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?
AIRED ON 11/9/2014
Season 5 : Episode 8