[This piece assumes you've seen the first four seasons of Downton Abbey. As to the fifth, it avoids specific spoilers, but does talk about themes and threads enough that you might be 20 percent less surprised by a couple of developments. It's the best balance I could strike.]
Let us get this out of the way right off: Particularly after its first two seasons, Downton Abbey has been enormously uneven. It's satisfying in some moments, dull in others, and always prone to falling so in love with a particular story beat that it cannot move past it.
The season premiering in the U.S. on PBS on Sunday (and yes, lots of people still watch it on plain old television, and suggestions to the contrary say more about the limited social circle of the speaker than they do about technology) isn't free of the repetition problem. We still find Edith in a state of angst, we still find Bates and Anna suffering nobly in the shadow of suspicion about something they didn't do, and perhaps more interestingly, we find the widowed Mary Crawley echoing her first-season self more than ever: The selfish and insensitive edge that her relationship with Matthew smoothed down seems to have returned.
At the same time, there is a theme to the season, and it's more than "rich people and poor people under one roof" (though that's still present) and more than "change, change, change!" (though that's still present, too). Specifically, this is a season heavily interested in the choices — particularly the love lives and sex lives — of women of all ages and classes.
We have already seen the single Edith burdened by guilt because she became pregnant, to the point where she wound up in a scheme to place her daughter for adoption, but only halfway, neither able to live with the adoption nor able to acknowledge the child. But now, we will see the flip side, as another single woman considers whether sex before marriage is an integral part of determining compatibility — and how to avoid pregnancy as a consequence. We will see how partially evolved attitudes allow some men to want sex, have sex, and then look down on the women they have it with for having it with them. And we will continue to see, as we did last season, that while sexual violence has little to do with sexual feelings, a social failure to separate the two makes for victims of violence who bear their considerable burdens alone.
We will see that love and sex — and emotions — do not end as going concerns at 40, at 50, or at 60. We will see women with grandchildren and even great-grandchildren deciding what to do about partners and friends. We will see women trying to figure out how to navigate a world of increased independence sort of, in which they may make choices about striking out on their own at the risk of being treated as if they're doing something impossibly silly.
The show has always featured plenty of sex — after all, the first season revolved largely around a corker of a potential scandal involving a guy dying in a bed where he wasn't supposed to be. But this is much more interesting: sex as a part of life, used to contribute to conflicts and choices, rather than sex as an oh-my-goodness thing to be concealed.
What always makes Downton so frustrating is that the show creates so many brilliant, shimmering moments of both high drama and deep feeling — it really does — while at the same time being glacially paced with regard to some stories and skittering and inattentive with others. At a macro level, it can be so very middling, while at a micro level, the performances are so spot-on and many of the relationships so sturdily built that individual scenes are as good as anything on television.
Truth be told, Downton is much stronger with everything else than it is with romances, particularly since the departure of Dan Stevens as Matthew. Bates and Anna have long been trapped in a revolving door of misery that makes it honestly hard for them to do anything but grimace at each other, and the two suitors Mary began juggling last season felt more like cat toys than real prospects. Its best romance is barely one at all — the end of the fourth season found Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes lightly holding hands on the beach.
But, for instance, the loving exasperation that exists between Mrs. Patmore and Daisy is sweet and moving, as is the friendship between Tom and Mary, built largely on the unexpected single parenthood they have in common. Rob James-Collier has found nuance in Thomas Barrow, Evil Underbutler, who began as an almost pure villain and has emerged as a lonely person in pain who distracts himself with schemes. And the way Mary and Edith bring out each other's worst qualities is sad and aggravating, but feels specific and earned.
I haven't yet seen the Christmas special that caps the season, but I've seen the rest of it, and I did enjoy it quite a bit more than some recent chunks of the show. Maggie Smith blessedly has more to do than drop one-liners (though she does that too, of course), and there's happily very little talk about the estate, for those of you who (like me) have been long bored by that. There is still a theme of change, certainly, but it's expressed in the changes in particular people's lives, as well as in general observations about things like the dwindling number of servants. Yes, you still are asked to invest in the lives of the very wealthy, but you're asked to invest more in them as people, and less in them as Keepers Of A Certain Way Of Life.
There are moments in which people frustrated by the show's tendency to move in lazy circles will say "Good grief, not this again." But there are also sneaky touches that reminded me, at least, of why I have at times enjoyed Downton so much.