It was originally set to launch on July 1 but Season Five of Downton Abbey, the hit BBC costume drama soap opera of aristocrats and servants in the socially turbulent Edwardian era, is now available to stream free on Amazon for Prime members.
This season 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 the task to a servant) purchasing birth control from a pharmacist. Meanwhile bubbly cousin Rose (Lily James) falls in love with the son of a Jewish businessman who is as snooty toward them as Rose’s mother is toward her new Semitic in-laws.
On the flip side of the social spectrum we get the evolution of footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the schemer of the servant class who 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 maid Daisy starts educating herself and gets involved politically when the new Labour government wins the 1924 election.
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. 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.
Maybe it’s that fantasy that entrances us American audiences, who can idealize monarchy and aristocracy because it’s more the stuff of literature and movies than historical legacy. Whatever the reason, we love it enough to have turned the series into a cult show on PBS fans of costume drama and the rituals of aristocratic society.
And the best thing about Amazon Prime streaming episodes is that they present the original, uncut U.K. episodes. That’s right, they are longer (if only by a couple of minutes) than the episodes showing on PBS.