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This episode's upstairs drama concerns Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, left) throwing tantrums at a fancy dinner party. The downstairs drama is darker. (Courtesy of ©Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE)

Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 2: Downton’s Rape Fail

The lightweight show takes on a heavy issue, and not well.

BY Sady Doyle

It’s an extremely upsetting, unexpected scene to encounter on a silly, lightweight period melodrama, and it feels even more frightening and unexpected in such a lightweight episode. But that’s only fair: Sexual assault is a deeply upsetting crime. The problem with this scene is not its content, but its context.

Reader: We have a problem. I normally have a lot of fun watching Downton Abbey. It’s been clear—probably ever since Season One, when Mary turned up with a panicked expression and a dead Turkish diplomat in her bed—that the show is not the artful period drama it purports to be. It’s a silly, pretty-looking melodrama with a few fantastic actors. And that’s just fine by me. Everyone deserves a bit of harmless fun. I happen to get mine from Downton Abbey. And I want to keep getting it: I want to giggle wildly whenever long-lost burn-victim cousins with potential Canadamnesia  show up. (Canadamnesia being a particular form of amnesia that causes you to instantly lose your English accent and speak as if you are from Canada; it's a rare but severe malady that has, thus far, only ever occurred in a subplot on Downton Abbey.) I want to relish each and every one of the Dowager Countess’s many zingers and/or hats. I want to tell you to tell you that Edith makes her entrance, in this episode, wearing what appears to be some extremely tasteful office carpeting from the 1990s, before moving onto a printed pink blouse and headband that makes her look like a recently upholstered couch, before finally emerging in what, for all the world, would seem to be a real and not-unflattering dress.

And yet, I can’t just do that. Not this time around. Because this episode contains the single most upsetting scene in Downton’s history—the sexual assault of one of Downton’s most beloved characters. No matter what else happens, this week, this episode is ultimately all about what happens to Anna.

But first, just to give ourselves a breather, let’s cover the upstairs drama: Lady Cora is throwing a house party! The logistics of this house party are what constitute “a problem” in the rarefied world of Lady Cora. The prospect of attending a snooty house party constitutes a problem for chaffeur-turned-nobleman Branson. (Also, Edna the Evil Maid is following him around and asking him why he doesn’t like her in between handing him drinks, so that’s no fun, either.) The prospect of everyone at Downton having a good time after Matthew’s death constitutes a problem for Mrs. Crawley, the prospect of being sociable amongst young and eligible men who make eyes at her constitutes a problem for Lady Mary, and the prospect of not behaving like a gigantic spoiled man-baby for one whole hour of television constitutes a gigantic problem for Lord Grantham, which he resolves by refusing to even try. Lord Grantham’s man-babyhood cannot be repressed, and he will be having at least two separate tantrums over the course of the episode.

Meanwhile, Edith has the same problem as ever: She’s dating her editor, Mr. Gregson, and Mr. Gregson is old, already married and in all ways generally unsuitable as a long-term prospect, despite his plans to emigrate to Germany so as to divorce his mentally ill wife. Regardless, Edith decides that this relationship is serious and stable enough to necessitate a “meet the parents” situation, and therefore, she invites Mr. Gregson to the house party, where he can see Edith wearing terrible outfits and being universally disliked in her natural environment. If I were Edith, I don’t know that I’d be so eager for my suitor to meet my family—if nothing else, the expression on their faces when they say “Edith” might teach him enough about living with me to give him pause—but Edith, awkward and sour and given to disastrous dating choices, is truly the Liz Lemon of her day, and she is committed to making this work.

Enter Grantham Man-Baby Tantrum Number One: “You Can’t Play If You Won’t Let Me Win” Edition. Lord Grantham escapes the party to play a game of high-stakes poker, with a gentleman by the name of “Samson,” and Mr. Gregson, in an attempt to bro out with his potential father-in-law, follows suit. Unfortunately, Lord Grantham is just plain terrible at poker. So he loses a gigantic wad of money to Samson, and then goes up to Lady Cora so that he can lie about how much he hates poker, just hates it, and would never play poker because it’s a stupid stinky game for stupid-heads, and by the way, they can’t invite Samson over for play-dates any more, no reason, he’s just a big stinky stupid-head who is no fun to play with, that’s all. This gives Mr. Gregson a very useful piece of information, which is that Lord Grantham is an incompetent person who requires perpetual rescue. And so, Gregson rescues him, by figuring out how Samson cheated, out-cheating him, and thereby returning Lord Grantham’s money to him. This also gives Mr. Gregson a chance to be sinister toward Samson, and to boast about what a good cheater he is, giving us, the viewers, a gradually mounting pile of evidence that Mr. Gregson is emigrating to Germany, not in order to marry Edith, but in order to join and/or somehow invent the Nazi Party.

But the Grantham Tantrums keep on rolling, and soon enough, we’re faced with Number Two: “But I Don’t Want To Say Thank You To The Nice Lady” Edition. The piece de resistance for Cora’s house party is a performance by a renowned opera singer—who, I am overwhelmingly pleased to report, appears to perform in a teal, heavily bedazzled version of a Dracula popped-collar cape—and both Lord Grantham and Carson believe that she should eat dinner in her room prior to her performance, as she is a mere entertainer, unworthy of being seated at dinner next to people who have honorable jobs such as “having a lot of their parents’ money” and “marrying other people who have a lot of their parents’ money.” When Lady Cora finds out about Lord Grantham’s classism and operaphobia, she is furious, and demands that the singer be seated next to Lord Grantham at dinner. At said dinner, the opera singer recognizes the fancy wines Lord Grantham chooses, Lord Grantham asks her if she “read that on the menu,” she reveals a history of taste-testing fancy wine , and Lord Grantham says—and I quote—“This is going to be a lot less uphill than I thought!” Then he presumably launches into a long monologue about how much he didn’t want to be seated next to her, and how stupid he thought she was, and asks her if she can recognize the heated liquid in the bowl in front of her as “soup.” We will never know, because the camera cuts away, and soon, it is time for the singer to perform.

And this is where the episode turns inside-out. Downstairs, the big news of the day has been twofold: First, that the servants will have the unprecedented privilege of joining the upper-class visitors at the visiting opera singer’s concert. Secondly, Bates is being ambiguously abusive toward Anna. Mr. Green, the valet of a young man who has been making eyes at Mary, is being especially friendly towards Anna, making jokes with her and teaching her to play rowdy card games. Bates resolves this by screaming at Anna over how much fun she’s having, instructing her to stay away from Mr. Green, and generally being a possessive, controlling jackass. Anna grins and bears it, because Anna is generally a doormat when it comes to Bates and his behavior. But then, she steps away in the middle of the concert to take care of a headache. Mr. Green follows her. Mr. Green rapes her. The scene is violent, it is harrowing, and when it aired on the BBC, U.K. television regulators received more than 200 complaints.

But it’s not the scene itself that is the problem. It’s an extremely upsetting, unexpected scene to encounter on a silly, lightweight period melodrama, and it feels even more frightening and unexpected in such a lightweight episode. But that’s only fair: Sexual assault is a deeply upsetting crime. The problem with this scene is not its content, but its context. In effect, by punishing Anna with rape, the show is rewarding Bates for being emotionally abusive toward her: In real life, men who shout at you or shame you for making friends or having fun are bad news. In Downton Abbey, when Bates shouts at Anna for being friendly with Lord Gillingham’s valet, he is only doing what’s best for her. The second she exercises agency, steps away from the locus of Bates’ control and finds herself alone with her new friend, something horrible happens. The not-so-secret message of this plot twist isn’t rape is a horrible crime, it’s Anna should have obeyed her husband. And when Anna tells Mrs. Hughes about the crime and asks for help, she doesn’t talk about herself, or what the experience has done to her: She talks about her husband. Why he can’t know, how he would feel, what he would do to Mr. Green if he found out. Even in the moment Mr. Green is assaulting Anna, he doesn’t talk about Anna. He talks about “that cripple.” He talks about Bates. In effect, Anna is not the most important part of her own assault: The narrative frames it as an attack on Bates’ marriage, not on the woman he’s married to.

As I said: I want to have fun watching Downton Abbey. I want to marvel at the costumes—good, bad, and popped-collar Dracula cape—and giggle at the silly plot twists and make fun of the characters and just generally immerse myself in a lightweight, often-ridiculous melodrama at the end of the week. But, as much as I love that experience, there are subjects I simply don’t trust this show to handle responsibly. This is one of them. We’re off to a pretty bad start already; it’s up to the rest of the season, now, to step up to the plate and prove me wrong. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady inthesetimes.com.

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