BURNING UP

‘Downton Abbey’ Review: A Fire, Some Sex, and Sad, Sad Edith

Sweet Jesus, there’s a fire at Downton Abbey. But don’t worry—sad, sad Edith, horny as hell Mary, and St. Cora are all OK. Our reaction to the Season 5 premiere.

01.05.15 3:00 AM ET

The problem with last season’s run of Downton Abbey was that everyone was so damned sad, and the crippling, insufferable sadness made the dreary greys of the British costume drama all the more dull and depressing. Not a damned thing happened.

Well, Downton Season 5 premiered Sunday night in the U.S. on PBS, and things are finally happening.

Don’t be fooled, though. People are still sad. Lady Edith is so sad that her sadness nearly set the whole damned house on fire. Not even her river of tears could put it out! But the pall that was cast over almost the entirety of last season, in the mourning over Matthew and Sybil’s deaths and the ickiness of Anna’s rape, is finally clearing up. Fires are blazing! Plots are moving!

Change is afoot at Downton, and with it a redirection back to the frenzied elegance that defined its first few surprisingly engrossing seasons. The progress is with a grain of salt, though. The plot development is back, but it’s more obtuse than ever.

The devious machinations of the dastardly Thomas are soapier than before. The political themes are head-slappingly obvious, with stodgy Lord Grantham bemoaning the entitled class’s disappearing influence as liberalism and socioeconomic equality sweeps Britain. Even the episode’s big, dramatic set piece—a fire in which no one ever appeared to be in any real danger—seems like a naked and lazy ploy for some action to liven things up.

But even while lacking the nuance that made Downton once so addicting, it’s refreshing that watching the series no longer feels as much of a duty, as it did at times last season, as it does a pleasure.

When the episode begins, we discover that it’s 1924, a year that ushers in a newly elected Labour Party prime minister and, as mentioned before, new levels of Lord Grantham cantankerousness. His crankiness when it comes to change is so steadfast that it’s turned his character into bit of a cartoon curmudgeon. As it turns out, though, cartoon curmudgeons get the best, most ridiculous lines.

“What worries me is that the government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” he tells his family, heating up a temper that will soon boil to the point that steam practically comes out of his ears during a political discussion at his anniversary dinner.

The cause of the conniption fit is Tom’s new friend, village teacher Miss Bunting. She’s a surprise invite to dinner, and arrives on a mission to trumpet her socialist ideal, all the while with poor Lord Grantham ready to rip her a new one. Their confrontation at dinner was, without a doubt, the highlight of the episode. She was such a little ingrate of a shit-stirrer and he was so not having it. Catty bickering at Downton? More please. 

Better yet, when the fire wasn’t blazing in Lady Edith’s bedroom (more on that to come) or in the dinner-table arguments, it was happening in the lords’ and ladies’ loins. Has there ever been a Downton episode with so much talk of sex? Perhaps it was creator/writer Julian Fellowes’s way of signaling that the more modern time (1924) brings with it more modern attitudes about sex (people will have it).

There was the whirling dervish of sexual energy Lady Anstruther, who spun into Downton like a 1920s version of Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, bedding footman James in the process. (Pour one out for poor Thomas, whose unrequited love for James has now morphed in a BFF relationship that cruelly has him assisting in getting James laid.)

There was the pearl-clutching conversation between Lady Mary and Anna, in which she whines about the fact that she’s not allowed to bang a suitor before she marries him. “What could be more important, to make sure that side of things is right before we tie ourselves to someone forever?” she says. Even back when everyone was still puttering around in the Model T, Lady Mary knew that you gotta test drive the car before you buy it, if you know what I’m sayin’.

Then, if that wasn’t enough to make you blush along with Anna, Lord Gillingham, whose very stick-shift Mary is hoping to take for a test spin, surprises Mary in her bedroom and proposes that very thing. “I want us to be lovers, Mary,” he tells her. “I want us to know…everything there is to know about each other. And after then, I know you’ll be sure.” After he bangs her she’ll know he’s the one? The takeaway from the Downton Abbey season premiere, evidently, is that Lord Gillingham either has a very high opinion of himself or is an absolute dynamo in the sack.

But with even the likes of Mr. Bates and the Dowager Countess herself making sexual innuendos throughout the course of the episode, not everyone is so quick to be so déclassé and discuss such uncouth things. We’re of course talking about the infallible Cora, the angel from New York with the patience of a saint, the perplexing eyebrows, and the outward sexual energy of a baby fawn.

Fires blazed everywhere, and Lady Grantham was there to put all of them out with buckets of kindness and a steady stream of understanding. There was the empathetic way she dealt with the revelation that Mrs. Baxter is a former criminal. She gamely went with the flow when her 34th anniversary dinner turned into an episode of The O’Reilly Factor. She was even sweet to that smug ingrate Miss Bunting after she kept insulting everyone at dinner.

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And when the Eeyore of Downton, her little Lady Edith, went and nearly burned down her entire house, the most anger Cora could muster for her daughter was a meager exasperated sigh.  What else could one do, really, when it’s Lady Edith? Oh Edith. Sad, sad Edith.

We’ll hope it’s not foreshadowing that Season 5 of Downton Abbey’s very first shot was of a forlorn Edith passionlessly bicycling down a dusty path while storm clouds loomed in the distance. There’s only so much more depressing this character could possibly get. Girl finally falls in love with a decent guy and he goes and knocks her up out of wedlock before disappearing off the face of the earth, probably dead.

So here we have her in this episode going through the emotional torture of visiting her daughter, who can’t know that she’s her daughter, and then accidentally starting a fire because she falls asleep while weeping over a book left behind by her former lover.