Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Sex, Lies, and Afternoon Tea: DOWNTON ABBEY RETURNS

It’s a new year, 1924, and a Labour Party government has just been elected. The Granthams are embracing sustainable farming technology. The county is memorializing its dead and moving on from the war. All of the grandchildren (legitimate and . . . well . . . not) are thriving. So what’s on the mind of everyone at Downton Abbey?

Sex, apparently.

If, like millions of enthusiastic American Anglophiles, you tuned into PBS this past Sunday night, you probably relished returning to Downton Abbey. The new season jumped pretty quickly into the romance and intrigue we’ve come to love. But there was a decidedly modern theme to the premiere episode, and it wasn’t so much about battlefields as about boudoirs. The roaring ’20s have arrived! And the Charleston isn’t the only thing they’re “doing.”

A friendly word of warning: If you haven’t watched Season 5’s first episode yet, by all means stop reading. Run, do not walk, to your television or and find out when it will air again. There are spoilers ahead, and plenty of them!

Downton Abbey Season 5Watch Season 5, Episode 1, now streaming online at PBS Masterpiece.

The first hint of delicious impropriety comes from Lady Violet, of all people. In an early scene, she’s walking with her cousin Isobel Crawley; they’ve become a rather unexpected but delightful duo, sniping their way through afternoon tea together. Isobel is being wooed by a wealthy widower, much to her surprise. Lady Violet dismisses it, explaining that he “just wants what all men want.” Isobel hushes her “Don’t be ridiculous!” To which, Lady Violet retorts “I was referring to companionship, as I hope you were.” Zing!

The younger Crawleys are feeling frisky too. Having narrowed down her suitors to one: Lord Gillingham (she thinks), Lady Mary is tempted to play the merry widow. On a quick hunting trip that looks like a cover shoot for a Barbour jacket catalog (Branson’s been asked to bag a rabbit for Mrs. Patmore), she tells him that she still isn’t sure. She voices the same concerns to Anna. She loves him “in my cold, unfeeling way,” but there’s something missing. Hmmmm. What can it be?

It ain’t “companionship.”

This slightly suggestive waffling spurs the elegant Gillingham to sneak into Mary’s room after hours. (Gasp!) He makes an offer she chooses not to refuse. He wants to run away together, to become lovers. They’ll get to know each other (there’s a polite euphemism for you) and then she’ll know that he’s the one. Mary agrees without saying so. “No one must ever know!”

Branson has befriended a local schoolteacher, the extremely liberal (almost revolutionary) Miss Bunting. Lord Grantham despises her. Besides the fact that she can’t spend a moment in the family’s company without challenging their views and publicly insulting them, Robert believes that she and Branson spent the night together while the others were away. “We’re not lovers,” Branson assures him, effectively flummoxing him with a direct reference to, you guessed it, sex.

Meanwhile, poor Edith (can we ever mention the Lady Edith without that succinct adjective?) is pining away for her lost love (murdered probably by the German “brown shirts”) and for her lost love child (tucked away with an adoptive family in the village). Although Edith isn’t seeing much romantic action these days, I’ll point out that it was her naughty behavior that got her into the current predicament. So even poor Edith isn’t immune to the spring fever that seems to be running rampant at Downton.

The servants aren’t immune to it, either. Below stairs, we savor the usual frenzy of activity and grumbling. Mrs. Hughes and Carson still haven’t realized that they’re meant for each other, but there are other amorous adventures. The hapless Moseley has a crush on Cora’s lady’s maid, Baxter, who harbors a dark secret. Perennial bad guy Barrow still has a crush on handsome footman (and determined heterosexual) Jimmy. We even have unprecedented friskiness displayed by that noblest of couples, Anna and Mr. Bates. When she worries that they haven’t conceived yet (my words, not hers, of course), he hints that he can think of “one way” to work on that. Et tu, Mr. Bates? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Of the aforementioned pairings, perhaps the most poignant is Barrow and Jimmy. More evidence of the changing times can be found in a new sense of candor about “sexual deviants.” Despite his own feelings, Barrow helps Jimmy hook up with his old employer, Lady Anstruther, a sexual predator of grand proportions. When Jimmy shrugs and says, “We all settle down eventually,” Barrow responds “We don’t all have the option.”

Moseley would like the option, and goes so far as dying his sparse hair with what may have been squid ink to appear more attractive to Baxter. He encourages her to go to Cora and confess whatever it is that Barrow has been threatening to reveal. It turns out that she stole jewelry from a previous employer, was caught, and spent three years in prison. Although Cora presses her, she refuses to reveal why she committed the crime.

I think we can assume it had something to do with . . . s-e-x.

Now, I have a confession myself. Although I watched Downton Abbey Sunday night (and loved every minute of it), I’d already seen it. This year and last, we ordered the series from it aired in England in the fall. In addition to the cost of the disks, we had to invest in a new international Blu-Ray player, so our impatience was expensive. But, it was worth it. (The way I looked at it, it was still less than the alternative: flying to London and living in a hotel there for eight weeks.) So, without giving too much away, here are some things you should look for in the coming weeks:

The Mr. Green trouble isn’t over for Anna and Mr. Bates.

Poor Edith’s obsession with Marigold will get her into trouble.

Lord Grantham’s perpetual dismissal of Cora will get them both into trouble.

Branson’s blossoming friendship with Miss Bunting will cause trouble all around.

Through all of these trials and tribulations, however, you can count on the gorgeous costumes, the breathtaking English countryside, the characters we’ve come to love (and hate), and Maggie Smith’s magnificent one-liners. Welcome back, Downton Abbey. We’ve missed you so!

(Oh, and did I mention? There will probably be some sex.)


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  • Toni Myers January 8, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    Belatedly, bravo for this brilliant review. So much fun to read AFTER enjoying episode one. keep on writing about Downton!
    Your fan,

  • Mickey January 6, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Oh, come on! Eight weeks in a London hotel?! What were you thinking: instead you bought the international blu-ray player!? Thank you.

  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger January 6, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Great overview and encouragement… thank you. Also – I was so transfixed on Sunday night I stayed tuned for the follow-up show on DA manners. It’s wonderful! All about how the clothes affect the characters and their character.

  • Phyllis Dupret January 6, 2015 at 7:50 am

    I was delighted with the seasonal return of Downton Abbey…thank you for your terrific review…