As the series returns to PBS, a look at highlights of the drama to come

By Samantha Miller
Updated January 04, 2015 03:35 PM
Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited

No meth labs. No superheroes. No steamy sex scenes. So what exactly is it that’s got me – an avowed avoider of most things period, British and cozy – hooked on Downton Abbey?

As Season 5 kicks off (on PBS at 9 p.m. Sunday), I think it’s the show’s sense of human decency – amid rapidly changing times and trying circumstances – showcasing the Granthams’ (and most of their circle’s) ability to maintain stiff upper lips along with soft hearts.

Season 5 is a quiet but pleasurable one – nothing truly major happens, and that’s just fine. After the devastation of World War I and, closer to home, the sudden death of Lady Mary’s husband Matthew Crawley back in Season 3, there’s enough tragedy still reverberating. As the characters all consider the next steps in their lives, here are some highlights of the new season (mild spoiler warning):

Will Lady Mary ever commit again?
With no lack of handsome, charming, witty suitors, the young widow (Michelle Dockery) still isn’t sure about getting engaged again. At least until she can sample the goods. In a shocking move for the 1920s, she considers going away for a secret holiday with dashing Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) – in adjoining hotel rooms.

You’re never too old for romance.
Yes, even the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton) get their flirt on, pursued by, respectively, a Russian prince and a kindly, widowed lord.

Can Tom Branson find happiness?
The chauffeur-turned-family-member (Allen Leech), who lost his wife Sybil in childbirth, finds his friendship with a schoolteacher heating up, but inviting his outspoken liberal flame to dinner at Downton is asking for trouble. “Downton is again in a period of change,” Leech told PEOPLE in November.. “The first socialist government comes in, and you have a very conservative house very worried about it.”

Will Lady Edith’s secret baby stay secret?
In the show’s most quietly heartbreaking arc, Edith (Laura Carmichael) struggles with her lover presumed dead and their child, carefully hidden from her family, in the care of a farming couple. “There are great story lines for characters like Edith,” Leech said. “Is she going to be able to deal with the fact that her child is basically no longer hers?”

Are Lord and Lady Grantham on thin ice?
Acclaimed British actor Richard E. Grant gets a juicy turn as an art expert who comes to Downton to see a Piero della Francesa painting and winds up appreciating the beauty of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) even more.

Meanwhile, downstairs …
The servants’ stories aren’t as strong as their posh employers’ this season, but rest assured there’s some quality scheming (underbutler Thomas Barrow’s specialty), dreaming (Daisy the cook studies mathematics) and more legal trouble for Mr. and Mrs. Bates (the show’s most played-out plotline). Look for especially lovely, perfectly underplayed moments from butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan).