This post contains spoilers for episode 4.3 of Downton Abbey, and references the 2001 film Gosford Park. This post also contains discussion of sexual violence; please be advised before proceeding.
In advance, I want to apologize for the wall of text here, but this isn’t really an episode that leant itself to pretty caps and quippy captions.
It’s not unusual to see a ‘Viewer discrestion is advised’ placard at the beginning of a PBS program, but usually, it’ll show up at the start of a program like Frontline, where images of warfare or the aftermarth of natural disasters isn’t softened with artful editing. But I was surprised Sunday evening when the placard appeared before the start of the third episode of British import, Downton Abbey. Like nearly any young adult raised in the U.S. in the 90s, I took the placard as short-hand for ‘something violent and/or sexy is going to happen.’ (And, considering this is the U.S. and I was watching PBS, my bar for ‘violent and/or sexy’ was considerably lower than it might be were I watching a DVD, or if Downton aired on basic or pay cable.)
I was correct, but, oh, how I wish I hadn’t been.
But, first, let’s talk about Julian Fellowes. My first knowledge of him came from watching the mostly charming, if occasionally disjointed, British TV series Monarch of the Glen. Fellowes, a published author and actor, played ‘Lord Kilwillie,’ a bumbling aristocrat who lived across the loch from the main characters and was somehow successful in turning his grand Scottish estate into a tourist attraction that could sustain itself. I’ve also read his 2004 novel, Snobs, although I didn’t find it particularly memorable.
However, it wasn’t until after I’d seen Monarch that I realized one of my favorite movies was ostensibly written by Fellowes. Gosford Park, which was released in 2001, is arguably a dry run for Downton:It has the same bored society toffs; the same grand country house in slow but steady decline; the same intrigue and gossip tying the people above stairs to those below; and, in Maggie Smith, even the same acerbic delivery of complisults. In fact, different casts aside, the only obvious difference between the movie and the TV series was that Gosford was structured more as a whodunit, though more Pink Panther than Poirot.
Oh, and there was one other difference: Gosford Park included a tertiary storyline where one valet saves a ladies maid from an attempted rape by another valet.
It makes sense in the context of the movie, as the valet who interrupts the assault, played by Clive Owen, is in fact the illegitimate son of a young woman who was harassed by her employer and later coerced into a sexual relationship with him. There are parallels and intersections, and both the events of the past and the current incident are handled with a deft touch for a plot point that isn’t part of the primary story.
But after the third episode of Downton‘s fourth season, this distinction no longer exists.
This episode focused on a house party, presumably intended to provide a context for a visit from Dame Nellie Melba (portrayed charmingly by Kiwi opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa) and to introduce widowed Lady Mary Crawley to some new eligible young men. But, in the last 15 minutes or so, the real purpose of the house party is revealed: To provide a plausible reason for a snake to have slithered into the grass of the grand estate.
One of the eligible young men invited for Lady Mary is Anthony Gillingham, a childhood friend who’s all grown up and inherited his family’s estate, which is in poorer shape than Downton itself. Lord Gillingham brings with him his valet, Mr. Green, who immediately appears to set his sights on head house maid Anna Bates, whose romance with John, Lord Grantham’s valet, has been the longest and most successful romance in the course of the series’ three seasons.
(They’re both still alive, neither of them cheated on each other, and they managed to thwart a death sentence.) Over the course of several days, Green flirts with Anna, while her husband grows increasingly annoyed with both Green’s behavior and Anna’s failure to put him in his place.
The last evening of the party concludes with a performance by Dame Melba, during which Anna excuses herself to take something for a headache. While in the kitchen, she’s joined by Green who offers her a drink from a flask, which she refuses, and who then asks whether her ‘cripple’ husband can really keep her happy. He kisses her, she shoves him away, and he backhands her. Anna runs from the kitchen, screaming for help, but Green catches her in the laundry room.
Sometime later, Green reappears in the foyer to catch the last of the performance. He then heads upstairs to prepare Lord Gillingham’s room for the night, while housekeeper Mrs. Hughes heads downstairs with Bates, joking about Anna pretending a headache to skip out on the performance.
Mrs. Hughes enters her room to find a shaken and disheveled Anna crouched in a corner. She quickly realizes what has happened, then agrees to find a fresh dress for Anna, although she urges the younger woman to tell someone what happened to her. Anna refuses to tell anyone and later shies away from her husband when he goes to help her put on her coat so they can walk across the lawns to their house. Bates is confused and concerned, especially when Anna essentially runs out of the house ahead of him.
Of course, there are other things that happen in this episode, but the above-stairs plots pale in comparison to Anna’s story. I’m undecided on how to react to this episode, and here’s why.
Anna is essentially the heart of Downton Abbey: She’s been in every episode, and has been privy to both the triumphs and the tragedies of Lady Mary, whose inability to inherit the estate is the real catalyst that sets the events of season one (and every season following) in motion. Her quiet romance with Bates illustrates the idea of ‘friendship set on fire,’ and her devotion to proving his innocence made the ‘Free Bates’ arc of seasons two and three bearable, despite that storyline long outstaying its welcome. And it’s Anna who comforts scheming footman Thomas when Lady Sybil dies, despite his history of belittling Bates and actively trying to get the other man fired.
On one hand, I am really not a fan of using sexual violence (abuse, assault, etc.) or its threat simply as a plot device because it cheapens and normalizes the crime in a way that I think can be dangerous. I also hate when rape (or its threat) is used to make a female character seem stronger. I find it sloppy and lazy, and I think it’s unnecessary practically every time: There is always a better way of showing a character’s strength, up to and including actually making her or him physically strong. And, please understand, I’ve used this device in short stories I wrote when I was younger, and I also have read and watched plenty of stories that used sexual violence as a means of showing a woman’s strength. But, if age hasn’t given me wisdom, it’s at least given me some perspective, and I’ve arrived at the opinion that if you can replace a woman being raped or threatened with rape with, say, holding her at gunpoint; strapping her to something where she’ll burn to death; threatening to kill her lover, pet or family; or any one of the other multitude of ways of destroying someone’s spirit (and/or killing them), then maybe you should reconsider whether you’re holding a character’s bodily autonomy hostage because it’s the only logical route – or because you’re going for titillation over quality.
On the other hand, as poorly handled as Matthew Crawley’s death was at the end of season three, Fellowes has done a fair job of juggling a multitude of characters, each with their own motivations and levels of investment in the survival of Downton. His writing and characterization aren’t perfect, but looking at other large cast shows (Lost, Heroes, Once Upon a Time), there are plot holes Fellowes has managed to either avoid or stumble out of before becoming bogged down in them.
Furthermore, by making Anna the subject of this plot twist, Fellowes picked one of the few characters historically mature enough to make her initial reaction and the consequences that will follow both believable and resonant. I’m not saying another character wouldn’t have been as worthy of sympathy or justice, but Anna’s storylines so far have been largely reactive, whether it’s been her relationship with Bates or her service for Lady Mary. This is a meaty storyline where Joanne Froggatt will have the chance to show who Anna is when she must make her own choices and not simply react to other’s decisions.
Additionally, because this is happening to the Anna of season four, she is less likely to be defined by her assault. When fans describe the show to non-watchers, she won’t automatically be ‘the maid who was raped by another servant’; she’ll be ‘Anna, the house maid who freed her husband from prison and kept a raping d-bag from assaulting other women in service.’ At least, I hope that will be the case.
Finally, as divided as I am over the events of this episode, I was struck by Phyllis Logan’s performance when Mrs. Hughes found Anna in her room. What I know of the rules of service, there was as much a hierarchy below stairs as there was above, and authentic friendships weren’t common. But Mrs. Hughes’ reaction, compounded by her automatic correct conclusion as to what happened, was stripped of all rules of propriety, instead showing compassion from one person to another. (It also made me curious about Mrs. Hughes’ background, that she was able to jump straight to the truth.) And I’m definitely a sucker for ladies being friends – almost as much as I am of ladies doing science.