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Downton Abbey – Season 5 Premiere – Recap: Burn Notice

This is a review of the American airing of the Downton Abbey Season 5 Premiere. There will be slight differences from the original UK airing, necessitating a different approach. However, reviews for the original episodes can be found by clicking the “Downton Abbey” tag. Episodes from UK airings are tagged as “Series 5,” while American airings will be listed as “Season 5.”

Downton Abbey

Credit: Nick Briggs

So Downton Abbey is back for a fifth season, and it’s clear from this premiere that it’s going to be another methodically-plotted season. That’s not a bad thing, really, although it will require a certain amount of patience from viewers, since Downton Abbey has never been a show that privileges tightly-paced storylines or weekly twists and shockers (although, to be fair, there is plenty of melodrama. I doubt the show would have ever gotten as popular otherwise). But even while this was a pretty leisurely episode, there was still plenty to like about it, and nearly as much to ensure that Season 5 is headed in a compelling direction.

The episode is almost impossibly busy: Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is hosting a dinner after Carson (Jim Carter) is nominated as head of a committee overseeing the development of a war memorial. Meanwhile, Edith (Laura Carmichael) is visiting baby Marigold, now a toddler under the care of Downton tenants, the Drewe family. Naturally, Mr. Drewe has deduced the child’s true parentage, but Mrs. Drewe simply figures Edith visits the child all the time because she has a crush on her husband. Of course, the only secret love here is between a mother and her child, which makes this a kind of refreshing take on the “clandestine meeting” trope. Granted, this is far from the only “clandestine meeting” going on, as Gillingham (Tom Cullen) makes the “scandalous suggestion” to Mary (Michelle Dockery) that she be his lover. The argument is that it will allow them to get to know each other in a “better” sense, since Mary is still plagued with uncertainty. On the one hand, it’s a bit reckless for two people of both Gillingham and Mary’s social positions, since they’re one roll in the hay from ending up in Edith’s position. But that contrast with Edith’s situation is also what’s interesting about it, since it’s easy to see Edith’s situation potentially reflected in her sister’s. But because this is the season premiere, Mary’s situation isn’t even the most scandalous, as Jimmy (Ed Speleers) ends up getting fired outright after getting caught in bed with Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor), the highborn cougar he once worked for many years ago. On the one hand, if we never see Jimmy again after this, I won’t exactly complain, but Jimmy had really developed as a character after his story with Thomas (Rob James-Collier) last season. So if this is his permanent exit, I wish he’d actually gotten a better send-off.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Nick Briggs

For his part, Thomas is continuing to trade on a scandal by blackmailing Baxter (Raquel Cassidy). Yes, after an entire season of wondering what the damn secret he has on her happens to be, we finally learn that Baxter stole some valuable items from her previous employer on the orders of a colleague with whom she’d fallen in love. She spent three years in prison for the offense, and has been doing her best to make up for it ever since by living the straight-and-narrow path. I’m not exactly sure this was a secret that needed a year to be revealed, since Thomas continually lording the information over Baxter made it all seem far more criminally substantial than it ended up being. Sure, Baxter’s job is at risk if it comes out, but it’s not like this is a secret that will land her in prison again. The relative insignificance of the threat is illustrated in how easily it’s neutralized, as Molesley (Kevin Doyle) basically just convinces Baxter to beat Thomas to the punch by coming clean to Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) herself. The plan works, Baxter gets to keep her job, and Thomas is foiled again, although how Thomas ever expected his blackmail plan to work in the first place is beyond me: if he ever actually had followed through on his threat to rat out Baxter, he’d end up getting exactly the kind of stern talking-to he ended up getting anyway from Cora, who gives him the third degree for knowingly vouching for a criminal in the first place. Seriously, isn’t Thomas generally supposed to be cleverer than this?

Downton Abbey fire

Credit: PBS

At the very least, it seems like Daisy (Sophie McShera) is intent on getting smarter. Despite Daisy having rarely shown any sort of ambition beyond being a cook, she suddenly decides she wants to have a better future by getting an education. Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) doesn’t really get Daisy’s sudden motivation either, arguing to Hughes (Phyllis Logan) that all of Daisy’s talk of being an “idiot” is doing a number on her confidence. It’s one of the more meandering plots of the episode, never really going anywhere worthwhile. It’s not bad, just dull, much like the subplots in which Violet (Maggie Smith) teases Isobel (Penelope Wilton) over her love life, or Branson (Allen Leech) hitting a snag in his courtship with Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis), who offends Robert by outspokenly expressing her socialist views at the dinner party. But the figurative heat is taken off of Miss Bunting by the arrival of some more literal heat.

After the dinner party, Edith gets depressed about Gregson and ends up getting careless with the fireplace in her room. Thomas rescues his job by rescuing Edith, in the rare heroic moment for the character. This probably the closest to a strict action setpiece the show has had since the war scenes back in Season Two (if I remember correctly, which I very well might not, since that feels like practically a lifetime ago). It’s the most exciting scene of the episode, and something the show can pull off every now and then, specifically because the show never does moments of real danger like this. The fire is very much a parallel to Edith’s situation with the Drewes, since she’s playing with fire in a figurative sense. She escaped getting burnt this time, but it’s only a matter of time until her entire visitation plan with Mr. Drewe goes sideways.

This premiere succeeded at setting the table for the season ahead, and while Downton Abbey probably won’t be able to keep up this level of over-the-top melodrama every single week, this was a great way to kick off the season.

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