4 / 5
Change. That has been the one prevalent theme throughout the course of Downton Abbey’s run on PBS, and this season is no exception to that. The season opens on the onset of the new labour government being elected in England, which brought about the idea that the working class was capable of leading their own government. This went against the mentality that only the upper elite class were qualified to have such leadership positions, while also indicating that one’s class didn’t need to define the individuals within them for the entirety of their lives. Instead, it created the impression that upwards social mobility was feasible for the working class. However, this mentality did clash with the upper class aristocrats, who felt their reputation and honor was now being judged and disrespected. This exact mentality is used as the foundation for Downton Abbey’s 5th season, which provided a blatant clash between The Grantham family and various outside social circumstances. For some characters this shift in society was welcomed, primary for the show’s female characters. Yet this societal change did gather resistance from other characters, most notably from Downton Abbey’s patriarch, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who continually found him being confronted by a world that he seemingly no longer understands. In an unusual twist of fate, the men of Downton Abbey now find themselves with limitations that hinder them to be the men they once were. They now are obliged to conform to a society that hopes for equality and the hope that even the elite class can at least recognize the working class as being more than “the help.”
The social changes that occurs throughout this season undoubtedly are linked to the show’s previous seasons that have spotlighted the women’s suffrage movement and women’s continual growth in influence and power. The previous season especially highlighted this scenario with Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) inheriting half of Downton Abbey after the untimely death of her husband, much to the dismay of Lord Grantham, who felt she wasn’t up to the task of managing the estate due to her sex. In this season of Downton, the show has placed more focus on the personal and intimately private lives of the females on this show. The themes of this season, many of them still major issues in today’s society, are shown to be a major part of particular character’s lives. These issues are further explored in two methods: As the continued liberation of women, but also as the reminder of limitations women must endure in a male-dominated society. In that regard, secrecy is the most guarded power a woman can have. Each of the women on this season of Downton endure burying truths in order to maintain dignity, while also upholding the reputation they have from being from a prestigious family name. Yet, despite the threat of isolation that haunts each of these women, they sustain the truth that family will forever look out for each other. This is one sentiment Downton Abbey has always succeeded with; that the Grantham family is a renowned, traditional family, yet they are more progressive than they realize.
The 5th season of Downton tackles a slew of issues from education, to contraception, to the acceptance that the working class has an opinion and their voice ought to be heard. Regarding the latter issue, Downton did take a misstep in establishing the working class associating themselves with the Granthams. The most prominent subplot came with Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) new love interest, a self-proclaimed Marxist. While the love interest did remind viewers of Branson’s political ideology, her character was polarizing to the extent that her presence began to transcend beyond challenging the patriarchal system to blatantly antagonizing characters. In one particular scene in which her character was invited to dinner at Downton, she defiantly insinuates Lord Grantham is ignorant of the working class in front of his guests, which prompts him to publicly embarrass himself when he snaps at her due to her accusations. In instances like this, whether it was the intention of Julien Fellowes’ writing or not to make her a foil character to the Granthams, the character’s obvious lack of respect offered no redemption or sympathy for the character. The flaw of this character ultimately falls to the actress, Daisy Lewis, who wasn’t able to match her acting to the script demanded of her. Her shortcomings are especially obvious given her character was hastily written out of the show, thus allowing for the remainder of the season to dramatically improve without her. Despite this “issue” the show sought to rectify, Daisy Lewis’ substandard acting was still enough to damage the show’s overall plotline.
Despite this shortcoming, the 5th season of Downton Abbey provided some of the most dense character development the show has seen since its 3rd season. Elizabeth McGovern was finally given more material to work with that gave her character more depth and humanity. It was a relief to finally see McGovern portray Lady Grantham as more than the smiling backdrop she has been relegated to since her magnificent first season on the show. She was able to convey her strengths as a female and mother, while also being the proper lady Downton Abbey requires of her. Through her, her marriage with Lord Grantham was able to be explored more, to which viewers were privy to see that she is susceptible to flattery and flirtation by someone other than her husband. The real test to her character, which McGovern exquisitely acted in this season, was posing the question whether she would act upon those temptations.
Other standouts of this season were Laura Carmichael and her heartbreaking turn as Lady Edith Crawley. After her momentarily achieving happiness in the previous season, only to have it torn from her, she is left with a child she cannot publically call her own. Having the neighboring farmhands taking care of her daughter, Carmichael tragically succeeds in portraying a mother who is far from her child when she is only mere miles from her. The tremendous Joanne Froggatt continues with her storyline dealing with the ramifications of the previous season as well. Her ability to appear so vulnerable, yet be able to be strong, is a true achievement of acting. Froggatt has been a surprise standout for the show since its first season, and her acting in this 5th season is no exception to that. Yet it is both Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan who continue to win the heart and affection of viewers each passing season. The platonic, yet remarkably tender, relationship between Carter’s Carson and Logan’s Mrs. Hughes are a consistent reminder that friendship doesn’t have to be obvious or declared often. It is what one does for another that truly defines a friendship and that is what makes the chemistry between Carson and Mrs. Hughes remarkably beautiful to watch. If for any other reason, this 5th season of Downton is worth watching to see these two excellent actors interact with each other.
With as strong as a supporting cast the show has, it is still anchored by the magnificent on-screen presence of Dame Maggie Smith. Just like for Elizabeth McGovern, this season of Downton gave Maggie Smith a lot more substance to work with regarding her character. While her acting continued to be a scene-stealer in the show’s previous season, Smith was left with not much to do with the character other than being mostly the emotional balance for many of the characters she interacts with. This was quite the contrary with this season, with Smith being given enough material to truly expand upon and add an entirely new dimension to the Countess of Grantham. For the first time on the show, the Countess’ backstory was explored, to which the sentiment of mortality and a life that could have been is explored. Added to that is the touching subplot of the Countess seeking to understand why her friendly adversary, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilson), may be marrying herself off to someone she may not be truly interested in. It is in this subplot that Smith, for the first time, is able to show vulnerability with her character. Her fear of losing her closest friend provides some of the most touching scenes the show has ever had regarding to the Countess. It added the layer that underneath the sassy, sharp-tongued Countess is a woman who doesn’t want to be lonely in her old age. This also shows a true evolution in the character, in contrast to all other characters in this show, in that the Countess despised Isobel Crawley in the show’s first season, to which that irritation has now been revealed to be total admiration for the woman she claims to be continually annoyed with. For her ability to develop the Countess still, Maggie Smith deserves, and undoubtedly will get, another Emmy nomination for her performance in the coming months.
One final thing to acknowledge with this successful season of Downton Abbey is Julian Fellowes’ expert writing and careful focus on the historical backdrop of the show. The dialogue, slang, costumes, and historical events function perfectly within the various plotlines the show provides without ever truly being a distraction. Fellowes is also extraordinary in how he is able to juggle close to seven storylines at once without any of them ever feeling jumbled or rushed, while also giving each actor on the show the chance to exhibit their individual acting talents. Fellowes has proven to be a writing talent since his work on Gosford Park in 2001, and 14 years later his work is still fresh, historically accurate and enticing to watch. With that in perspective, it is remarkable to say that Downton Abbey is still a relevant and innovative show in its current five year run. While the show may be limited on how many seasons it may have left, its 5th season is one of the best seasons the show has ever offered to its viewers.