Downton Abbey – Recap: Fear and Loathing in Lechery
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Series 4 Episode 3:
I don’t think Downton Abbey has ever made me angry before. Sad, happy, shocked, upset, bored, excited, intrigued? Sure. But never outright angry. Yet here I am, struggling to come to terms with this episode. Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Anna gets raped. It’s three words that make me physically ill to have to type, but that’s what happens. It’s shocking, it’s violent, and infuriating, and I probably should have seen it coming with the viewer discretion warning, but I really didn’t think they’d go there until just moments before they did. Anna is raped by Green, the valet of the visiting Lord Anthony Gillingham, and while the act itself is incendiary and disgusting, it’s what comes after that really chaps my ass.
After getting beaten and raped, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is discovered in the downstairs office by Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who tries to fetch the doctor only to have Anna plead with her to keep the entire thing under wraps. Her rationale makes sense: Bates (Brendan Coyle) WILL murder the man who did this, if he ever finds out. And as a once-convicted felon, even if exonerated, he isn’t likely to get a light sentence for his trouble. Hughes has reservations about it, but she agrees to keep the secret. It’s this that pretty much fired me up, not because of Anna’s decision to keep it a secret, or the necessity for her to do so. Within the world of the story, my sympathy is squarely with Anna. But outside of the story, I found myself taking umbrage with the direction Julian Fellowes has chosen for one of his most put-upon characters, particularly because there is absolutely no direction for this story to take that justifies having done it in the first place. Either 1) Anna keeps the secret, and the principals involved never discover the truth (like O’Brien and the bar of soap), 2) Anna keeps the secret, Bates discovers the truth and either harms or kills Green (and ends up in prison for it) 3) Anna becomes pregnant and isn’t sure if it’s Green’s or Bates’, or 4) Anna explains what happened, they deal with it as husband and wife, but their marriage is never the same again. Of course, there’s the fifth option, in which they deal with the situation and their marriage becomes stronger as a result. But then, why do the storyline in the first place?
And that’s my issue with it. It’s rape for rape’s sake. Sure, I’m making a ton of presumptions above about where the storyline is headed, and every single one of those presumptions could end up being completely wrong. For all I know, it could end up having all been a dream planted in Bates’ paranoid head by space aliens. Who knows? But if you’re going to do a storyline like this, there has to be more behind it than shock value. When you get audiences to care about certain characters, you have a responsibility as a writer not to screw with them needlessly. And maybe I’ll end up being completely wrong in this, but that’s what this felt like to me. A needless storyline to spruce up a season that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
I’ve never been the sort of person to give Downton Abbey a hard time for its occasionally-glacial pace. It’s part of the charm of the show, and the high points wouldn’t be as effective without the more mundane moments of simple living. But my God, this episode. I mean, I can see what Fellowes was going for here, with the long weekend of events at Downton Abbey representing a return to form for the estate, as visiting guests include Lord Anthony Gillingham (Tom Cullen), the Duchess of Yeovil (Joanna David), and Nellie Melba (Kiri Te Kanawa), a world-class opera singer once honored by the King. And beyond that, the long weekend works, at a thematic level, to further illustrate the class differences. Tom (Allen Leech) feels he doesn’t fit in among the elite upper class, and tells Robert (Hugh Bonneville) as much, although Lord Grantham insists he’s overreacting. But we can see that he’s not, as the well-meaning Duchess inadvertently causes Tom offense by making unfortunate insinuations about the county from which he originated in Ireland. Given his sense of displacement, then, it’s no real surprise that he ends up sleeping with Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring), although I do find it disappointing. Edna just feels like a tiresome retread of O’Brien, without nearly the vivacity that Siobhan Finneran contributed, and I feel like there are far better uses for the character of Tom Branson than for him to have a one night stand he’ll just end up regretting anyway, further contributing to his overwrought sense of displacement among the upper class (seriously, it’s time to either p*** or get off the pot where Tom is concerned — either you belong, or you don’t. But quit banging on about it, one way or the other, and do something).
We also have Mary (Michelle Dockery) beginning the process of potentially moving on from Matthew, as she entertains the flirtations of Lord Anthony Gillingham, whom Mary knew when she was a little girl, owing to the close relationship the Gillinghams and the Crawleys once shared. It’s pretty much the only good storyline of the episode, as Dockery does a great job portraying Mary here as someone who allows herself brief moments of hope, as if she could possibly bring herself to forget about Matthew for a few seconds, only to come crashing back down to Earth with the reminder that she’s a widow. When Rose (Lily James) brings down Matthew’s gramophone from the attic, it sets off a reaction in Mary that has her reflecting on what she misses most: Matthew, or the person she was when she was with him. Regardless, both are now gone, and Mary poignantly notes to Anthony that if she were as strong a person as she was before she met Matthew, she might be a lot happier now despite having lost him.
It’s still a process with Mary, the business of grief. But we can see that she’s actually making a go at putting her life back together, and there’s something admirable in that. It’s a journey mirrored in the progress of Isobel (Penelope Wilton), who feels she does disservice to Matthew’s memory if she allows herself to smile or hum a tune, since it will have meant she’s forgotten about him, if even for a few seconds. However, Violet (Maggie Smith) pleads with Isobel not to lose out to her grief, saying it’s better to forget and be happy than to remember and be sad. Isobel at least tries to move past Matthew’s memory by attending the performance by Nellie Melba, but a half-hearted attempt is the best she can muster at this point. It’s a quietly affecting performance from Wilton, and a contrast to Dockery’s brave-faced portrayal of grief.
As for the rest of the episode, it’s a meandering collection of vignettes about life at Downton: Jimmy (Ed Speelers) sprains his hand while showing off, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) has a panic attack that everyone assumes is a heart attack, Carson (Jim Carter) hires Molesley (Kevin Doyle) as a temporary footman, which offends the former butler, who is too destitute to say no, and Gregson (Charles Edwards) endears himself to Robert by winning back his money from a card sharp. It’s not that any of these storylines are bad, per se, but they’re painfully inessential at this stage of the season. We’re three episodes deep, and I’m not sure you couldn’t just cut out most of this stuff and start the season with what happened to Anna. Of course, in a perfect world, that wouldn’t have happened to Anna in the first place. Sigh.
Is this the worst episode of Downton Abbey ever? Probably not. If Anna hadn’t been raped, it would have just been a very mundane installment. But there’s no changing the outcome, and if there’s any positive to glean, it’s that the rest of the season ought to be an easy step up from this.