Downton Abbey returned for a laboured fifth season in a tired much ado about, well, nothing. We rejoin the Crawley’s in 1924 under the Macdonald Labour government, posing an unsettling threat to carriage rides in the park, and a scandalous endorsement of cocktails.
We previously admired Downton for its colourful glimpse in to the rapid period of social, political and economic change at the dawn of the First World War, but now it lacks pace. With Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) as co-owner of the estate, uncharacteristically concerning herself with crop rotation and grain sales, we’ve established that times are changing. So all that’s left is for creator Julian Fellows to churn out the same old story lines under that guise.
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) kicked off the sorry affair with her usual dose of violin-accompanied weeping at the loss of her adopted daughter, a storyline that fails to provoke a tear given her generally odious character. Lady Mary provided us with the predictable promise of a cold and mediocre betrothal to Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), whilst their cousin, the sickly-sweet Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), continues to act as a subpar replacement for Lady Sybil.
Downstairs are understaffed, this time due to the troublesome decline in service in favour of factory and shop work amongst the working class. The Abbey stands in purgatory between the crumbling age of the aristocracy and the rise of self-determination, with those pesky socialists “committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” barks Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville).
Deputy-Butler Thomas Barrow, (Rob James-Collier), persists on shifting around stairwells, blackmailing shady maids with secrets of their past, and desperately longing to profess his relentless, yet one-sided, attraction to footman Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers) – who in this episode can be found between the more privileged sheets of Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor).
Fortunately, the magnificently formidable Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), remains to adorn every scene and deliver her brazen one-liners throughout. “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.” Alongside her companion Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walter), the pair gleam as radiant examples of the comedic aristocratic tittering that gained our affections back in 2010.
We can steal the occasional chuckle at the haplessly aging Moseley (Kevin Doyle), whose vanity culminates in the sporting of some rather blue hair dye, but in Violet’s absence, Downton is a monotonous blank canvas.
Perhaps our enduring love of Maggie Smith will see us through another series. Or perhaps, weary viewer, we will crumble with the landed aristocracy and join the rabble elsewhere.