethel Parks faced in season three, minus, of course, the prostitution. Nevertheless, let’s do our due Downton diligence and run through all the new and old business (mostly old) from this season premiere, in order from most important to least. (Spoiler alert: The controversial dyeing of Molesley’s hair is easily the least important thing in this episode.)
Edith, Marigold, and the Hot, Licking Flames of Despair
As you may recall, last season, Edith decided to go ahead and have the child she conceived out of wedlock with her beloved Michael Gregson (who is probably dead), then opted to leave the child in the custody of respectable Downton tenant farmer Tim Drewe so she could still, occasionally, spend time with the child without everyone knowing Edith’s deepest shame: that she once had consensual sex with a man for whom she has deep feelings.
Well, so far, that plan is going just great. Every time Edith sees her daughter Marigold, she feels happy, then terribly sad. Every time she thinks about her daughter Marigold while she’s not seeing her, she feels happy and terribly sad. And Tim’s wife — who possesses an astonishing lack of curiosity about why the hell she has to raise yet another child when she has zero idea who the kid’s parents are — now thinks that Edith has the hots for her husband. Edith Crawley, ladies and gentlemen: Will she ever win? No, she won’t. And not only will she always lose, she’ll also accidentally disprove Billy Joel’s long-held assertion that the fire “was always burning since the world’s been turning.”
If I may contradict both Mr. Joel and NBC’s The Office, we didn’t start the fire, and Ryan didn’t start the fire, because: Edith started the fi-re! And she started it with tears and despair brought on by the reading of a primer that once belonged to Michael Gregson — who, again, not to be a Debbie Downer, is probably dead — that she threw into the fireplace, thereby unleashing a raging blaze that threatened all of Downton. But here’s the good news, aside from the obvious, which is that no one was hurt and the whole palatial estate wasn’t destroyed:
- Thomas was so busy meddling in Hot Jimmy and Mary’s affairs that he happened to finally stick his handsome, untrustworthy nose in a place it didn’t belong, but in a totally positive way, allowing him to rescue Edith and alert the rest of the house to the danger.
- The fire gave Mary the opportunity to say something snarky and unkind about Edith: “Lady Edith chose to set fire to her room, but we’re fine.” Sure, Mary, the same way I suppose you chose to allow your husband to drive away after the birth of his son and get hit by a runaway lorry? (Too mean? Too soon? Really? Still too soon?)
- The entire cast of 300 showed up and swiftly extinguished the flames. (All right, fine, it was actually the Downton Fire Brigade, wearing funny Spartan-style helmets and led by none other than Tim Drewe, farmer, pig man, and a guy who knows how to put out fires.)
- Because Mr. Drewe knows how to put out fires figuratively as well as literally, the emergency gave him the opportunity to tell Edith that he has come up with a magical and mysterious solution that will allow Edith to be a regular part of Marigold’s life without anyone understanding why she really wants to be a part of the girl’s life. Man, it’s just like that old saying: Every time God nearly burns down a house, he builds a brand-new house of lies. (Of course, Mrs. Hughes heard at least part of that conversation, which means that any day now, everyone’s going to know Edith is a mom because no one on this show can keep their mouth shut for more than five seconds.)
The Labour Party, the War Memorial, the Mouthy Schoolteacher, and Daisy’s Interest in Accounting
Four seemingly separate plot developments all tied directly into what will likely be a major theme of this season’s Downton Abbey, and please, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the notion that society is moving forward and the landed aristocracy may soon become ext— oh, you’re stopping me? Because you’ve heard this on practically every season of Downton Abbey, over and over again, until you’re almost as blue in the face as Molesley’s hair after a dye job?
Well, suck it up, Dowager Countesses in training, because it’s time for another round of “The British Upper Crust Times They Are A-Changin’,” brought to you by: Robert’s — sorry, Lord Donk’s — fretting over the rise of the labour party under Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald (whose time in office during 1924, for the historical record, won’t last all that long); the villagers’ decision to ask Carson, instead of Lord Donk, to chair the committee responsible for erecting a memorial to the local soldiers lost during World War I; the anniversary-party-crashing, crushing-on-Tom schoolteacher Sarah Bunting, who made it quite clear during a classic Downton dinner scene that she’s pro-working class, and also pro–Anyone Who Isn’t Lord Donk; and Daisy, who is suddenly determined to learn how to manage finances so she can broaden her opportunities. Which is weird because: Who wouldn’t want to get barked at by Mrs. Patmore for the rest of her life?
In short, the downstairs set is starting to move — if not quite upstairs, then at least a bit farther away from the traditional downstairs, which parallels what’s happening economically and politically in the U.K. circa 1924. Thankfully for those who didn’t pick up on all that, Julian Fellowes — who never met a subtext he couldn’t turn into actual text — explained it all for us by forcing Carson to make the following clumsy statement: “I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on, that everything I believe in will be tested and held up for ridicule over the next few years.” Personally, I preferred the Dowager Countess’s more pithy way of weighing in on the diminishing boundaries between the social classes, as expressed the minute she saw Miss Bunting at that anniversary dinner: “They’ve cast the net wide tonight.”
Baxter, the Jewel Thievery, Barrow and the Bates Situation
Like me, you’ve probably spent the past ten months going, “Man, I wonder what Thomas Barrow has on Baxter the lady’s maid that made her so afraid of him during season four of Downton Abbey.”
Ha! Just kidding. I was actually like, “Wait, who the hell is Baxter again?” as soon as I saw her in this episode. Nevertheless, it was illuminating to learn that Baxter spent time in jail for stealing jewelry from her previous employer, and it was satisfying to watch Cora question Barrows about it when he tried to lob Baxter under a bus and get her fired, even though it didn’t really serve his interests to do that. Of course, Cora totally let Thomas’s dastardly behavior slide after he rescued her second-born from the fire. But what will become of Baxter’s job security is still an open question.
Another open question, which segues into three more: Does Baxter know for a fact that Bates killed Lord Gillingham’s valet? Will Barrow be able to extract that information from her? Why the hell is Thomas still so fixated on Bates, since it just seems kind of ridiculous? Oh, and also: For the love of Isis’s adorable opening-titles dog butt, ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT LORD GILLINGHAM’S DAMN VALET?? I honestly thought we could leave all that behind but, apparently, it is not possible for any season of Downton Abbey to exist without a cloud of suspicion hovering over Mr. Bates the way a swirl of cartoon dirt constantly hangs around Pigpen in Peanuts. (That one conversation between Anna and Bates suggested they’re trying to start a family, so you just know that in a few episodes’ time, Bates is going to be arrested on murder charges, just as Anna’s cervix starts to dilate.)
Tony Gillingham: You Saucy Bastard!
In yet another holdover from last season, Lady Mary still can’t decide between Tony Gillingham and Charles Blake. But no worries, because Tony has a smashing idea: He and Mary should go away together and have audition sex, and if Tony makes it through both rounds of foreplay callbacks, they should totally get married! Best idea ever, right, Mary?
“If Papa were here, he’d hit you on the nose.”
Yep, that sounds like something Mary would say and, in fact, was something she actually said. But she also seemed onboard with that plan, perhaps because Tony suggested they should become “lovers” instead of having marital audition sex. By the way, that was the second use of the word lover in this episode. The first lover utterance came from Tom, when he explained to Lord Donk that he and Sarah Bunting weren’t up to anything randy when they were previously caught at Downton together. To his credit, Lord Donk didn’t hit Tom, or anyone else, on the nose. But he did almost spit up his after-dinner cordial.
The Dowager Countess’s Very Conscious Attempt to Uncouple Isobel and Lord Merton
Exhibit A in my court case proving that Violet Crawley is a direct descendant of Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma: Every meddling thing she did in this episode, including inviting both Dr. Clarkson and Lady Shackleton to a lunch that should have been a total hookup-fest for Isobel and Lord Merton, with the hope that the unexpected guests would distract Isobel and Merton from each other. The Dowager Countess is like two Emmas for the price of one: a matchmaker and an unmatchmaker. But something tells me it won’t work, only because watching Isobel achieve a higher stature than Violet possesses will make the D.C. so squirmy and uncomfortable that you just know it has to happen.
Hot Jimmy Brings All the Ladies (or at least Lady Anstruther) to the Yard
And that’s how / Hot Jimmy loses his job / Damn right / He lost his job / Hey, I’ll hire him / How much does he charge?*
*Sung to the tune of Kelis’s “Milkshake”
Last But Not Least: Molesley Dyed His Hair to Attract the Attentions of Baxter But Instead Attracted the Attention of Lord Donk, Who Found Him Suddenly Latin
It’s a shame that Carson demanded that Molesley remove all his hair dye. Doesn’t he get that, just like Cher Horowitz from Clueless, Molesley does makeovers because they give him a sense of control in a world full of chaos? Of all people, Mr. “I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on” Carson should understand that.
Even though it’s too late now because Molesley “took steps” to get his hair back to normal, I say everyone should just let Molesley be Molesley. After all, life is short. Times are changing. Labour parties are growing in influence. Children are getting older and using words like donk. You never know how much time you have, or when a fire might suddenly break out and threaten to take away all the things that matter most, including an image of the man you love when he was a child, looking a little like the child you have together but, seemingly, can never share.