Female Characters Take the Lead as 'Downton Abbey' Is Hit by Social Change in Season Five
The cast of PBS' hit British drama reveal how the new attitudes of the Roaring '20s throw the Crawley household into uncharted territories
It’s clear from the outset that season five of Downton Abbey — now landing in 1924 — is somewhat different from when PBS’ ratings powerhouse and multi-Emmy winner started its life way back before World War I.
“I feel a shaking in the ground that I stand on," says the show’s butler, Mr, Carson (played by Emmy-nominated Jim Carter), in a special screening of the opening episode in London on Thursday, referring not to an impending earthquake but to the far more powerful seismic shift of the time’s social change.
The 90-minute opener — due to air on Masterpiece on Jan. 4, 2015 — covers much of these then-uncharted territories, touching on new attitudes toward class and sex, the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the U.K.’s first socialist government. But perhaps the most noticeable difference was the role taken on by the show’s female characters, new and old.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), fresh from getting over the grief of losing her husband, Matthew, which set such a gloom over season four, appears have regained her mojo, with possible suitors knocking on her (bedroom) door and an eagerness to get involved in the running of the estate.
"Things are cooking for Lady Mary," laughed Dockery in a roundtable. "It’s been an exciting series because she’s having much more fun, she’s moving forward with her life. She’s really taking on the responsibility of the state and the relationship between her and Robert is starting to change. He’s seeing that she can handle it all."
Dockery, who is up for an Emmy for lead actress, admitted that it’s still a shock when the nominations are announced, despite the fact that Downton is now the most nominated non-U.S. show in Emmy history with 52 nods, 12 this year alone.
"Every year, it’s always a surprise, because of course other new shows step in, but people are still loving watching Downton so it’s a really nice feeling for us all," she said.
Lily James, who plays the relative newcomer to Downton, Lady Rose MacClare, revealed that her character becomes heavily tangled up in the 1920s social shifts.
"Stuff is landing on their doorstep so fast that they can’t turn a blind eye to it anymore, and Rose becomes really involved in those changing times. It’s definitely about that very moment in history, it’s totally political," she said, without elaborating further.
Introduced in series four, forthright and politically minded local schoolteacher Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) seems set to stir things up further among the upper classes. Described by Robert Crawley as the “Boudica of the North Riding” in the season opener, referring to the British queen who fought against the Roman invasion, she openly disagrees with Hugh Bonneville’s Earl at the dinner table regarding World War I and its toll on human life.
"Principles are like prayers," Downton's Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) quipped. "Noble, but awkward at a party."
"This character is challenging the status quo and attempting to fight back on every front, which is what makes her interesting," said Lewis of her role.
Meanwhile, downstairs in the house, Sophie McShera’s young cook Daisy, taken with the educated and feisty Bunting, looks to improve herself and invent a possible life away from simple cooking chores, much to the disappointment of staunch traditionalist Carson.
Downton’s butler himself becomes a central focus of the class changes too, approached to head up a local committee ahead of the Earl.
"Carson’s mantra is you’ve got to know your place and be happy in your place," said Jim Carter. "So he doesn’t approve of that at all, and as the series goes on we’ll see him become more and more riled, until there’s an explosion at the end."