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Review: ‘Downton Abbey’ Season 5, Episode 1 Reveals Secrets, But Fails to Scandalize

Review: 'Downton Abbey' Season 5, Episode 1 Reveals Secrets, But Fails to Scandalize

Upstairs

Last season’s big plotline was Lady Edith’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy — which went largely unnoticed since her family unapologetically prefers Lady Sibyl-like Cousin Rose — and now it looks like we’re in for a season of her trying to keep her secret close to home. Since no one ever pays any attention to Edith, this shouldn’t be difficult — although somehow the pig farmer who took the baby in didn’t buy Edith’s extremely plausible “take this child whose mother is 100 percent completely dead and not me, and I’ll pop by every day to hug her and look mournful” plan. He’s worked out that she’s little Marigold’s mother, but his wife thinks that Edith has designs on a different member of the family altogether. Oh, and for some reason the pig farmer is also the resident fireman, which comes in awkwardly handy when Edith manages to set fire to her bedroom.

READ MORE: Watch: George Clooney Crashes ‘Downton Abbey’ For Charity Christmas Special

Lord and Lady Grantham are having marital problems of their own, although Robert is largely oblivious, to the point of forgetting their anniversary. It seems that Cora is getting tired of being less of a character than an occasionally convenient plot device — a bewildering choice from creator Julian Fellowes, since Elizabeth McGovern is considerably more talented than some of her co-stars, Hugh Bonneville included. What this says for the Countess’ future is uncertain — but since McGovern’s band, Sadie and the Hotheads, have been touring a lot lately, the Earl might want to pay more attention to his wife unless he wants to lose her to Spanish flu or upcoming guest star Richard E. Grant…

Meanwhile, you wouldn’t think that such an already-bloated cast would need any addition, but it seems that, having adjusted to life as a single father and proxy aristocrat, Tom is now in the market for a love interest. Spirited socialist teacher Miss Bunting seems to have wandered in from a different series altogether where she plays the spunky, iconoclastic lead — she clearly thinks she’s being charmingly modern, when actually she’s just the rather rude love interest of a less-than-interesting character. Poor Tom — he even gets upstaged by his daughter, who has taken to calling Lord Crawley ‘Donk’ in a misplaced attempt to remind us that he’s a family man. Then again, since one of his grandchildren is currently being raised by a pig farmer who moonlights as a fireman, that’s the least of his problems.

Downstairs


As usual, the real action is happening below stairs. The new Labour government has given the servants a newfound sense of importance — even though none of them can actually vote — and Carson is shocked to find that the villagers want him to head up the War Memorial committee rather than Lord Grantham. Given that Carson presumably has very little to do with the local community and Robert literally owns most of it, there is absolutely no justification for this other than the villagers trolling the aristocracy.

Frustrated with the prospect of life in service, Daisy is bettering herself. “I want to be grown up, Mrs. Patmore!” she cries. But given the unnaturally slow rate at which these characters age — it’s been 12 years since the first episode and she’s still as baby-faced as ever — she might have to wait a while.

Not-Gay-Footman-Jimmy reminds us how Not Gay he is by inexplicably being pursued by his former employer, the gorgeous Lady Anstruther. However, he isn’t very happy about it, despite the fact that she’s played by the statuesque, vampy Anna Chancellor and he looks like a hamster. That doesn’t stop him ending up in bed with her, though only to be discovered by Lord Grantham, who selflessly risks life and limb by barging into an attractive unmarried woman’s bedroom to tell her that there’s a fire.

Despite their paddle in the ocean at the end of the last season, Carson and Mrs. Hughes don’t seem any closer to making their relationship any more than professional, but as ever they steal the show with little more than a few arched eyebrows. Carson in particular is resisting change for all he’s worth, making the portentous statement:

“I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on, that everything I believe in will be tested and held up to ridicule in the next couple of years.”

He’s not the only one — Spratt, the Dowager Countess’ butler, has to suffer the indignity of serving cake to Dr. Clarkson.

In My Lady’s Chamber


It’s all going on with the lady’s maids in this episode — one on hand, we have Baxter finally confessing her deep dark secrets to Cora, and on the other we have Mary canvassing Anna’s opinion on pre-marital sex.

Baxter, it turns out, is a former jewel thief who’s served jail time for it. She makes a tearful confession to Cora, allowing McGovern to trot out the ‘disappointed but affectionate’ expression she normally reserves for Edith. It looks like she’s not going anywhere for now — after O’Brien, Cora’s standards for maids is pretty low — meaning that she and Molesley can carry on giving each other adorably shy smiles.

Mary and Anna’s friendship gets short shrift in the show these days, expect when Mary lets her guard down and confesses that she doesn’t want to “tie [herself] to someone forever” without knowing what they’re like in the sack. As well as giving Michelle Dockery the chance to play something other than haughty and unapproachable, it also seems to imply that the late lamented Matthew was a bit of a dud in the bedroom.

Guest Star of the Week

We’re spoilt for choice here, with both Anna Chancellor and Harriet Walter making blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances, both doing what they do best. Chancellor plays arch and sexually predatory Lady Anstruther and Walter is stuffy but wry as the Dowager’s old friend Lady Shackleton, introduced and quickly discarded as a potential suitor for the Isobel-smitten Lord Merton. Both actresses could easily carry weighty subplots on their perfectly sculpted shoulders, so perhaps they just happened to be visiting the set and Julian Fellowes decided to shoehorn them into the script.

Grade: B-

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Downton Abbey’ Is On Fire (Literally) in Season 5 Trailer

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