Recap of Downton Abbey Season 5: Episode 1 premiere (original airdate Jan. 4, 2015) There are some Downton Abbey fans who, in keeping with the genteel manners of the show, would never pirate the season early from the U.K. or read the millions of words spilled on spoilers. For those who waited, and even for those who could not, we recap the long-anticipated premiere of Season 5.
It opens with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) on a bicycle, gazing lovingly at a little girl. Of course this is Edith’s child whom she can’t lay claim to because she had her out of wedlock. And with that scene, the mood is set for Edith.
At Downton, the Crawleys are having tea and discussing the politics of the day, as more toddlers make their appearance. Sybbie, the daughter of Tom Branson (Allen Leech, pictured) and the late Lady Sybil, and George, the son of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her late husband, Matthew, are brought in for their brief family time. The children are instant reminders that the young single parents have decisions they must face this season.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) reminds the cooks it is the Crawleys 34th anniversary this week, so they might want to start planning.
This episode features the miseries of Lady Edith. She visits — a bit too often — the Drewe family who took in the girl. Edith dandles Marigold, who happens to have the exact shade of strawberry blond hair as she. Each time Edith must take leave of her daughter you can feel her heart breaking.
The first episode does a grand job of getting in most of the major players and so we soon have a scene with the Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley (Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton). Five minutes in, we are reminded that Maggie Smith gets the best lines on television with: “There is nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like; avoiding one’s friends that’s the real test.”
While politics are changing in 1924, some traditions will not, and the household remains under the steel grip of Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). With the family dressed in their usual finery for a dinner at home, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) tells his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), that he wants to have Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) over to “inspire thoughts of marriage” to Mary.
Oh, little does he know! Gillingham had proposed to Mary, and she is mulling it over. Mary confides in her maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), how odd it is that people decide to spend their lives with someone without first having sex. Of course she does not say the word sex. Still, Anna all but immolates with embarrassment at the mention of this topic. Mary pushes on, saying, “What could be more important than making sure that side of things is right before we tie ourselves to someone forever?”
One of the plots established in the opener, and which can continue through the season, is the town wants to erect a memorial to the fallen dead from the war. When the burgeoning committee members call on Robert Crawley, he’s certain they want him to head it. Rather, they just want his land. They want Carson as chairman. Carson, who finds this all most irregular, eventually allows himself to serve if they make the lord a figurehead. Of course he will not tell his boss, that would be awkward and awkward must be avoided at all costs.
If only all of the staff followed Carson’s lead when it comes to avoiding awkward situations. Thomas Barrow, the gay valet, shows some seriously vicious streaks as he threatens Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), Lady Cora’s personal maid. Baxter had stolen jewels from a former employer, and did a stint in prison. Barrow knew her past, yet had recommended Baxter for the position so he could try to manipulate her, gleaning information to make himself more powerful in the household.
Barrow’s plan backfires when Baxter confesses to Cora. Cora is hardly thrilled, but she is more annoyed with Barrow, whom she intuits has another agenda. Lady Grantham considers firing Barrow, and may until the very end of the episode.
But before we can get there, we must deal with the return of the bombastic teacher, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis), one of the series’ more one-dimensional characters. Will she and Tom become involved? It seems less likely than it once did. Sure, he understands her stridency, and agrees with some of her politics, but he has also come to understand the Crawleys and loves them, an emotion Miss Bunting will never understand.
When Rose (Lily James), the other rather one-dimensional character, is allowed to invite young people to liven up the dinner party honoring the Crawley’s anniversary, she asks Miss Bunting. Even Miss Bunting knows this is a bad idea, yet she attends.
As always, Cora is the epitome of grace. There’s a wonderful glimpse into her marriage when she sits at her vanity, moisturizing her hands – please, it’s not as if she has dishpan callouses. Her husband is blathering on and she knows he is wrong. Cora gives one of those smiles; a smile that swallows words yet speaks volumes. It lets us in that there are cracks in this union of 34 years.
The season opener also has Daisy, (Sophie McShera) the assistant cook, want to better herself and learn math. This could be an opening for Miss Bunting, who could tutor Daisy. After all, Daisy is trying to figure out her future, as is Mary.
Mary says to Tony, “I do love you know in my cold and unfeeling way.”
Mary does want to marry again, she says, she’s just afraid of making a mistake. Tony tells her to take a chance on him, then makes a most scandalous suggestion — remember this is 1924. He asks her to go away with him for a week, where they can really get to know each other. She will do it, providing no one ever finds out.
When the family and guests finally sit down to the anniversary dinner, the Earl toasts his wife: “Marriage is a lottery as we are often told, but I am a man who has been drawn a winning ticket. I have been awarded a bumper prize, beauty, brains, a heart, a conscience all in one. I give you, my Cora, the best companion in the world.”
Miss Bunting, though, pretty much single-handedly destroys the dinner. While Isobel champions the young teacher’s right to an unpopular opinion – the Earl finds it so reprehensible, he forbids her opinion. The man really should have been king and he could have chopped off the head of someone so impertinent.
The scene at the anniversary dinner would have been the high drama for the episode, but little trumps a fire. Yes, Edith the broken-hearted strikes again. She tosses a book into her fireplace before crying herself to sleep, but the book bounced, landed on a rug, and soon her room is consumed in flames.
It’s Barrow to the rescue. In passing her room, he sees the smoke billowing, and screams for help. He carries out Edith, who has passed out. The Earl of Grantham and Tom Branson prove themselves valiant dousing flames until firefighters arrive.
Cora admits she was considering firing Barrow, but his bravery ensures continued employment. In a perfect line, capturing the sisters’ relationship, Mary says, “Lady Edith chose to set fire to her room, but we are fine.”
And at the end of the season’s first episode, Downton Abbey remains standing, yet we see the cracks in the decades-old marriage that has kept it going.
Photos: Credit: Nick Briggs/PBS