Downton Abbey – Recap: Bates No Tell
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Series 4 Episode 5:
While I’ve been a vocal opponent of the “Anna is raped” storyline, tonight’s Downton Abbey comes as close as the series is likely to come in justifying its existence. The scenes in which Bates (Brendan Coyle) learns the truth from Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and then absolves Anna (Joanna Froggatt) of any shame, are all expertly done. The storyline is still a tough swallow, and not really novel or incisive enough to be worth the trouble, but the trio of performances here (from Coyle, Logan, and Froggatt) represent some of the best work the series has churned out this season. If only the episode around it had been nearly as compelling.
So Bates corners Hughes and forces her to tell him the truth after he overhears her admonishing Anna for not telling him what had happened on the night of the concert. Cleverly, Hughes reveals the truth but lies that the attacker was merely some outsider who’d broken into the house. Sure, her story that the intruder had simply been lying in wait for Anna, or some other pretty woman, strains credulity a bit. But the narrative addresses this concern by having Bates grow instantly skeptical of the story. He correctly intuits that it was Green (Nigel Harman) who’d committed the crime, and only by swearing on the grave of her own mother can Hughes convince Bates that her lie is the truth. Bates quietly breaks down in the hallway, in one of Brendan Coyle’s most quietly affecting scenes. But from this devastation, the story veers in a more hopeful direction as Bates confronts Anna with what he knows, and disabuses her of the notion that she’s somehow been ruined because of this. He tells her he loves her even more now because of her strength in the face of everything she’s been through, and though this is largely Coyle’s showcase, Froggatt remains tremendous in her role, as Anna initially shrinks away from Bates only for her walls to gradually break down as he reaffirms his commitment to her. It’s a moving scene all the way through, handled with delicacy and honesty.
In fact, if there’s one issue I have with how the story is handled this week, it’s that Anna ultimately has no agency over her own emotional well-being. So much of her psychological wellness is couched in how Bates will view her if he finds out, and whether he’ll forgive her once he does, as if there’s anything to forgive. Of course, the explanation could then simply be that this is not only the psychology of rape and how victims respond, but the psychology of gender roles in the 1920s. But while everything seems back to normal, we learn in the closing moments of the episode that Bates has no intention of letting this go. He tells Hughes that he’s allowing Anna to believe the matter is settled for her sake, but warns that no matter who has done this to his wife, it’s a matter that is far from over. Well, I suppose we really can’t have Green getting away with this, so hopefully he gets what’s coming to him, with minimal additional damage to Anna/Bates, because this storyline remains tiresome, even with the incremental improvements.
The rest of the episode is a meandering affair that mostly veers aimlessly from one plot to the next. Of the smaller storylines, we have Alfred (Matt Milne) preparing for his chef’s exam for the Ritz under the tutelage of Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). Despite constant teasing from Jimmy (Ed Speelers), Alfred is a promising candidate, and the likelihood of his leaving Downton prompts Carson (Jim Carter) to begin looking for a replacement footman. To this end, he gives Molesley (Kevin Doyle) a call, assuming that he’s spent such a long time toiling away in menial jobs that he’d welcome a return to Downton. However, Molesley is mildly offended by the offer, since he’s a trained valet and butler, and sees the job of footman as being beneath him. Still, he asks for some time to think Carson’s proposal over anyway, and it seems as if Molesley’s return to Downton will soon be secured…except, he takes too long in deciding. Ultimately, though he performs admirably in the test, Alfred is rejected by The Ritz and Molesley’s services are no longer needed. Everybody loses! Well, except Daisy, who’s quietly overjoyed that her crush isn’t leaving. Oh, and Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who now has a new ally in the house in the form of Cora’s new lady’s maid, Mrs. Baxter, a woman who is essentially here to serve as his spy.
However, not everyone can have it as good as Daisy and Thomas. Edith (Laura Carmichael) takes a car to London to visit a doctor, and my immediate thought is that Gregson (Charles Edwards) might very well have gotten her knocked up. Maybe it’s because I’m used to seeing Edith get the short end of the stick where it comes to the men in her life, but I just suspect that this won’t end well at all, whether that means Gregson gets back together with his wife, or if he simply leaves for Germany on his own altogether. But still, how many times are we going to have to watch Edith get her heart broken? Man, I seriously hope I’m wrong about Gregson, and that this is just some hilarious misunderstanding on my part.
As for the upper crust of the series, Mary (Michelle Dockery) is unsurprised to read the engagement notice in the newspaper for Lord Gillingham, though she ultimately is surprised by the return of an old acquaintance, former suitor Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks), who has returned on business. It’s a cumbersome storyline that also features Robert (Hugh Bonneville) dealing with the son of a tenant whose family has tended the Downton land since the Napoleonic Wars. The son wishes to take over his late father’s tenancy and assume the debt, and Robert is all too quick to move forward with the son’s proposal, despite Mary’s objections. Not really sure how this will all turn out, but I’m struggling to become in any way invested in the story of Downton’s management, in much the same way I struggled with the story of Violet (Maggie Smith) accusing new gardener Tom Pegg, hired at the desperation of Isobel (Penelope Wilton), of stealing a beloved Crawley heirloom. It’s not the worst storyline in the world, and Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton continue to be a highlight of any episode that puts them in the same frame, but I just wish there had been something more substantial to bind them here. I feel the same way about Tom (Allen Leech), who’s rudderless right now in the overall storyline, prompting him to announce he’s considering moving to America to raise Sybil with the handful of relations he has there. It just feels like such a random, out-of-left-field development, and I’m not sure it’s any better than what he was doing before (actually, no. Anything is better than subjecting poor Tom to the scheming neediness of Edna Braithwaite).
This episode didn’t really light my world on fire, but it wasn’t a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination. The Anna/Bates plot was moving, and occasionally engaging, independent of the storyline’s obsession with tugging at the heart strings. But everything else in orbit was just okay. And this far into a new season, the show should probably be managing better than just “okay.” With that said, you still can’t beat this show for how engrossing its world can be when dropped right into the center of a rush of servants, or a crowded tea time with the moneyed elite. By that measure alone, I still enjoyed this episode quite a bit, warts and all.
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