It was, simply put, not the best year for the drama, which had come off the narrative highs of its third season, including the highly emotional deaths of two linchpin characters, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). But, in its fourth, Downton sagged into overt melodrama with storylines involving murder, blackmail, and the shocking and highly controversial rape of Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt). For a series that once had such great promise and potential, it felt like the life had been sucked out of the show somewhat as it was forced to restructure in light of those two high-profile departures.
Resurrecting my crackpot theory that odd-numbered seasons of Downton Abbey are far superior to their even-numbered counterparts (I'm looking at you, Season 2!), the fifth season opener of Julian Fellowes' period drama — which airs Sept. 21 on ITV in the U.K. and Jan. 4, 2015, on PBS's Masterpiece in the U.S. — offers a reinvigorated Downton, one full of downstairs intrigues and domestic drama. The first episode back is a bit of a whirling dervish: There are so many subplots that it's almost impossible to account for all of them.
But rather than feel overwhelming, there's a particularly pleasing rhythm to all of this narrative dance work, with scenes that are short on time but long on significance. Long-simmering plots come to the boil. The ongoing love triangle between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) twists in a most unexpected direction, at least by the standards of the time. (It's 1924, after all.) The relationship between James (Ed Speleers) and Lady Anstruther (a particularly aptly cast Anna Chancellor) is explored with clarity, humor, and a potential resolution. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Violet (Maggie Smith) are once again at odds — their temporary cease-fire marred by a new twist in their rivalry, this time over Isobel's romantic prospects.
Throughout it all, the spectre of Gillingham's dead valet Mr. Green (Nigel Harman) hovers uneasily over the proceedings, threatening to destroy the fragile happiness of Anna and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), whose devotion to each other appears even stronger now, despite suspicious eyes turning toward the couple. And the dark secret harbored by the tremulous Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) — or at least part of it — is finally revealed after being teased out so thoroughly by both Fellowes and by the malevolent Thomas (Rob James-Collier), using it to gain a Svengali-like hold over the lady's maid.
Then there's poor Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), whose anguish over secretly giving up the child she conceived with missing paramour Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) becomes even more palpable with the baby — the adorably named Marigold — living on the estate, just out of her grasp. That Edith should still be able to check in on Marigold, as much as propriety might allow for, might help to assuage the loss that she feels, but the gravitational pull between mother and child may prove impossible for Edith to resist, even as she risks exposure. Edith has, most remarkably, of late become an incredibly sympathetic figure, and even her more damning actions in this episode (I won't spoil what they are exactly) don't derail the character's redemption. Carmichael infuses Edith with such pathos and barely restrained emotion — she appears to be perpetually on the verge of tears so far — that it's difficult not to empathize with the character, even when Lady Mary deploys a typically cutting remark against her sister toward the end of the episode.
On that front, Lady Mary seems to have returned to form, and Dockery appears to be relishing having Mary back at her sniping, eyebrow-raising best: She gets to fire off some of the sharpest lines of the episode, proving that she definitely inherited the deadly heat-seeking wit of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith). It was important to the narrative that Mary should mourn the death of Matthew, but it's equally important now that Mary is able to return to the character's innate mix of prickliness and charm as well. Dockery's Mary is smart, sly, and sexy and the episode gives her the ability to showcase these attributes while not restricting her from also being maternal and caring as well, proving that these modes of behavior are not mutually exclusive.
Elsewhere, the return of Harriet Walter's Lady Shackleton and the appearance of Chancellor's Lady Anstruther are welcome additions to the sprawling cast, which reduced its number by a few over the last two seasons. While it's unclear how much of an impact either character will ultimately make, their brief appearances in the first episode offer intriguing possibilities for future storylines. (Richard E. Grant's Simon Bricker, meanwhile, will show up in the second episode and I'm already anticipating that he creates quite a stir at Downton.)
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham, and Richard E. Grant as Simon Bricker; Brendan Coyle as John Bates and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates Nick Briggs / Carnival Films 2014 for MASTERPIECE
But the true joy of the episode, directed by returnee Catherine Morshead, is the elegant way in which nearly every character becomes enmeshed in a subplot or two, especially this early in the season. Part of the problem with Season 4 was that many of the characters had precious little to do except offer up stern looks or glower with surprise. That is not the case with the Season 5 premiere, fortunately: The aforementioned whirlwind of plot affords everyone the ability to participate in some way, from Miss Baxter and Molesley (Kevin Doyle) — who, yet again, offers some much-needed comic relief — to Carson (Jim Carter) and the Earl of Grantham himself, Robert (Hugh Bonneville).
The latter is given new focus here, as the show continues its exploration of shifting societal tides and mores and the ongoing transformation of the serving and ruling classes. Yes, there is a moment where Robert's privilege shows during an ornate dinner party, but there are also scenes of tenderness for Robert as well, allowing the Crawley paterfamilias the opportunity to interact in new ways with Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Mary, and Tom Branson (Allen Leech). He and Mary have a particularly sweet exchange, and the final scene between Robert and Tom is particularly masterful and surprisingly touching, given the usual friction between the two men.
That is not to say that the episode is without flaw: There is a strain of far-too-easy-simplicity that crops up within Downton from time to time, a sense that you can see plots intersecting from a mile away, whether it be Daisy (Sophie McShera) looking to better her mathematics skills and — lo and behold! — local schoolteacher Miss Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis), Tom's new love interest, teaches mathematics! The outcome of a plot involving the household arrangements seems fairly certain, until a character saves the day and saves his or her job once more. Downton has the ability to surprise, so it's galling when Fellowes relies on telegraphing action in advance, or falls back on a structure (reversal-shift-reversal) that he's used with the same character a few times already.
But, even given that pitfall, I'm intrigued to see at which destinations the promising fifth season of Downton Abbey arrives. It feels, even if temporarily, like a return to the glorious highs of past seasons — there's a mesmerizing instability and possibility to the first episode, a sense of shifting tectonic plates and dynamics between the characters. Change has never stopped short of the walls of the Abbey, but has instead permeated the actions of everyone, upstairs and down. If Fellowes can succeed at making such societal changes feel both personal and universal, and continue to propel the characters into new but logical directions in Season 5, I'm more than happy to remain at Downton for many years to come.