Downton Abbey: Season 5 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) embraces everything I enjoy about the show, and everything that frustrates me to distraction. It’s 1924 and the times they are a changin’, much to the consternation of Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the old guard of traditional values who despair of a Labour government in power. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), meanwhile, rather daringly agrees to an unchaperoned holiday with a beau to try out an intimate arrangement (kicking the tires, so to speak, before it was socially accepted), and her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) decides she cannot live without the son she had out of wedlock. The latter tale unfolds with reassuring affirmations of family acceptance but Mary’s journey is a little more interesting and the show even flirts with the social judgments directed toward a woman (even a married woman, as Mary delegates to purchase to a servant) purchasing birth control from a pharmacist. And family matriarch Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith) gets her own romantic journey when she runs into a Russian aristocrat (Rade Sherbedgia) she once romanced.
Even more interesting is the evolution of footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the schemer of the servant class whose homosexuality is an open secret at all levels of the manor. He secretly undergoes aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality (a doomed endeavor) and applies his particular skill set to protect his fellow servants and even his employers from less savory types. And the concept of “bettering oneself” and class mobility perks up this season, especially as kitchen made Daisy starts educating herself and gets involved politically when the new Labour government wins the 1924 election.
The end of the season focuses on bubbly cousin Rose (Lily James) and her marriage to the son of a Jewish businessman who is as snooty toward them as Rose’s mother is toward her new Jewish in-laws. Most of these social conflicts and class collisions are too easily solved to have any dramatic weight and the pillars of old-world tradition are eased into the modern world with a smile and a warm embrace, which is my frustration with the show. It seems no one here is too old or too entrenched to learn a lesson and get a happy ending, and no situation is so difficult that it would call the tradition of inherited wealth and aristocratic class divisions into question.
9 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, including the season finale special “A Moorland Holiday,” available before the season is even half over in the U.S. (it ran in late 2014 in the U.K.). These is the uncut British version of the show (the episodes are trimmed slightly for the American run) and it includes three featurettes.