Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) bemoans the new Labour government in the opening episode of Downton Abbey Season 5. It’s committed “to the destruction of people like us,” he says. But the show’s writers have already done a pretty good job of that, portraying Britain’s upper crust as so much tedious twaddle.
After five seasons, Lord Grantham has been reduced to Homer Simpson. He can’t he do anything right.
He’s betwixt and befuddled by modern conventions and constantly humiliated, even by his own servants. Ok. So we get the point.
British Peerage by the turn of the 20th Century was a dying institution, sagging under the weight of social change and its own arrogance.
The decline of vast estates was triggered by heavy post-World War I inheritance taxes, the declining economic importance of land and a shift in political power to the House of Commons.
But instead of focusing on the era’s tremendous social upheaval, all we get is Lord Grantham griping. Then it’s on to the important stuff: naughty Lady Edith’s love child, Lady Mary’s perfidious love life and Mr. Mosley’s new-fangled hair dye.
Lord Grantham’s biggest crisis is what to do with Jimmy, the footman. He catches him in bed with Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor) and is determined to dismiss him, with a good reference, of course, to avoid scandal. Mr. Carson dutifully complies.
More humiliation is on the way for Robert. His granddaughter Sybbie insists on calling him “Donk,” after her favorite game: Pin the Tail on The Donkey.
He can’t understand why and frankly, neither can we. Hopefully, there’s a future plot twist connected to it.
Finally, the village folk deliver the ultimate slap by seeking out Carson to head their World War I memorial committee. Apparently, this is shot across the Abbey’s bow to let the Lord known the village is growing increasingly independent.
“Your father always told the village what they wanted,” the Dowager advises him.
Of course, in real life, the village elders would never snub their Lord, even in 1924, especially given Robert’s patriotism during the War.
You may recall, he turned his house into a convalescent home for soldiers and led the local home guard, so his connection was very visible and important to him.
In addition, the village economy is still dependent on Grantham’s patronage. Despite Carson’s esteemed position as head butler, the villagers would never bite the hand that feeds them. In the end, just more needless torment for poor Homer.
Other odd scene is Lord Grantham’s snub of Miss Bunting at dinner, even knowing that she was invited by Lady Rose and Lady Cora. Lord Grantham and the Dowager Countess are not pleased with her views, but in real life they would never have made such a display.
“The essence of aristocracy is noblesse oblige,” Philip Eade, author of a recent biography of the Duke of Edinburgh told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. “I would think it’s pretty undignified and unclassy to look down on anyone.”
He was referring to the union between real life Blue Blood Ceawlin Thynn, heir to the Longleat estate, and a commoner Emma McQuiston, a 26-year-old former model, food blogger and aspiring television chef, who happens to be black.
But the same rules would have applied in Robert’s day.
As for Mary, it’s clear to her that love is a negotiation.
As Lady Mary gets ready for bed, Tony Gillingham audaciously barges into her chamber with a proposal; They should flee together. “We’ll spend the days talking,” he says. “And the nights?” she asks. “We’ll spend those together too. I want us to be lovers Mary. I want us to know everything there is to know about each other, and after that, I believe you will be sure,” he says.
Believable? Not a chance. No lady of Mary’s stature would let some cad take her for a test drive, even if love is the ultimate goal. But, surprise, Mary agrees, if Tony keeps the whole thing secret. He agrees, but you know how that goes.
Still, Mary is redeemed when she’s asked why she’s being so coy. “I intend to be as happy with my second husband as I was with my first,” she says.
But what is happiness… money?
When she finds out that Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), who is conducting a government study of large estates, stands to inherit a sizable fortune, she calls it a “game changer.” Did they talk like that in 1924?
Blake is heir to a baronetcy and one of the largest estates in Ulster through a distant cousin of his father’s, Sir Severus Blake. Even Gillingham concedes that he’s to be far wealthier.
As a baronet, Blake is still two ranks below Gillingham, a viscount, and not, in fact, an actual peer to Mary. But who’s counting titles? Certainly not Mary.
While Mary continues to broker her future, Lady Edith is wondering if she has anything left to broker at all. She was pathetic to begin with, but now that she’s got a secret love child, her self-worth is less than zero.
Her co-conspirator, tenant farmer Tim Drewe, who has taken in the child, promises to keep her secret. But can she trust him? His wife Margie already thinks Lady Edith is crushing on him.
Edith dreadfully misses her child, but is frightened to death daddy might find out. She gets so lost in self-pity after finding a missive from her former lover, she sets fire to her room.
The only real intrigue involves the Dowager, who learns that widower Lord Merton is trying to court Matthew’s mother Isobel. A union between the two would mean Isobel outranks her in the peerage, and that can never happen.
She quickly draws in Dr. Clarkson for tea to sound him out on Lord Merton. He also had amorous intentions for Isobel. The tea gives her the pretext to do what she does best.
The Dowager arranges a luncheon! She invites Isobel, Dr. Clarkson, Lord Merton and Lady Shackleton. It’s a bold stroke that seems to pay off. Lord Merton sees that his chances are diminished.
Long live the Dowager. She still knows how to play the Great Game.