Downton Abbey Season 5, Episode 1: Fear, Fire, Foes

three gowns
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

At long last, the Season 5 recaps begin. Super-sized episode = takes one million years to write. Let’s dive in, shall we?

We left off in the summer of 1923, with Cousin Oliver Rose making a splash at her coming-out ball, Edith resolving to place her baby in the care of the worthy Mr. Drewe of Yew Tree Farm, and Mary stringing along two equally promising suitors. The new season opens about six months later, in early 1924. Bachelor #1, Tony Gillingham, is still making Romeo eyes at Mary at every opportunity, but Bachelor #2, the progressive Charles Blake, seems to have evaporated—for now, at least.

The primary theme of Season 4 had to do with the changing social order following WWI, and how successfully the various characters were adapting to the changes. That theme returns in full force in this episode, and in fact, we’ll hear it stated quite plainly by multiple characters—Robert in particular, but variations on the theme will be articulated by everyone from Carson to Tom to the disdainful eyebrows of Violet’s butler, Spratt.

edith and marigold
“I just love to see her gurgling away, so peaceful and happy.” Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

We begin with Edith on her bike, heading to Yew Tree Farm to visit her daughter, Marigold. Of course, only Mr. Drewe knows of Edith’s secret interest in his foster daughter. His wife mistakes the impetus behind Edith’s frequent visits for an affection for Mr. Drewe himself, and the tension is beginning to worry the doughty farmer, who doesn’t want his wife leaping to wrong conclusions, but is sworn to secrecy about Edith’s connection to the child. He knows—and we know, because we saw him put two and two together in the final episode of last season—that Marigold is really Edith’s illegitimate daughter, not the daughter of a close friend, as she is pretending. So we have layers of secrets enfolding these characters, and Edith seems on the verge of tears at all times. She is pleased to see Marigold so happy and healthy, but it just about kills her to tear herself away.

Back at the Abbey, Robert is grumbling over the outcome of a recent election. The End Times are upon him; A Labour government is in. And so we find Lord Grantham exactly as we left him: distressed over social change. It will be “the destruction of people like us,” he mutters—his theme song. In the next breath, we learn that his granddaughter Sybbie calls him “Donk,” as in the ass in Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Subtle. Poor Robert, stuck full of pins. It isn’t a dignified name, he grumbles; and let’s put a pin in that, because his injured dignity will play a recurring role in tonight’s episode.

Down in the kitchen, we find the estate’s other resident grumbler: Daisy. She’s annoyed that Ivy, the kitchen maid who booked a job in America last season, has never been replaced. Mrs. Hughes points out that most of the great houses are running on reduced staff these days. It seems the working class is leaving service in favor of jobs in factories or shops. Daisy’s not much interested in the upheaval of the social order; she just wants help chopping vegetables. She is, however, a bit worried about her future, wondering how she’ll ever be able to run the farm her father-in-law, Mr. Mason, plans to leave her, if she can’t do the arithmetic necessary for maintaining the accounts. Mrs. Patmore is sympathetic, but far more concerned with doing the arithmetic necessary to calculate salmon paté portions for Lord and Lady Granthams’ upcoming anniversary dinner. “34 years,” muses Daisy, wondering what the world will be like in 1958, 34 years in the future. Well, she could always just watch the first season of Mad Men to find out.

Screen shot by Melissa Wiley
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Violet and Isobel are out for a stroll. Isobel isn’t sure she’s comfortable with the attentions of Lord Merton, the widowed baron who began courting her last season. Violet, who admits to having been roped in as Merton’s accomplice, pooh-poohs Isobel’s concerns. If Isobel isn’t into Merton, she should brush him off. “Nothing is simpler than avoiding people one doesn’t like. Avoiding one’s friends; that’s the real test.”

Thomas and Jimmy are thick as thieves, poring over a letter from Jimmy’s former employer, Lady Anstruther. Carson catches them and dresses them down for what he suspects are “smutty deliberations.” For once, his suspicions are correct. Jimmy had a liaison with Lady Anstruther and it seems they’ve been sexting each other, 1920s-style, ever since.

We learn that Tony Gillingham is coming for a visit, which sets Bates and Anna gossiping in the hall. Anna approves; she likes the idea of Lady Mary as a viscountess. Bates seems to get hung up on the idea that Gillingham might have mixed feelings about raising another man’s son. This line seems like a throwaway at the time, but he keeps harping on it later, leading me to concoct a theory. But I’ll get to that in due time.

Screen shot by Melissa Wiley
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

A delegation arrives from the village: They want Lord Grantham to grant a piece of land for the erection of a War Memorial. And—bombshell—they’d like Carson to head the committee. Both Robert and Carson are considerably taken aback. Robert tries to cover his astonishment graciously, and the villagers politely pretend he succeeds. This scene brings us a gorgeous bit of business to illustrate the natural confusion created by this society’s rapidly changing roles: The committee spokeswoman explains they want Carson because he’s “a considerable figure in the village”—and in the same breath says to Carson, “Tea, please.” Even the unflappable Carson is a bit flustered by her abrupt toggling of roles.

Of course, Robert has to drop by his mother’s house to gripe about the committee’s choice for chairman. The Dowager Countess, too, is perturbed. “They don’t want me,” is how Robert put it first to Carson in the meeting, and now to his mother. “Your father always told the village what they wanted,” remarks Violet. Robert is going to brood on this quite a bit. Later in the episode, he’ll complain to Mary that this wouldn’t have happened in his grandfather’s day. Perhaps even more than his mother, Robert is a Victorian at heart. He yearns for the world he grew up in—perhaps the world he looked upon with longing as a boy, shuttled (as all Downton children seem to be) off to the edges of things, but knowing that one day he’d be at the center of it all. By the time that day came, the “it” had begun to alter. During the war, he chafed at not being allowed to fight, to do anything he considered useful, sensing that he was being turned into a mere symbol, a figurehead, not an active force. But now, a decade later, he’s missing even that role. Symbolic respect would be better than “they don’t want me.”

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Preoccupied as he is by the decline of a world in which Labour is running things, in more ways than one, he still manages to lob a nice little fireball Violet’s way. When she makes mention of Lord Merton’s attentions to Isobel, Robert observes that he can’t imagine Cousin Isobel jumping at the role of “Great Lady of the county.” Now it’s Violet’s turn to be alarmed at the prospect of social change—that is, change in her most immediate society. She is discreetly appalled at the thought of Isobel becoming her social equal (more or less? I tried to sort out the ranking and I think as the wife of a deceased earl, Violet would still outrank the wife of a baron, but I’m not sure). In one stroke, Lord Merton has lost his ally. Violet would much prefer to keep Isobel in her place.

Daisy orders an arithmetic book, the arrival of which consternates Carson, who doesn’t see why she should keep secrets. When she does spill the secret to Mrs. Patmore, it’s with a great deal of self-disgust: She considers herself too “pig-ignorant” to learn the skills she’ll need to survive in what she terms the adult world. This is an interesting bit of phrasing, meant, I think, to stand in contrast to Robert’s somewhat childlike behavior as he clings to the world of his youth.

Rose (not Robert, ahem) has been asked to hand out prizes at a school event. Afterward, Tom runs into his teacher friend, Sarah Bunting, who has been away “on a course” since shortly after the night he showed her around Downton Abbey last summer while the rest of the family was in London. If you recall, Thomas spied on them and reported the incident to Robert with the most salacious overtones. Robert has been frowny with Tom ever since.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

No moss grows on the Dowager Countess. Phase one of her plan to throw cold water on the Lord Merton-Isobel courtship: Rope in Dr. Clarkson. First she invites him to tea—to the horror of her butler, Spratt, whose spleen nearly ruptures at the indignity of having to serve cake to the doctor—in order to invite him to a luncheon she is throwing for Lord Merton. As far as I can tell, this is the very same day that Robert put the bee in her bonnet, because in the Grantham bedroom that night, Robert fills Cora in on the Isobel-Lord Merton developments. Cora’s no fool; she knows immediately that the vision of Isobel as Lady Merton is not going to sit well with Violet, no matter what Robert thinks.

Violet, of course, is not the only schemer in this bunch. Cue Thomas, who corners Baxter on the stairway and bullies her for dirt on Bates. He’s convinced she has some (and since she knows what happened to Anna last season, she does—or thinks she does, at any rate). It’s a short, ugly scene: Thomas at his worst.

Meanwhile, Molesley has acquired some black hair dye, which he applies to his scalp in the hope of looking younger and more attractive to Baxter. I won’t dwell on this plotlet, since I grow tired of seeing Molesley cast as the fool. He’s got more heart than most of the Abbey folk, and he deserves better than these sad little pseudo-comic gambits. Suffice to say, he suffers some ridicule over the new look and, in the end, is made to wash out the dye before he’s allowed back upstairs. Sigh.

Edith meets Mr. Drewe to discuss his concerns about his wife’s misreading of the situation. He reveals that he knows Edith is Marigold’s mother and finds her interest in the child entirely appropriate. “We need,” he says, “a way for you to live the truth without telling the truth.”

Carson decides to accept the chairmanship—but only because Robert urges him to. He is still uneasy with the unorthodoxy of the situation. In a moment-packed scene in the servants’ hall, we see him grappling with the matter; he worries that Lord Grantham is sad—not about the committee, so much as change in general. Meanwhile, Jimmy whispers to Thomas that he has spoken with Lady Anstruther by phone and that her interest in him boils down to “she hates getting older.”

Bates is back on the subject of Tony Gillingham perhaps “inheriting a family” (meaning Mary’s son George). Frankly, he’s being weird about it—until it hits me that he’s doing that thing people do when they’re trying to figure out how someone else feels about an idea. This is when my “Theory About Bates” struck me, but I’m going to save it for the end of the recap, so as not to confuse things.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Moving on, then. Violet, enacting phase two of her plan, entertains a visitor: her friend Lady Shackleton, who just happens to be a widow. Anybody else yell “Fanny!” when Lady S. appeared on screen? She is played by Harriet Walters, whom you may remember as the odious Fanny Dashwood in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility. It was an Austen week all around, what with Lady Anstruther being played by Caroline Bingley—Anna Chancellor, that is, from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. And I’d love to know which was the chicken and which was the egg here—the casting of these two actresses, or the shout-out to Austen in Lady Shackleton’s dialogue. In a discussion of Lord Merton, Fanny—I mean Lady Shackleton—remarks that “a single peer with a good estate won’t be lonely long if he doesn’t want to.” Either way, it was a delightfully meta moment. “You sound like Mrs. Bennet,” giggles the Dowager Countess.

Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore have a confab about Daisy. Only the housekeeper approves of Daisy’s efforts to improve herself. Carson decrees that she ought not to be encouraged, inspiring Mrs. Hughes to positively beam encouragement upon Daisy when she enters the room five seconds later. Not even Spratt’s eyebrows can compete with Carson when it comes to expressing silent outrage. Delicious moment.

Plans roll along for Robert and Cora’s anniversary celebration. Since Tony Gillingham will be present, Robert urges his niece and daughters to invite some of their friends—he’s in the mood for the company of younger folk, or so he thinks. Also craving some youthful companionship is Lady Anstruther, evidently, who telephones to invite herself to tea. Robert grumbles about Downton being mistaken for a public house on the Great North Road, but Cora smiles benignly, as she is wont to do.

Rose trots over to the school to corner Miss Bunting, who has, it seems, declined Rose’s invitation to the party, fearing it’s part of a prank to embarrass Tom. Rose convinces her otherwise, but admits that Tom doesn’t know about the invitation. She says Cora gave her blessing, however, and that seems to set Sarah Bunting at ease. She’s still wary, though.

The night before the anniversary, Mary confides to Anna that her hesitation in accepting Tony’s offer of marriage has to do largely with her worry that they might not be physically compatible. After a satisfying relationship (on all fronts) with Matthew, she doesn’t want to risk tying herself for life to someone she doesn’t have the right chemistry with. Anna begs off, declaring herself too old-fashioned for the topic. Mary looks pensive, staring at her reflection as Anna unwraps a long, beaded choker from around her neck.

lady shackleton will steal your beau
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Violet’s luncheon arrives. She basks in satisfaction as Lord Merton and Lady Shackleton fall into easy conversation. Isobel observes, perturbed. She correctly surmises that Violet has decided to play matchmaker. Alas for Violet, she has—this time—failed to understand what makes Isobel tick. Last season, we saw Violet successfully scheme to draw Isobel out of her grief following Matthew’s death by dumping a hard-luck case on her doorstep. But this time, Violet has missed the mark. She ought to have realized that introducing competition for Lord Merton’s affections would only push Isobel toward him. Dr. Clarkson intercepts one of Isobel’s glares and reminds her of her own statement from earlier days: “We’re not members of that tribe, you and I.” Way to seal the deal, Dr. Clarkson. Now you just know Isobel’s going to run straight out and dye her blood blue.

Speaking of interceptions, Carson has picked up enough dejected sighs from Lord Grantham to know he, Robert, is crushed the village “didn’t want him” to run the war memorial committee. This, declare his eyebrows, will never do. We next see Carson sneaking off to the village on a ruse. A ruse! Carson! Okay, he’s only pretending to go to the post office, but still. Even Carson has caught the scheming bug.

In the boot room, where evil things happen, Baxter lets slip an imprudent remark about it being ironic that Bates will be serving as valet to Lord Gillingham. Of course, Thomas overhears. Why is it ironic, he hisses. Now Baxter’s gone and done it. Thomas knows she has some dirt on Bates and threatens to reveal all to Cora if she doesn’t spill the beans by bedtime.

Baxter is in a wretched position, but Molesley counsels her to face the truth and confess her past crimes, whatever they are, to Lady Grantham before Thomas does. This is where Molesley shines, and his gentle, earnest support gives Baxter the courage to step up. And look, the hair dye doesn’t look that bad, all right? I mean, maybe it was just my screen, but I couldn’t see a huge difference. Certainly not enough to warrant the nasty remarks Robert flung his way later.

out shooting
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Tony arrives, and Tom and Mary take him out shooting. Tom’s the only one who bags any rabbits; Tony and Mary are mostly shooting meaningful gazes. Tony informs her that he knows he’s her pick, not Charles Blake. And Mary seems to like being told what decision she has made, which is a thing she does sometimes. She admits to loving him “in my cold and unfeeling way.” This is amusing, since her chief concern is what if things aren’t, you know, hot enough between them later.

Lady Anstruther arrives, tossing off a transparently fabricated story about her car breaking down so that Robert is obliged to insist she stay the night. Of course, this was her plan all along. Jimmy looks worried, but Thomas remains his staunch ally.

baxter framed
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

While dressing Cora for the anniversary dinner, Baxter confesses her secret history. She stole some jewelry from her first employer, was found out, served three years in prison, and never returned the stolen goods. Cora is shocked “but not unkind,” as Baxter later describes it to Molesley. Cora wants to know what happened to the goods (and so do I), but Robert interrupts and the conversation is tabled.

At last, the anniversary celebration has begun. It’s like Battle of the Snipes, with each person trying to out-rude the other. Tom’s rude to Sarah: “Why are you here?” He’s so uncomfortable having her mix with the family, in part because he knows Robert suspects him of hanky-panky. Sarah is rude to Rose’s friend, responding to some polite self-deprecation on the friend’s part with a crack about her needing to find a rich husband. I want to like Sarah, but she has such a chip on her shoulder—a little like First Season Tom, actually, but he wasn’t inclined to be so deliberately abrasive. Sarah seems to welcome conflict. This makes her a lot of fun to watch at a party.

speech at dinner
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Isobel, of course, thinks she’s the bomb. “I think it’s nice to see an intelligent face here,” she remarks to her female relations, on whom the barb is not lost. The various snipers coexist well enough in the drawing room, but once they’re all seated at the dinner table, it’s no holds barred. Sarah starts in on the pointlessness of a memorial to a pointless war, and Robert is nearly apoplectic with outrage. He chews her out, causing Tom to spring to her defense. It all comes to a head with Sarah calling out (in a sort of backhanded compliment) the very thing Robert has been stewing about all day, which is that the village committee “didn’t want him.” Those blunt words sting, and an awkward silence falls upon the company. Carson to the rescue: He chooses this fraught moment to inform Robert that the committee wants him to be their patron. Not chairman, note: patron, another figurehead position. It’s obvious to everyone the title was cooked up to appease Robert’s wounded dignity, but Cora encourages the fiction that it was probably “always their plan,” and Carson backs it up.

The evening’s drama isn’t over. First, Cora pulls Thomas aside to skewer him for knowingly placing a convicted felon in her home. She totally sees the situation for what it is—that Thomas must have wanted to use the information about Baxter to his advantage—and makes it clear that he has crossed a line and might get sacked for it. Curses, foiled again.

To Baxter, Cora is more sympathetic. She is reluctant to fire a servant whose work is so excellent, but she can’t promise to keep her on, either. Baxter’s in limbo, but for now she’s allowed to continue doing her job. And I think Cora believed her—how could you not, her sincerity was heartbreaking—when Baxter said she would never commit a crime again in her life.

Tom and Robert manage a small reconciliation before bedtime. Tom finally addresses the elephant in the room: He knows Robert thinks he and Sarah Bunting are lovers, and he assures him they are not. Robert appears relieved and extricates himself from the room as quickly as possible.

caroline and boy toy
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

At dinner, Lady Anstruther managed to slip a message to Jimmy, arranging a rendezvous. Now the appointed hour has arrived, and Thomas—again going the extra mile for his pal Jim, who really does seem to be (as he described himself early on) irresistible—helps Jimmy sneak into Lady A’s room. On the way, they catch sight of another surreptitious liaison in the works: It’s Tony Gillingham, sneaking into Mary’s room to invite her to spend a week with him away somewhere. A week full of days and also nights, you understand. Mary wants to be very clear you understand that. Yes, Mary, we understand. Nope, wait, Tony doesn’t think we understand. Let him spell it out a little more clearly. Lovers, okay? They’ll be lovers. During the nights of the week in question, which also contains days. During the days, they will talk about crop rotation and grain sales.

It’s because Thomas is loitering in the hall after helping Jimmy slip into Lady Anstruther’s bedchamber (to discuss crop rotation, obviously) that he—well, he saves the day. Certainly, he saves Edith’s life, and possibly the whole darn house. He smells smoke and enters Edith’s room to discover it in flames. Earlier, Mrs. Hughes gave Edith a book that had belonged to Michael Gregson. After the party, Edith cried over it in bed for a while and then, in terrible grief, flung it across the room. Huddled against her pillow, she didn’t notice that it had fallen into the fire—and then back out, alight, onto the carpet. By the time Thomas bursts in, she’s half-dead of smoke inhalation.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Thomas raises the alarm and pushes through the flames to rescue Edith. A miracle occurs and Mary remembers she has a toddler. The children are hustled to safety, then Tom goes for the sand buckets and the hose. (When did the house get modernized to this extent? I missed it.) “Save the dog!” Robert hollers. I guess he figures Cora can take care of herself. He orders Thomas to get Edith outside. Thomas protests, saying he’ll check the bedrooms, but Robert insists, and thus it is that Robert catches Jimmy in bed with Lady A. As soon as the house is safe, Jimmy gets the sack.

tom saves kids
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley

The local fire brigade—headed by stalwart Mr. Drewe—arrives and takes over fighting the flames with what seems to be a hopelessly thin jet of water from the firehose. It’s enough to do the trick, though, and Downton is saved, except for Edith’s bedroom.

Outside the Abbey, all’s well that ends well—mostly. Lady Anstruther promises to slink away before breakfast. Cora, in her deep and genuine gratitude for his bravery, forgives Thomas for all past and future offenses. Edith, breathing well again and terribly embarrassed, finds a moment to confer with Mr. Drewe about the Marigold Problem. He has a plan—we’ve been waiting to hear it—but it’s presented only vaguely: They have to find a reason for Edith to take an interest in the child. Mrs. Hughes witnesses the conversation and is clearly suspicious. And that’s where we leave off.

But one last thing before I close: My theory about Bates. (Skip this bit if you don’t like theories.) This episode tried very pointedly to cast him in a sinister light. We had multiple characters giving him looks or making reference to his temper. (“He does get so worked up about things,” says Anna, about the fire. The fire! Legit cause for getting worked up, wouldn’t you think?) Tony is thin-lipped and awkward with him while Bates is dressing him. Bates chats about the shock of hearing what happened to Tony’s former valet, and it’s obvious Tony totally thinks Bates killed him. Everyone does. Baxter, Anna, Mary, Mrs. Hughes; all because of that train ticket he had in his coat pocket last summer—eight months after Green’s death. It bothered me that he had held on to the ticket like some kind of trophy, knowing its date and station could place him at the scene of the (possible) crime.

Well, now here we are another six months later (in Downton time) and he has spent the whole episode wondering aloud whether it would be hard to adjust to raising another man’s child. It finally hit me that he’s trying to feel Anna out on the subject. I think Bates has a child. I think that’s who he went to see in London that day—that’s why he held on to the train ticket, out of sentimentality, not as a trophy. I think the entire Sinister Bates business from last season might have been a red herring.

I know some of you (especially our UK readers) have already seen this season in full, so you’ll know if I’m off-base or not. Please don’t tell me! 🙂 I write these recaps as the episodes air in the U.S., a week at a time, and I don’t read ahead to find out what’s going to happen. But if you’ve got a theory yourself (not a spoiler), I’d love to hear it.

That’s all for this week! (Whew!) Now if you’ll start the salmon paté, I’ll do a lemon mayonnaisse.

My previous Downton Abbey recaps are here.