A RETURN TO DOWNTON
The winds of war swirl around the Crawley family in Season 5.
Jan. 4, PBS
The weight of historical inevitability hangs over Downton Abbey as the post-Edwardian period drama prepares to raise the curtain on its fifth season, on Jan. 4. Much of the season has already aired in the U.K., and the Internet — both the bane and the boon of the early 21st century — is rife with spoilers.
The small, intimate details of what happens to fictional characters such as Lady Edith Crawley, John Bates, Mrs. Patmore, Anna Bates, Lady Mary Crawley and Michael Gregson is what has kept countless viewers returning to the Yorkshire country estate of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants every new year.
In one of those twists that has made Downton Abbey unique among smallscreen hits, easy access to spoilers has not dampened the audience’s appetite for new episodes. Unlike other popcultural touchstones such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, followers of Downton Abbey seem in no hurry to learn what happens next. Viewers familiar with the show appear willing to let the story unfold at its own pace, in its own time.
As the series begins the new season, the First World War is a fading memory but the winds of a new war are gathering. The Crawley family will be affected once again, even as they try to stave off the inevitability of history with ice-cream and champagne celebrations. Harsh reality is about to intrude on false hope, both upstairs and downstairs. Downton Abbey is an indictment of its times — which may seem quaint today but were the order of the day in the mid to late 1920s. It’s subtle, though, not heavy-handed, and it’s that subtlety that has drawn so many viewers into its fold.
“We’ve lived in this Downton world for five years now, and the more we’re immersed in this world, the more we understand these characters, the higher the stakes get,” writer-producer Gareth Neame said, in Los Angeles.
Neame cited Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary as just one example of how time doesn’t slow down for Downton’s characters.
“By the end of Season 4, she said, ‘I know I will marry again. I’m turning to life, and I’m going to be married,’” Neame said.
“The challenge, though, as always, is how you make a new relationship when your partner has died. How do you make a second marriage as an older, more mature person? It’s much more complicated than the first relationship decision you made.
“Things are ratcheted up for all these characters. Life is much more complicated, for all of them. The stakes are higher.”
Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna Bates, said she felt genuine satisfaction at the end of the coming season.
“What we all hope for and expect, as actors, is drama, love, comedy.”
“All those elements are there, really strongly. I’m really proud of Season 5. There’s new. There’s old. There are those stories we want to find out about, and there are new stories happening as well. I think everyone is going to enjoy Season 5.”
Neame heard the complaints from some that last season was not Downton’s finest.
“As a writer, you need to look at the whole. You’re always assessing, especially in a show where there are so many varied storylines. Some storylines land better than others. Some things you thought were going to be the dominant storyline of the season don’t turn out that way.”
Here’s one spoiler — though it won’t be so much a spoiler to longtime Downton Abbey followers as a relief.
Viewers will learn definitively — once and for all and beyond a doubt, reasonable or otherwise — whether Mr. Bates killed Mr. Green.
Downton Abbey has always been known for its small mercies.