Change is coming to Downton Abbey and to the world. To drive home the point, this first episode of the fifth season opens with Edith riding her bike through a crossroads and ends with the house in flames. Change will come slowly, however. Edith turns while the house survives intact. On this show, as in life, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Obviously, some time has passed since everyone went sea bathing at the end of last season. Edith’s child is walking and everyone is dressed warmly. Additionally, we are told that the first Labour government has just been installed, and that Jimmy just recently sent a Valentine. I’m going to place this episode in late February, 1924.
Yes, change is coming. It is coming, however, in stories that this series has told before. Robert is rigid against all change; Mary is willing to explore her sexuality; a child born out of wedlock causes her mother anguish; Tom is wondering where he belongs; Thomas is a prat; Carson needs to be set straight by Mrs. Hughes; Daisy is willing to try new things while those around her try to hold her back; Bates and Anna are struggling.
The most important change (emphasized to a fault in this episode) is the rise of the middle class and the shrinking of the servant class. Anthony no longer has a valet; Skelton Park (Downton’s neighbor) is down to a staff of four. Those formerly in service are finding better wages and better hours in the factories and the shops. Ivy has left, presumably for a better position.
Daisy realizes that she must prepare herself for something else. She realizes that she has no training for being anything other than a cook, but she wants to broaden her chances. I hope Miss Bunting will step up and help her.
Speaking of whom, our Tom crushing school teacher is a wonderful example of the rising middle class. She has a good position and is not in awe at all of the aristocracy. The dinner party was interesting, especially as it was Robert who came out of it looking like a horrible person.
The level of rudeness to which he subjected a guest at his table was astonishing. One would hope that someone with so much breeding would behave better. I understand that we are meant to see that Robert is struggling with the world order, but I’m surprised that Cora didn’t come down on him harder for how he acted. Sybbie’s nickname for him is perfect — he is a donk.
Edith is truly suffering. While I never thought ensconcing her child with a tenant farmer was the smartest thing she has ever done, I understand the impulse. The problem, of course, is that Marigold (dear God, what a name) sees someone else as “Mummy” and all Edith can do is visit as often as possible. Turns out it’s too much as Mrs. Drewe thinks that Edith is hot for her husband. Drewe has figured out the truth (of course he has — it wouldn’t take a lot) and he has promised to help Edith.
While Edith is struggling, Mary is being pragmatic. I almost dropped my glass of wine when she was talking to Anna about sleeping with Anthony before marrying him. Then, when she agreed to it, I gasped. Maybe times are changing, a bit.
Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton have some of the best chemistry I have ever seen on a screen of any kind. Their conversations always make me laugh out loud, especially when they are having a BFF conversation or one is trying to set the other straight. I must admit that my favorite part of this episode was Lady Violet trying to get Lord Merton to flirt with Lady Shakleton and Dr. Carson to start up again with Isobel. Lady Violet’s face when she realized that Isobel might have a higher position in society than she was simply hilarious.
Once again, we have Thomas up to no good. Yawn. Every season is another almost sacking; every season he redeems himself. The only part of the Baxter story I found interesting was Molesley’s reaction to it. The Eeyore of this story, he has been used as comic relief since we met him. We get to see two other sides of him — his vanity (used for comedy) and his willingness to be a good friend and give Baxter some good advice. I hope we continue to explore this character in such a way.
I was a tad disappointed in this first episode. While I enjoyed spending time with the family, I spent the entire hour with a mild sense of deja vu. Perhaps I am being overly harsh and these stories are all just setting up the brilliance that is to come as the season progresses.
Historical Bits and Bobs:
— The first Labour PM was Ramsay MacDonald. He had a fascinating life and is now credited with being one of the fathers of the Labour Party. He was, indeed, the son of a crofter and an illegitimate one at that.
— The Labour Party in Britain tends to be the more socialist, left of center. The Tory Party is the more conservative.
— Crofting was, ironically, a form of socialism unique to Scotland. Individuals farmed their own land, but the lesser quality lands were shared by all to graze their livestock.
— I spent more than a decade traveling the length and breadth of Great Britain. Every city, town, or village I went into had a huge memorial to the dead of the First World War. Without exception, the number of names on it was staggering.
— When Mrs. Wigan asked Carson for “milk in first,” I laughed out loud. This is still a class marker, much like Mary’s snide remark about Matthew holding his fork in the first episode.
Lady Violet: “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.”
Isobel: “I do like him. I think he’s very nice. It’s just he wants something from me that I cannot give.”
Lady Violet: “He just wants what all men want.”
Isobel: “Oh, don’t be ridiculous!”
Lady Violet: “I was referring to companionship. As I hope you were.”
Mrs. Hughes: “It’s for the committee to make the choice and they’ve chosen you.”
Carson: “And, the country’s chosen a Labour government, so people don’t always get it right.”
Mrs. Patmore: “Well, all the best people were rubbish at numbers at school.”
To which I say, amen!
Lady Shackleton: “Of course, a single peer with a good estate won’t be lonely long if he doesn’t want to be.”
Lady Violet: “You sound like Mrs. Bennett.”
Lady Violet: “Principles are like prayers. Noble, of course, but awkward at a party.”
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.