Downton Abbey, Season 5, PBS

The latest season of the beloved family drama continues the lofty level of writing, directing and acting admired in prior years.

Written and created by Julian Fellowes

Directed by Catherine Morshead, Philip John, Minkie Spiro and Michael Engler

Starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Laura Carmichael, Joanne Froggatt, Allen Leech

Guest Stars include Richard E. Grant, Anna Chancellor, Rade Sherbedgia, Harriet Walter

PBS stations, Sundays, Jan. 4 through Feb. 22, 2015 (9 p.m. ET/PT)

An extremely entertaining Season 5 of “Downton Abbey” continues the spellbinding costume drama created and written by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes. This season’s focus is the modernity of the mid-1920s. It is a time of expanding opportunities for the Crawleys as well as their staff, as all the Downton residents see a loosening of the strict chains of comportment that had controlled them.

The new season begins in 1924 with the election of a Labour government. Having a Prime Minister from the working class brings optimism and hope to most of the servants. Some jump for the new freedoms with both feet, notably a maturing Daisy (Sophie McShera), while others, notably the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), like the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), need to be cajoled by their loyalty to the King just to listen to the “wireless.”

The Right Honourable Robert Crawley and his rich American wife, Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), are still living at Downton Abbey with their extended family, the yet unmarried Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), a more independent Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), a more mellow Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the family’s former chauffeur and husband of the late Sybil, and, ever society’s rule-breaker, cousin and ward Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James).

Both Crawley daughters experiment with new modes of social behavior. Lady Mary uses a tried and true method to decide if one of her two suitors will be good husband material, while Lady Edith struggles to find a socially acceptable means of maintaining a maternal relationship with her daughter. And despite more heartbreak for Edith, will she, for once, manage to find a satisfying situation?

The Crawley family has grown to love Tom Branson. He is Mary’s partner in managing the estate, although Robert makes his presence felt. Tom’s friendship with a local teacher with socialist leanings, Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) makes him recognize that while he grows more comfortable at Downton Abbey, he will never be one of the family.

The relationship between Grandmother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), and Mrs. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) grows a bit twisted this season, despite the closeness that the two achieved last year. We see an unflattering side of Violet, as she tries to manipulate Isobel’s future to suit her own wishes.

The first-rate cast of servants still includes my favorite, Carson the butler, Mrs. Patmore the cook (Leslie Nichol), Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper (Phyllis Logan), Molesley (Kevin Doyle — who is growing on me), Thomas Barrow the footman cum valet (Rob James-Collier), the ever mysterious John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his wife, ladies’ maid Anna Bates (Joanne Frogatt).

Anna and Bates, individually and as a couple, are still experiencing the effects of Anna’s rape by Green, the dastardly visiting valet, who was murdered last season. We learn more about the sad history of the ladies’ maid Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and why she was able to be blackmailed by Thomas Barrow.

My review of last season’s “Downton Abbey” stated that “Thomas the footman is still a one-dimensional, much exaggerated character. If I were writing ‘Downton Abbey,’ I would develop his character more subtly or write him out of the script.” I’m sure it is just a coincidence, but this season does bring new depth and dimension to Thomas.

In addition to the activities of the Crawleys and their staff, we glimpse some interesting geo-political consequences of the 1910s. The village initiates a memorial for the dead solders of World War One, prompting, among other things, a discussion of whether the War served any purpose. The Russian Revolution brings a group of poverty stricken émigré princes to London. They become Rose’s latest charity. And strangely enough, Violet knew one of them long ago.

Season 5 of “Downton Abbey” is wonderful. Happily, it continues the lofty level of writing, directing and acting that we have loved in the prior seasons. The costumes, sets and high production values continue to shine.

Critics were sent all the episodes, except the finale that airs on Feb. 22, 2015, “The Christmas Special.” It has not yet been shipped to me. Consequently, like you, I don’t know the ending. Although we’ll all be unhappy to see Season 5 conclude, there is good news. A new Season 6 will continue to follow the family and their servants. So there is more “Downton Abbey” to anticipate with pleasure.

Emily S. Mendel
emilymendel@gmail.com
©Emily S. Mendel 2014 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.