As they digest the show’s fifth season, Downton Abbey diehards will stumble repeatedly into the same conversation again and again, almost as if they’re characters in a British costume melodrama doomed by its success. The conversation will explore whether Downton is experiencing a return to form following a wobbly, dubious fourth season that repeatedly fishtailed, often when it most seemed like creator Julian Fellowes was in the midst of a plan to stabilize the show’s increasingly histrionic plotting. The conversation will be frustrating, no matter how many times it recurs. And it may never reach a natural conclusion, because while Downton’s fifth season doesn’t quite return to form, it appears to do so often enough to make viewers consider what a Downton renaissance is supposed to look like.
The season’s first two installments cut a fine figure of a revitalized Downton, recapturing the elegance and frenzy of the show at its best. Fellowes could have done the merciful thing for exhausted quasi-fans in search of a clean break. He could have started with a couple maddening hours packed with plot twists cribbed from radio soaps, but instead, Downton is the radio soap, with Rose (Lily James) struggling to convince a rigid Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to install a wireless in the Crawley estate. For such a trifling matter to stir excitement and stoke hope feels counterintuitive, but Rose’s campaign is precisely the kind of tiny, human beat that feels like the show is making progress after a creative slump during which Melrose Palace seemed a more fitting title.
Rose and Robert’s debate turns out to be of more consequence than it initially appears, with the Lord’s attempts to reconcile his feelings about the radio reminding him of his rigidity, the quality most likely to do him in during a time of upheaval. No one would accuse Fellowes of subtlety for choosing the radio as a symbol of uncomfortable advancement, but it’s effective, invoking thematic elements that initially lend the season a feeling of momentum even when it’s short on shocking events. Here, the zeitgeist is enough to put the Crawley ecosystem on edge in a season informed by anxiety and instability.
Downton picks up in early 1924, following the election of Britain’s first Labour party prime minister, which sets Lord Grantham back on his heels and provides him his latest opportunity to declare the beginning of the end. A feeling of tranquility is supposed to be among the perks of sprawling wealth, but Robert is as paranoid as ever. “What worries me is that our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” he says of the incoming prime minister. A sentiment so hyperbolic shouldn’t resonate, but it rings true coming from someone for whom affluence is a load-bearing element of his identity. Rich characters ignite when their tony lifestyles are imperiled, and season five smartly injects a financial uncertainty that’s arguably more unsettling than season three’s adversity because it’s abstract.
There’s as much unease downstairs as upstairs, as Anna and John Bates (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle) navigate the aftermath of Anna’s brutal rape. Anna’s attack was easily season four’s worst story choice. A common pitfall for serialized dramas structured around twists and turnabouts manifested itself as Downton’s Anna story last season, which felt too icky and manipulative to be narrative fair play. Anna’s victimization is an unhealthy dose of Downton excess that smacks of Fellowes’ desperation to wring some kind of emotion out of an audience wise to the show’s structural flaws.
Season five still doesn’t know quite what to do with Anna as she recovers, with the attack looming over the season as a mystery involving her rapist Mr. Green (Nigel Harman) intensifies. It almost seems as if Fellowes feels obligation to divvy up the entire world’s supply of tragedy between two or three characters, and this season, Anna has taken some of the burden off Edith (Laura Carmichael). Not that Edith is having an easy go of it: She shows layers beneath her thorny exterior as she navigates complex emotions after surrendering her daughter, scenes among Carmichael’s best work. Edith’s story has an emotional clarity Anna’s lacks, but season five won’t quash critics who accuse Downton of going out of its way to punish its women.
That said, there’s a streak of modernity in some of the womens’ stories, which seems like an olive branch to those who took issue with season four’s gender politics. What agency Anna and Edith may lack, Mary (Michelle Dockery) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) more than compensate for. Mary is still allowing Charles (Julian Ovenden) and Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) to orbit her, and she flouts social norms as she considers her suitors, but more importantly, seems like she’s beginning to untangle herself outside the context of the man in her life. The Dowager has a similarly surprising journey with a suitor, allowing Smith to expose more delicate layers of the character, while remaining the ideal conduit for Fellowes’ cutting wit.
The casual intrigue that defines season five’s early episodes gives way to a back half characterized by major event planning and the nagging feeling the plot is being overhandled. But at this stage in Downton’s life cycle, plot-induced irritation and dread might be the cost of doing business for those who can’t tire of its beauty, its sweep, its attention to detail, and its mischievous sense of humor. To its credit, when season five’s narrative begins to crescendo it does so more assuredly than in last season, or the ramshackle second season. Downton builds to a fifth-season finale equally capable of delighting and perplexing, but it succeeds in moving its characters to interesting positions of the show’s already inked sixth season.
It’s unclear what the future holds for Downton beyond next season, but Fellowes has made enough overtures about future endeavors to suggest the Crawleys’ saga is far closer to its end than its beginning. It could simply be the power of suggestion, but the dramatic peaks feel purposeful not perfunctory. Downton’s stabilized fifth season could bleed into a climactic sixth season, perhaps one with the considered narrative risks and revitalized rhythms not seen since the show began. A return to form probably isn’t in Downton’s future, but with any luck, it can transform into something different but just as vital.