The fast-moving new season of “Downton Abbey” is set in 1924,
with the tide of Modernism sweeping through the household. The Labor Party has come
into power, and as Lord Grantham crankily says, “Our government is committed to
the destruction of us and everything we stand for.” It’s not just the
government. In the 12 years that have passed since the beginning of the story,
the Crawley sisters have morphed into subversives undermining their own social
order, sometimes by design and sometimes accidentally.
The show’s glittering surface is more entertaining than
ever. Lady Mary’s exquisitely designed 1920’s clothes are enough to guarantee
some glamour. But the changes go far beyond sheath dresses and bobbed hair.
Sybil was the one true radical, who dared to elope with the
chauffeur. One of her legacies is that widowed Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is now
a beloved member of the family.
When Sybil died, the torch passed upward to poor Edith — and
is there really anything else to call her, even now? Edith (Laura Carmichael) began
a mildly feminist career in journalism, and fell in love with her married
editor. At the end of last season she stashed their illegitimate child away
with one of Downton’s tenant families. But hapless Edith makes such a nuisance
of herself with the tenant family that the wife finally slams the door in her
face, Milady or not.
As a rebel, Poor Edith is a shabby substitute for fiery Sybil.
She’s not radical enough to destroy her reputation by acknowledging the illegitimate
child. Yet she nudges the Crawleys toward
This season Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), ever poised and
imperious, makes her own stab at social rebellion. It would give away too much
to say more, but it’s significant that her action is not taken on principle. As
usual, Mary simply wants things her way. Her rejection of strict social codes is
designed to serve her own future happiness, not to rebel against the past.
Many of these forward-looking choices seem driven by writer
Julian Fellowes’ need to create drama. But whatever the Crawleys’ motives,
every small act of resistance chips away at the once-impenetrable foundation of
the British aristocracy. Even Lord Grantham, (appealingly played by Hugh
Bonneville as stodgy but endearing) so vocally resistant to change, has proven
to be a pushover. It may take him a while, but he always gives in, whether it’s
to the chauffeur as son-in-law or changes to the economy of running Downton.
Fellowes keeps the season moving with a great swirl of
rapidly-developing romances for almost everyone, even the unlikely suspects.
(There are very slight spoilers ahead, if you’re extra-sensitive about that
kind of thing.)
The Dowager is unsettled by a down-on-his-luck, White
Russian Prince from her past. Magically, it seems, Maggie Smith never overplays
the many witticisms Fellowes hands her. Violet and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) are
now great friends, but that friendship is challenged when middle-class Isobel
gains an aristocratic suitor.
Cousin Rose (Lily James), once a whiny annoyance, has become
more likable. Her romance with a black man last season announced her disregard
for social taboos, but seemed like a social theme wrenched into place. This
season she follows her heart in a slightly less scandalous direction. She falls for a Jewish man whose own titled father
resists the match. So does Rose’s mother, effectively played as a wretched harridan
by Phoebe Nicholls. Rose’s plot gives Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) some
irresistible opportunities to remind the socially obtuse that her own father
was Jewish. Richard E. Grant plays an art historian who arrives at Downton to
look at the Della Francesca painting and stays to flirt with Cora.
Not all the melodrama works, especially downstairs. The investigation
into the death of the man who raped Anna drags on. In the swift new atmosphere
of this season that feels like flogging a dead plot, until a crucial twist in
the next-to-last episode. The loyal Carson (Jim Carter) complains that the
staff is getting smaller and things are changing for the worse; Fellowes has
him announce this too often and too heavily.
More intriguing, though, some downstairs characters become
landowners as they plan for their retirements. That may be the surest indication
that Modernism has reached Downton. The entire season is one clever move: staying
faithful to the glamorous distant figures, who let us indulge our fantasies,
while drawing them closer to a world of equality and mobility that we