Downton Abbey: The Horrible, Hard-to-Watch One

Posted on January 13, 2014

Lesley Nicol, Cara Theobold and Sophie McShera in Downton Abbey, airing on PBS

Well, let’s get to it.

There’s really only one thing to discuss about this episode: Mrs. Patmore’s poor stress-management skills.

Okay, fine. Let’s really get to it. We’ll tell you what: it made our usual Sunday night live-tweeting a whole hell of a lot less funny.  We are, of course, talking about Anna’s rape. Like many viewers, we heard about it long before we ever watched it. We tried not to form opinions on it without seeing it first and maybe we were successful at that, because our reaction wasn’t quite what we thought it was going to be.

We don’t mind, from an outside-the-story point of view, that Fellowes introduced a rape storyline to the show. We don’t even mind that Anna was the victim, since she’s one of the nicest, most beloved characters on the show and thus, from a dramatic perspective, makes the best choice in order to shock and upset the audience. What we mind is how cheesy and even silly the scene was. We had a problem with how sudden and out-of-left-field it was, but that’s easily explained as a hallmark of actual rape scenarios. It might not have worked from a dramatic perspective, but you can’t really argue against it from a real-world one. Although we really think it was silly and slightly unrealistic that he would commit such a loud, violent act in a house full of people, right out in the open. There are plenty of ways to write a rape scenario for this setting and make it wholly believable and true to the period (there are an awful lot of empty, remote rooms in that house), but having him slap her up and down the kitchen – when we know for a fact that kitchen would never go completely untended while the house was full of guests – made it feel like Fellowes was determined to write as crass and revolting a scene as he could manage, common sense and continuity be damned. But what bothered us most was the awful cliche of cutting from Anna’s scream to a singer hitting a high note. That’s about as cob-webbed a conceit as Fellowes could dig up. Worse – and somewhat oddly – he had Anna act way out of character in the scenes leading up to it. She flirted more with Mr. Gillingham’s valet from the second he entered the house than she did with any man she ever had a scene with, including her husband, both before and after she married him. Anna is many things – kind, warm, smart – but “flirtatious” is never a word anyone would use to describe her before last night’s episode.

Let’s be clear here: we’re not suggesting that Anna deserved what happened to her or even had anything to do with why it happened. No, what we’re suggesting is that Fellowes thought it would be more dramatically interesting to have her flirt with her rapist, thus giving it an appalling “did she ask for it?” vibe which turns our stomachs the more we think of it. If the victim had been Edna Braithwaite, a character who’s been shown to be sexually forward and aggressive for the period, then you’d have perhaps an interesting discussion about the dangers for women in a patriarchal society and how they can be punished for not acting according to how society thinks they should act. But when you have Anna batting her eyes and giggling with this guy, the only response that comes up is “What the hell’s the matter with Anna?”since a hallmark of her character from the very beginning of the show has always been how reserved she is, especially with people she doesn’t know. If you’re planning on writing a rape scenario and placing a character as the victim, then you shouldn’t have her acting so weirdly out of character in a gross and ham-fisted attempt to give a rape scene shades of gray.

Having said that, what happened after the rape was well-handled and made some sense for the time and for the characters. Joanna Froggatt gave her best performance in the scene where Mrs. Hughes finds her. An involuntary “Ohhhhhh” escaped our lips when she explained why Mr. Bates could never know. Yes, Fellowes is wringing maximum drama out of a rape by focusing on what a man thinks of it and that’s another reprehensible old cliche, but in this case, we’re willing to see how this plays out because it really does make the most sense, given what these particular characters have been through. And it adds an interesting element of darkness to the Bates marriage when Anna openly admits that she thinks her husband is capable of murder after so much time trying to clear him of murder charges. It also makes total sense for Mrs. Hughes to be at the very center of this lie, as she is at the center of almost all under-the-stairs drama. But given how much the woman tends to meddle in other’s affairs and – let’s just say it – betray confidences, this secret is clearly not going to remain a secret forever.

Bottom line: this is and always has been a soap opera. We may have problems with how it was written and how it’s likely to play out, but it doesn’t bother us that this storyline has been introduced. It’s very much a part of the genre.

In other Downton news, Tom Branson should not be allowed near liquor while he’s dressed in white tie. But then we kind of knew that already. We’re just wondering why it’s taking the family so long to figure it out. Edna’s horrible and we suppose there was some idea of mirroring Anna’s rape by having Edna ply Tom with whiskey and needle him while his defenses were down. We can’t be bothered parsing it out. Just get Mrs. Hughes in there to clean this mess up and hand this girl her ass.

Also: Edith’s man seems shadier with each scene he’s in, dimples or no.

Speaking of dimples, Lord Poutylips gets introduced to the audience and frankly, we’re not sure how excited we are by another storyline of Mary getting trembly over some fop. He’s good-looking, sure. But his entire character can be summed up as “nice, inoffensive aristocrat.” How thrilling for her. Let’s get this girl a Pamuk.

And while it’s sweet to see the Dowager fussing over Tom and Molesly (insert sad trombone sound here) and Isobel, we can’t help thinking a lot of the sting has been taken out of this character. On the other hand, Penelope Wilton is breaking our heart in every scene she does. She seems to be the only person truly mourning Matthew. Mary seems more interested in having tantrums about how everyone isn’t respecting her grief enough for us to really feel her sadness.

And finally, Lord Grantham should not be allowed anywhere near money, since he has a preternatural ability to lose it.

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