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New Season of Downton Abbey Starts Next Sunday, January 4th

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After spending an entire season moping over her dead husband Matthew and then setting Blake (Julian Ovenden) off against Gillingham (Tom Cullen), it really is about time that Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) committed to one man. This year, Dockery promises that Mary will start to move forward. "Mary will never get over the death of her husband," she says, in her trailer on lunch break in a dressing gown and hairnet, "but she wants to experience things — she wants to experience another man again." And by experience, she means… exactly what you think. At first, at least, it seems that she has finally made her mind up who that man will be. And (minor, we're-so-bored-of-this-love-triangle-thing-we-don't-really-mind-telling-you, spoiler alert) it's the pomaded suave machine Gillingham who gets the nod. The duo sets off on an away weekend to a hotel room for a weekend of what the British ruling class might call rumpy-pumpy.

As further evidence that Lady Mary is a woman who knows that in the post-First World War world, women had begun to have choices, Mary is aware that you shouldn't jump in to bed with anyone, no matter how well bred, without some protection. But being Lady Mary, she's not going to be seen at the apothecary buying contraceptives herself. So she sends off her long-suffering lady's maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to do the dirty work.

"Anna's attitude is that Mary shouldn't sleep with Lord Gillingham before marriage," says Froggatt. "It's not the fact that she morally disagrees with it I don't think, it's more the fact that if people find out it will ruin her. In terms of Anna going to buy the contraceptive and everything, Anna's quite mortified about that actually. Even in this day and age it's pretty embarrassing having to do something like that, so for a woman back then… well, it's almost unthinkable for Anna."

As for Anna Bates herself, this new season sees her still dealing with the aftermath of her controversial rape at the hands of Mr. Green last season, and his subsequent death under a car in London. Was it at the hands of Mr. Bates, as last year's finale led us to believe? Or was Anna herself implicated in Green's death? Over the coming weeks we will see the Anna/Bates relationship, a fan favorite, once again put through the wringer as the police start asking questions about what happened that day in London. But let's not stray from our subject — even the saintly Bates and Anna are still thinking about making babies. "She's married to a man she loves and I think she just wants to be happy and be able to enjoy being married and enjoy work until such time as a baby may come their way," says Froggatt. "She wants to have children but most of all she just wants a normal, uneventful life, really."

As the wedding anniversary party approaches Cora — endlessly ignored by Robert, who's fretting over everything from the placing of a War Memorial on the Downton Estate to his own ailing dog — is beginning to feel the weight of 34 years of marriage. "She's raised her children and now she's sort of looking for something else," says McGovern, who is owed a decent plotline or two. "She's an American who's slightly more open to new ideas. We'll see where that leads," she adds. One 'new idea' Cora might be open to appears at the season's beginning with the emergence of the dashing Simon Bricker, an art historian played by Girls' Richard E Grant, who seems as enamored of Cora as he is of Downton's della Francesca.

"His interest excites her, yes," says McGovern. "But at the same time she recognizes that what she has with Robert is special too – a different type of love. Something I like about this season is that there's a lot of looking at love — young love, very mature love, old love, love that's gone wrong."
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In Downton's most illicit coupling of the season involves an upstairs-downstairs romance — one-sided though it may be — between Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor), the high-born cougar who's out to snare footman Jimmy (Ed Speleers). All of Speleers' scenes to date have been played 'downstairs' in the kitchen (which is filmed at Ealing) or 'upstairs' in the dining room (at Highclere). But today he finds himself in a bedroom for the first time, and it's Lady A's fault.

"Lady Anstruther's one of the sexiest characters, I think, that Downton's ever seen," says Speleers. "She's very, very elegant, very flamboyant with her fashion and she makes quite an entrance. All the heads turn. Even Lord Grantham might choose to admit that he does have his eye on her as well."

But Lady Anstruther has her eye firmly on Jimmy, who used to work with her in another house and has been foolish enough to rekindle the relationship by sending her a Valentine's Card. Of course, for Jimmy sleeping with one of the aristos is out of the question. Unfortunately, he just can't help himself. "I think he enjoys attention from women, and especially wealthy ladies," says Speleers. "You know, he is an ambitious guy and there's always that hope this could lead to something else for him."

Or it could be career suicide — if Jimmy and his libidinous Lady get caught. Where would that leave Thomas (Rob James Collier) Jimmy's long term admirer, latterly friend and Downton's pantomime villain-in-chief?

"Early in this series Jimmy says to Thomas: 'I hope you find the one you're looking for,'" says Collier. "It sort of really hits home hard with Thomas because he realizes maybe he can't, you know, find the one he wants —because he's a gay man. He'll never be allowed to truly love because it's illegal and 'against God.' So we do see him question himself and his sexuality for the first time, and in a dark and perverse way try to change his own nature."

Carson and Mrs. Hughes: Dare to Dream?

Other loves that dare not speak their name include the unspoken feelings between Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the head butler, and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). The last season ended with them holding hands, paddling by the seaside, a picture of later-life contentment. Surely they of all people deserve a romance? "In the early episodes there's nothing furthering their little paddle in the sea," reports Logan, who looks a little disappointed herself that the couple we would all like to see together seem stuck on hold.

Jim Carter goes further. "Everybody asks the question, 'Are Carson and Mrs Hughes going to get it together?' and I just say, 'Well, on the evidence I've seen, I can't tell you because I've no idea.' They are two sort of rather lonely people, stumbling towards each other. It would be a tremendous disappointment, I have to say, if nothing happened."
 
Along with the Anna/Bates, who-killed-Green storyline that runs across the entire fifth season, we'll see dramatic developments: Edith continues to grow closer to her not-so secret baby; Lady Rose shocks the blue bloods again with her new (and Jewish) lover Atticus; and Robert loses his beloved dog Isis (and no, the dog's unfortunate name, given current world events, has nothing to do with its fate).

Shown already in the UK, Downton's ratings have fallen off slightly from the heights of the last three series, leading to much speculation about how many more seasons the Crawley clan and their domestic help have left. "I get asked that question more than any other," says exec producer Gareth Neame. "My two-penn'orth would be that when people like something so much, they don't want to really contemplate it ending — so they keep asking the question. It's a bit tiresome to keep answering it, particularly when you read these things that are statements of fact saying, 'The present season is the last one,' and then I have to say, 'No, it isn't.'"

True: Downton has been renewed for a sixth season, but beyond that there are currently no further commitments. Julian Fellowes, meanwhile, conjures up a suitably oblique response to the question of when the pre-eminent modern British period drama will end: "There's a line from Carson in the opening episode this year that says, 'The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.'"

Downton Abbey Season 5 premieres Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, on MASTERPIECE on PBS.
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