Blogging the Abbey Episode 2
Rose: My need to hear your thoughts on this episode, Russell, may border on mentally unhealthy. In the meantime, as I fidget with bated breath for your response, here’s my take.
First and foremost, I notice how fabulously prescient we were in last week’s discussion. A melodramatic moment emerges from nowhere as if simply summoned by the bell pull. Branson reconnects with his past self who never wore white tie to dinner. The Vacuous Dancing Cousin dances vacuously. Julian Fellowes has let Edith remain happy….for now. Evil, scheming non-diegetic music accompanies evil, scheming lady’s maid Braithwaite’s every move.
I’ve already buried the lede, so let’s get to it now: the rape of Anna. I always find it fascinating how some works of fiction (and Downton Abbey excels in this regard) can depict an incident that is in itself shocking, deplorable, sorrowful — and all I think is, “Come on. Seriously?”
Anna is perfectly lovely. Anna, in fact, is a saint. Anna has never exhibited a single flaw, a single cranky mood, a single wavering in her good-humored devotion to her husband. She has never uttered unwise advice and never failed to be the perfect lady’s maid to Mary. She is emotionally mature, steady, ethical.
Downton Abbey, is it you or is it me? I’m tempted to blame you, at least a little bit. After all, let us recall the dead Turkish diplomat, Cora’s rather late-in-life pregnancy, the loss of said pregnancy due to an amazingly well-placed bar of soap, Matthew’s shedding of that pesky paralysis, Bates’s layover on death row, etc. etc. This is not, of course, a zero-sum game. The show may have jumped the shark and I am also callous. Which is it? Tell me I’m callous! Tell me I should pity Anna.
It just seemed – yet again – implausible. A visiting servant rapes Anna while his boss, her boss, and her husband are all just upstairs. Apparently, he just figures, eh, she’s not going to mention this to anyone. Amazingly, he is correct. She doesn’t tell anyone except Mrs. Hughes. Indeed, her decision to remain silent recalls those scenes in James Bond movies in which villains, for completely implausible reasons, have captured Bond but don’t kill him immediately. They keep him alive just long enough that Bond eventually triumphs. Anna will not tell anyone of the rape for awfully convenient plot purposes. Joanne Froggatt’s acting in the role of Anna was quite good. But the very goodness of her performance was out of place. It was akin Roberto Clemente playing in my kid’s T-ball league.
Let’s turn to the less distressing portions of the episode. There’s Mary. Deep mourning lasted only one episode, it seems. I’m just fine with that. How long could we watch her stare blankly, ignore her child, and race out of the room at any mention of Matthew?
She only raced out of the room once this episode. It was perhaps a bit odd that it didn’t occur to her as she danced for several minutes that the recorded music was coming from an emotionally laden gramophone. But we can let that go. She’s back in pretty clothes. Huzzah! (although Lady Edith wins Best Dressed for the episode – loving those bared shoulders and peachy-pink sparkles!). Mary has “been out of the saddle for ages,” (subtle, that) and is now firmly back in, if not yet fully astride. New flame-to-be Lord Twittenhastingsbillingham (or whatever his aristocratic name is) is easy enough on the eyes. And a little gift for the Earl: a Crawley daughter is finally linked to a man who is to the manor born. We have a suitor with no reluctance whatsoever to let someone else put on his tuxedo (he’ll even let a rapist do it!).
What’s the deal with Mopey Molesley’s ungraciousness? He’s gone from street-making (or whatever he was doing in the last episode) to delivery boy. Yet when offered a job that is better than those (albeit not as good as his old one) he seems to feel he’s hit rock bottom.
And is it just me, or has Bates pretty much stopped limping?
Russell: So I went into this week’s episode Already Knowing. What with the Golden Globes this past Sunday, we put off our Downton viewing until Monday night.
[Random thoughts on the Golden Globes — Fey and Poehler were great. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is great. Jacqueline Bisset is bananas. And if Paul Bunyan wonders where his shower scrubby went, someone tell him Paula Patton turned it into a dress.]
Anyhow, since the Internet was full of seething articles about how horrible the episode was and because I am really not disciplined enough to avoid obvious spoilers, I went ahead and read one. And I will say that I was much angrier about what happened to Anna before I actually saw the episode. Having seen it, I kind of disagree with you… if only just a bit.
I think they set up the circumstances so that it seemed plausible. They filmed it in such a way as to communicate how horrible the rape was without gratuitously showing us Anna getting brutalized. However one-dimensional she often seems in her unalloyed virtuousness, she’s one of the characters who enjoys the most audience affection, and seeing her attacked had emotional resonance. Contra a lot of the commentary I’ve seen, I thought it depicted something utterly terrible that happens to women far, far too often, and far too often is dealt with silently afterward in real life, too. I bought it.
(I will say that, if the entire wretched Bates-languishes-in-prison-and-then-gets-released-because-lawyers plotline was simply an elaborate set-up for Anna getting raped but fearing what would happen if she told her husband, that would seem rather ghoulish and cruel for how planned-out it was.)
What gets me a little bit is now I don’t know what the writers expect us to think of the rest of what’s going on. The denouement of last week’s episode involved Lady Mary wearing a lavender blouse. Molesley having to deal with the existential crisis of being made to wear gloves is meant to matter to us. (More on that in a second.) It was one thing when the family members were going through the motions of nobility as they tried to make sense of the world after Sibyl’s death. But obliviously caring about ruined mystery garments when a beloved member of their household has been sexually assaulted? Are they meant to look suddenly ridiculous by comparison? Are we meant to feel ridiculous for having enjoyed caring about such things? Do the writers not understand that caring about such things was a major draw for the show?
On to the other things that happened — I totally agree with you about Molesley, who can now be shipped off to New Zealand for all I care. I felt a little bit bad for him last week, but if his upper lip is insufficiently stiff to cope with the horror of wearing white gloves without whinging about it to the Dowager Countess (while serving her dinner, no less), then perhaps it’s time he sought his fortune elsewhere.
And of course Branson remembered his class resentment. And of course Cackling Lady’s Maid, in a plot twist so telegraphed it was practically morse code, plied him with liquor and presumably went in later to survey his pastureland, if you get my drift. And of course Lord Grantham demonstrated all over again that he would have landed in the poorhouse ages ago were it not for the savvy or well-timed good fortune of those around him. (The poker scenes had me wishing Barbara Stanwyck were still around for a cameo as the Lady Eve. She would have eaten the Earl for breakfast, with room left over for crumpets.)
Rose: Your answer makes me realize that my answer perhaps sounded even more callous than I meant. That is, it sounded hideously callous, rather than garden-variety callous. While, as I suggested, I did not find this particular rape scene plausible, rape itself is of course a part of life. Please let me be clear: I did not mean to imply anything at all about real rapes, or about whether real women’s reports of rapes are plausible. I firmly believe all too often that women’s reports are discounted. This notion of plausibility was strictly about a work of fiction. Do I believe that someone could really have gotten raped as Anna did? Of course! Do I believe that someone may be scared to tell her story for myriad reasons? Of course! Again, all too often, women are shamed from telling their stories. I felt, however, that fictionally, given these particular characters and the concerns that they had, it was implausible. Feel free to let me have it in the comments for being so insensitive.
I had no idea that this episode caused a brouhaha. My cluelessness in all things currently cultural knows no bounds. A brief glance at the brouhaha suggests that people were upset at the showrunners because Anna’s so nice, and how could they let such a bad thing happen to her? That can’t be the problem people had, can it?! Because it is, of course, patently ridiculous, as you suggest. People get raped. Even awfully nice people. It’s a fact of life, and fiction need not turn its head from it.
This other objection, that Downton Abbey is particularly horrible to its female characters, is also misguided.
That’s always been the show’s modus operandi: A woman loses a baby, sister, daughter, or husband, or is humiliated in front of her family and friends, and we get to watch her recover. Raping a beloved character is just latest of the show’s experiments in sadism.
Wretchedly horrible things happen to male characters, too: Branson loses a wife and we watch him recover, Bates is falsely accused of murder, Bates is falsely accused of possession of drugs, Bates was initially humiliated for his limp, Matthew is paralyzed (temporarily), Matthew dies the day his child is born, a night with Mary leads a Turkish diplomat to his doom, William is given a patronizing sham marriage before he kicks the bucket, Thomas is brutally beaten for taking his one stab at being a nice guy, Lord Grantham is humiliated by his golly-gee-whiz approach to investments. This is a show in which ridiculously horrible, humiliating things happen to all the characters.
One thought I had was this: in the interviews I’ve read, the showrunners pride themselves on their disinclination to join current conventional wisdom by demonizing the upper class. It seems noteworthy that when there is a brutal sexual assault depicted on the show, it is committed not by an upper class employer taking advantage of his economic power over an employee, but by a fellow servant. The issue of sexual exploitation of servants has not much come up, as I recall (please correct me if I’m wrong in the comments). The two main romances that crossed the upstairs/downstairs boundary are Lady Sybil and Branson (when Branson was downstairs), and Cackling Finger-tenting Evil Scheming Lady’s Maid and Branson (who is now upstairs). In the first case, the two were genuinely in love. In the second, it is the servant who is sexually exploiting the member of the upper class. Thomas had a thing with some Duke, Ethel was seduced and abandoned by a recovering Major. It seems noteworthy that in both cases, the upper class person was not an employer who took advantage of his power.
I agree totally that there was something tonally off about the show. We are all of us thankful, I think, that the era of crappy three-camera sitcoms is over. But even the makers of those shows understood that the depiction of more serious situations is best approached by walling them off from the show’s usual light tone. Thus the Very Special Episode. As you rightly suggest, Anna’s rape was but one storyline in an episode that included Molesley’s disgust at being demeaned to the status of footman, Branson feeling squirmy because he never met some Irish toffs, and a debate about whether a singer should sit at the dinner table.
Which leaves us where for next week? All I know for sure is that the cackling etc. lady’s maid will sink her hooks into Branson, and a mystery garment will be ruined and someone will be framed for that most vicious crime. I suspect Mary’s new love interest may not be all that, and we may have to find a less-than-picky Italian after all. Look forward to chatting with you then!