Downton Abbey "Part Two" Review: That Was Brutal, Literally

By MaryAnn Sleasman

Jan 13, 2014

Downton Abbey S04E02: "Part Two" (S04E03 in the U.K.)

The second episode of Downton Abbey's fourth season (or third episode, if we're being accurate instead of American) featured one of the Estate's legendary house parties. The famous Australian opera singer Nellie Melba—namesake of both melba toast and peach melba because apparently singing opera makes people really hungry—performed for the family, and the whole affair was a rather ho-hum excuse to look at everyone's pretty period costumes and throw eligible bachelors at the waifish widow Crawley. That us, until about the last 20 minutes, when Downton Abbey decided to stop being so painfully polite about everything and got real. Maybe a little too real. 

Among those potential suitors was a certain Lord Gillingham, childhood friend of the Crawley sisters. He inquired about Mrs. Hughes when he first arrived at the Estate, immediately establishing a history with the family—and so we didn't have to sit through the awkward "getting to know you" phase of nobility speed-dating. Gillingham and Mary hit it off right quick, and things were going quite well until Rose brought Matthew's gramophone out of the attic and sent Mary into a guilt-spiral. This is going to be such a frustrating courtship, ugh. Oh, and Gillingham is engaged. Almost. Or something. I suspect another round of Homewrecker Mary plots is in the works! I hate this show. I love this show. Somebody help. 

But I digress, of course, because the biggest thing that happened on Downton Abbey this week was certainly Anna's brutal rape during Melba's concert. It was uncomfortable—and it was supposed to be uncomfortable—but I'm not entirely sure that my discomfort stems from the graphic presentation alone. The scene was horrific and violent, particularly for Downton Abbey, but that jarring sense of displacement served a very specific point: Anna was attacked downstairs in a huge mansion during a very posh, very exclusive party that was basically a celebration of everything the Estate stands for. Every other line, it seemed, was a reminder that the Crawleys' way of life is in constant danger of crumbling. Many of their guests, including Lord Gillingham, have lost most of their wealth. The lavish parties, the endless dinners, the private concerts, the large behind-the-scenes staff required to make it all work, they're all falling by the wayside in post-World War I Europe—except for at Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey remains. Downton Abbey endures. Downton Abbey reminds everyone of the "good old days"—although, as is so often the case, the good old days were never really that good. The house has always had its dark, nasty secrets hidden away in even darker nooks and crannies, and Anna's rape is the ultimate representation of unpleasant realities being drowned out by thick walls and pretty music. 

Sadly, there's quite a bit of problematic potential in Anna's new storyline, particularly with regard to how it only took about ten minutes for the focus of everyone's concern—including Anna's—to shift from Anna to Mr. Bates. Anna doesn't want anyone to know what happened because if Bates finds out, he'll totally waste her attacker (Mr. Green, who happens to be Gillingham's valet) and go back to prison, even though the entire point of Bates' prison storyline last season was that Bates is actually a pretty stand-up dude who didn't murder anyone. But hey, consistent characterization is hard, so screw it. 

Anna's immediate reluctance to let Bates touch her was also presented as less of an "Anna problem" and more of an excuse for us to feel bad for Bates because aww he probably thinks Anna's mad at him and he doesn't know why and it's not fair aww poor Bates. If Anna's rape isn't going to be about Anna and how it affects Anna, we're going to have a problem. 

It's also important to keep in mind, while we're on the subject of Downton's dark side, that what happened to Branson (or at least, what was implied to have happened to Branson) was also rape. It was less violent, but it was no less awful. Edna preyed on his discomfort at the party, fed him drinks, and slipped into his room after he'd probably passed out in a pile of his own drool. Now, we could make the argument that Branson could've refused the drinks, but we could also make the argument that Anna shouldn't have been so flirty and friendly with Mr. Green. That's victim-blaming, and it's gross. They were both preyed on. They were both violated. Edna is horrible and here mere presence is indicative of a deeper narrative flaw that has never been as glaring as it was in this episode: Downton Abbey's characters are just dolls in a big, fancy dollhouse, being moved with little rhyme or reason for the sake of overwhelming melodrama. 

I personally found Branson's discomfort at the party to be a little over-the-top. Sure, the guy's entire reason for existence on the show is to be the family's fish-out-of-water, but he's been around for awhile now, and he's grown quite a bit since his days as the chauffeur. We had an entire storyline last season about Branson making peace with his place among the Crawleys, and carving out his own identity without Sybil's guidance. Would Tom have been uncomfortable at the gala? Certainly. Would he have been so utterly put-off by the whole thing that he could barely function except to binge-drink himself into the decision to pack up and leave altogether? Yeah, not so much. 

And so Edna, it seems, was brought back to Downton solely to terrorize Branson. We've seen this plot before (just like we've seen Robert leading the family to financial ruin on a bad bet before), but the most frustrating part of it is that Edna left, and then came back, solely to play the same role—a role that no one was all that wild about to begin with. 

Also, has anyone else noticed that Downton Abbey has a weird problem with sex? Has it ever been shown as a positive for anyone ever? Mary banged Kemal Pamuk and it was a scandal for like the next two seasons. Tom and Sybil hooked up and sure, they got a baby out of it, but Sybil died and it sucked. Barrow makes a play on Jimmy aaaand almost lost his job. Now we have this double-dose of awful sexual experiences.  It's just a lot. I'm not even sure Downton does it on purpose, but it's a weird pattern nonetheless.

At least we have our candidate for Mary's new suitor all set up, right? Right

Yeah, that's really not making me feel any better. Change has always been a central theme on Downton Abbey, but we've rarely seen any kind of substantial change in the show's landscape. Through war, epidemic, ruin, and death, Downton has remained largely unfazed because it's Downton's nature not to flinch, not to falter. Some things are meant to make you flinch, though, and Anna's experience should certainly register as more than just a blip on the series' radar. 


– "I hear she has some dingy little house north of the park. It's a wonder they ask her to stay." I love how Carson is usually a bigger snot than the actual nobility. Bless him. 

– "Am I the only member of this family who lives in the 20th century?" Cora's smackdown was great. 

– The role reversal between Isobel and Violet has been very enjoyable. <3 them. 

– Do we like Mary/Gillingham? Do we even care?

– Lol @ Thomas's horror at maybe having to serve dinner. 

What are your thoughts on Downton's fourth season so far? How are you feeling in the aftermath of those final scenes?

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  • andrewalberico73 Jan 20, 2014

    If Downton Abbey becomes too much like an American Soap Opera, it will lose its' reason for being. The producers should think twice about how far they want the 2nd episode to set the pattern for the future. Don't play down the intelligence of the audience.

  • alyxkay Jan 16, 2014

    I'm glad someone finally addressed the Branson storyline...because after taking on such a role at the Abbey, why IS he suddenly so fish out of water and ready to leave.

    Also, can we talk about how Molesley was shoveling coal and dirt last week and is now suddenly too good to serve as footman and wear gloves at Downton? What is even going on here!

  • appalusasr4me Jan 14, 2014

    Why is everyone referring to the family residing in Downton Abbey as the Crawley's? They are the "Granthams"!! The Crawley's was Mary's husband Matthew and his mother!! Hate the new Anna storyline and Edna Character trying to be the new evil replacing Ms. O'Brian. Not worth watching anymore.

  • matthewaaronweber Jan 15, 2014

    Crawley is the family name. Grantham is the title.

  • CherokeeRose4 Jan 13, 2014

    That scene with Anna being attacked was difficult to watch as it should be. And i felt really saddened at the loss of who the Anna character was and who she will now be. Well, to be believable, there will have to be a shift in character. I don't see how Bates will never find out and I did find her reaction to him finding out logical. Although he did not murder his ex-wife...he still has a temper and no doubt would do something that would get him thrown back in prison.

    That dark cloud aside...I thought this episode had a lot of humor. Poor Mr. Moseley, I'm liking him more every week. More for how the actor is portraying him more than what is happening to the poor character.

    I'm interested to see what kind of journey that Anna will be on and grieve the loss of the character she was.

  • sroberts461 Jan 13, 2014

    Don't be so hasty with the grief, wait and watch!

  • CherokeeRose4 Jan 14, 2014

    I don't think I am being hasty. I'm grieving based on the information that I have at the present time.

  • sroberts461 Jan 14, 2014

    Fair enough, you're obviously invested in her character. I'm in England, so I suppose I have more information than you do!

  • jaynebosco Jan 13, 2014

    Honestly, they handled it in the best way possible. I understand why people like to think of this show as fluff, but in a way it is anything but and I wish viewers would realize that, especially those that wish to like the show to stay the way it did in Season 1 (that went out the down when Mr. Pamuk died in Mary's bed).

  • babelak Jan 13, 2014

    TBH, I gave up on this glorified soap-opera about 2 episodes before Sybil died, so I can't judge the current storlines really, except to say that there is nothing here that comes close to tempting me back. I loved the first series and I loved Gosford Park, the film Julian Fellowes wrote a few years ago which was the prototype for this. Maybe it could be rescued, but I think Julian's ideas for the characters have dried up and we need a fresh showrunner and writing team for that to happen. I'd like to see the producers put a limit of, say, 2 more seasons on it and then we could move through the decades and see DA into the present day to get a really interesting overview of the journey of the British class system in microcosm. Now that I would come back for.

  • ElisaDiaz Jan 13, 2014

    I have to say, I find it unfair to compare Branson's issue with Anna's.

  • ben45tpy Jan 13, 2014

    Downton Abbey's a tricky show. While I appreciate that Season 4 has tried to be a bit more proactive plot-wise it's troubling when the stories it comes up with are either derivative or morally lacking. Season 4 might end up being the best since Season 1 or it might be a train wreck, hard to say.

    Obviously I'm appalled they cast a New Zealand wannabe to play one of the greatest opera singers of all time (who just happened to be Australian), shame on you show.

    Also I was pretty intrigued by the card game the servants were playing in this episode. They called it Speed Demon and I see that it's now more commonly called Nertz and has a Wikipedia page if anyone's interested. It looks like a very frantic, messy and aggressive game, my favourite kind.

  • sydandnancy Jan 13, 2014

    Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is a world famous singer and was made a Dame by the queen. She is hardly a "wanna be".

  • ben45tpy Jan 14, 2014

    No alleged 'dame' from New Zealand could ever match the talent or stature of Australian opera singers, especially the peerless Dame Melba.

  • sydandnancy Jan 14, 2014

    Who would you have suggested play the part of Dame Nellie Melba? She was made a Dame by George V in the same way as was Dame Kiri years later by Queen Elizabeth.. I personally would have liked to see Mirusia Louwerse but she is far too young for the roll.

  • Lula19 Jan 13, 2014

    This show is starting to feel like the Mary Diaries; rather than showcasing the lives of both upstairs and downstairs. I need some daisy, edith (yes edith) and mosely among the many others. And I have no care in the world for gilllingham and don't like the idea of even introducing a male suitor for mary....its too soon. And frankly id rather see her get her groove back without the help of Gillingham or any other male love interest. The only male she should start to focus on is her son george. And poor branson! Theyve made his character so tough to watch or even care for. Im tired of him moping around and want to see more of his personality during the sybil-era come back.

  • sroberts461 Jan 13, 2014

    Downton Abbey does'nt have a weird problem with sex, its a period drama reflective of the time the drama is set in complete with a historical consultant on the production team.

    The show aptly portrayed the threat of scandal and ruination that would have befallen Mary had her 'one night stand' with Kemal Pamuk been exposed. Women were not supposed to be having casual sex with men during that era. Sybil's death reflects the prevalence of women dying in childbirth and Homosexuality was against the Law in England at that time. Anna's rape and her fear of bringing shame to herself, Bates and the Crawley's is also in keeping with that time period. Women had little more than their reputation in those times and whether fair or not she would be ruined if the rape came to light. Her fears about what Bates would do does not detract from his character but serves to show that she knows her husband well and also fears losing him when she's only just got him back and their marriage is still young.

    The Branson story is evolving. Initially the focus was on him trying to reconcile his background with his new status, as well as coping with his grief. Now that he's settled and moving past his grief, he's beginning to look forward and also he's becoming aware that he's changed which poses new questions for him about where he fits and also where does his daughter fit. At the moment he still sees the dilemma of his position as an obstacle so he's trying to work that out. Downton is not as superficial as dolls in a dollhouse.

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