The strains of the piano theme “Did I Make the Most of Loving You?,” not heard for nearly a year, are bound to delight those who adore Downton Abbey when it returns to PBS for a fifth season Jan. 4.
When Season 4 ended, viewers who revel in these genteel times were left wondering about the characters.
At the start of Season 5, it’s 1924, about six months since things left off, and a most modern time — far too modern for the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville). His usual instinct, to stand resolute against any change, continues to govern him. He bristles at everything, and his marriage to Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) suffers some strains.
Months before the show airs in America, the actors worried about divulging spoilers. Yet it is safe to say that Edith (Laura Carmichael) may well wear the mantle of television’s most tragic woman.
Edith’s ongoing heartbreak is that her lover, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), has vanished. Worse — she was pregnant when he disappeared. She went to Switzerland to have the baby, and planned to give it up for adoption, but instead kept her, though she cannot bring her daughter to Downton because of the scandal this would cause. An out-of-wedlock child for Lady Edith and forging a new life will, later in the season, require the brain trust of most of the Crawley women.
“She had the baby and brought the child back to the estate,” Carmichael says, looking far more glamorous in person than she’s allowed to as the dowdier sister on the show. “The child is living with the Drewe family, who looks after the pigs. They pride themselves on being very loyal to the Crawleys.”
“It’s a knife edge and a very difficult position,” Carmichael continues. No one knows what happened to Gregson; the Crawleys suspect he is dead, though Edith cannot mourn as a widow since she wasn’t yet married.
And, adding to Edith’s misery, “God, Mary’s being awful. We are both widows now, but Mary doesn’t know it is as important to Edith,” Carmichael says.
“You have to keep your fingers crossed for Edith,” Carmichael adds. “I hope people can bear it. Am I going to drive people crazy? For God’s sake, woman — stop crying! It’s a beautiful story, showing how difficult things were for women, and the thought of giving up your child is heartbreaking.”
Meanwhile, Mary (Michelle Dockery), who has always had a deliciously haughty streak, particularly when it comes to Edith, is simply cruel and dismissive to her this season.
Still, Mary has climbed out of her all-encompassing depression after her own husband’s death. “She’s through the grief and is embracing the social climate, embracing the fashion,” Dockery says. “She’s out of the violets and blacks and got her spirit back. She is taking on more responsibility of the estate with Branson, and she’s enjoying that, and spending a little bit more time with George [her son].”
“Mary has peace this year,” Dockery adds. “That feisty nature you see in Series 1 is back.”
And, while still fiercely independent, Mary upholds the traditions of Downton, despite surreptitiously bucking the confines placed on women of the time. She takes some very daring steps this season.
“Mary welcomes the social changes,” Dockery says. “She just embraces everything. Some of the characters find the changes difficult.”
One of the lovelier aspects of the new season, say Dockery and Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson, Mary’s brother-in-law, is the deepening of their characters’ friendship as they assume more of the stewardship of the estate.
“He is sharing responsibility with Lady Mary,” Leech says. “They have a lovely relationship in Season 5 and become friends. They turn to each other in confidence.”
“I’m really enjoying this year because it feels so new,” Dockery adds.
To ensure nothing too new sneaks in — such as the plastic water bottle that accidentally was part of a promotional photograph last year — the show relies on a set historian, Alastair Bruce.
He’s featured in a one-hour documentary that follows the season premiere of Downton Abbey. Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton says Bruce “makes sure everybody wears their gloves exactly the right length and the forks and knives are all in the right place so nobody goes to jail.”
Downton Abbey Season 5 > PBS > Sundays at 9pm ET beginning Jan. 4 (check local listings)
Courtesy of ©Nick Briggs/Carnival Films 2014 for MASTERPIECE