Web Only / Features » January 20, 2014
Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 3: A Series of Unfortunate Aftermaths
Downton’s writers can’t stop exploring sexual assault–but do they even know they’re doing it?
Even in an episode about rape, the idea of a person intentionally feeding an unwilling sexual target liquor until that target becomes unable to fight her off didn't appear to strike the Downton Abbey writers as rape, per se.
Well, here we are: In the aftermath of Downton’s now-notorious rape scene. I stand by my statement that watching any character on that show be subjected to a scene like that would have been beyond upsetting. Watching it happen to Anna—one of the most faultless and sweet characters on the show, a woman who’s been all-but-exclusively defined by her devotion to her husband, St. Bates of the Possible Wife-Murdering—was particularly upsetting, given that it seemed like a cheap ploy designed to spice up the now-smooth course of the Bates marriage with some new drama. And the clichéd treatment of the scene—cutting between fancy classical music and terrible violence, just like Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather and The Avengers and pretty much any movie that wants to make the “this violence is very shocking and out of place” point without actually finding a new and interesting way to make us feel shocked by violence—made it even worse. Having an extremely violent rape scene on my silly show about dresses was bad enough; they could at least invest enough time in the scene to find an original means of executing it.
But, as so often with this sort of thing, the success or failure of the plot line about Anna’s rape scene depends largely on its aftermath. Anyone can put in a violent scene to liven up a foundering plot line. With a crime like rape—which can haunt victims for years afterward, or for a lifetime; which is rarely treated with sensitivity, by either the justice system or the larger society—Downton Abbey’s credibility depends entirely on how it portrays the aftershock.
So, good news: Two other characters are ambiguously raped, or threatened with rape, in this hour alone! Buckle up, everyone: It’s Sexual Assault Sensitivity Time at Downton Abbey. All this, and approximately 12 separate plot lines about who’s dating whom and why.
Lady Cora’s house party is over, and the guests are filing out the door. Edith’s Oldy Moldy Boyfriend departs, with the reminder that he’ll be emigrating to Germany, but first spending a week alone in his very fashionable and secluded London apartment, where the banging of Edith might plausibly commence. Lord Gillingham departs, but not before making a series of very googly eyes at Mary, whom he has known as an adult woman for approximately 24 hours, but with whom he is now earthshakingly in love. And finally, a delightfully daffy old widow departs, but not before sharing a story with Branson about how she used to drop teacups for no reason after her husband’s death because it felt “disloyal” to be able to appropriately handle fine china and silverware. She is sure that Branson sometimes feels “disloyal” in the same way.
Lady, you do not know Branson. For, rather than dropping teacups, Branson has been dropping trou, in the company of Evil Maid Edna. He refers to this as “a mistake,” and chalks it up to his “low spirits and self-indulgence,” but we, the viewers, know that it was carefully orchestrated: Edna was tailing Branson for the entirety of the party, doing her “let’s be friends” routine while handing him very large glasses of whiskey.
This is framed, for the most part, as an awkward yet consensual scenario: Branson is just some guy, coming off a particularly rough and eclampsia-related break-up, who happened to get drunk at a party and hook up with the nearest willing woman, even though he knew it was probably a bad idea. In this sense, we have all been Branson. And yet, Edna’s behavior is clearly predatory—she knows that Branson doesn’t want a sexual relationship with her, she used alcohol to make that relationship happen against his wishes, and given the ominous way the actress is playing her, particularly in the matter of the drinks, some recappers actually wondered if she had drugged him—in a way that the show itself seems fundamentally unclear about. The episode plays their encounter both as a rape and as casual sex with a messy aftermath, and sometimes plays it both ways at once during the same scene; in one moment, Branson's explaining that he's just in a weird place right now, and in another moment, it's implied that he only had sex with her because he was so drunk that he was fundamentally unclear on what was happening. First he apologizes for “self-indulgence,” tells her it was his bad decision, and otherwise does the it's-not-you-it's-me routine; then we notice that he keeps using the word “if” in relation to their having sex at all, and seems not to know whether they did anything that could have resulted in pregnancy.
For what it's worth, I don't think Edna is meant to be a rapist, just as I don't think Bates is meant to be abusive. For the most part, Branson himself describes the encounter as consensual, and Edna's behavior is probably meant to signify “scheming, manipulative gold-digger,” more than anything else. But—just as with Bates, whom women have described to me as triggering their “red flags” about abusive men, despite the show's insistence on his heroism—the show throws off severely disturbing hints about Edna, without apparently meaning to. We're meant to believe that Edna is a bitch, not a criminal; that her crime is aspiring above the working class, not committing sexual assault. But the writers don't seem clear enough on the distinction between “drunk hook-up” and “attack on an incapacitated man” to deliver that message. Simply put: Even in an episode about rape, the idea of a person intentionally feeding an unwilling sexual target liquor until that target becomes unable to fight her off didn't appear to strike the Downton Abbey writers as rape, per se.
Here is what they are clear on, however: their deep commitment to misogynist stereotypes about manipulative women and crazy, clingy exes. In the fine tradition of Vera Bates, Edna barges into Branson’s room, weeping about his callous treatment in order to prove how very evil and undesirable she is. “To use [me] one minute and to cast [me] aside like this!” she wails. “Suppose I’m pregnant! What will you do then?!” Edna demands that Branson promise to marry her. Branson gets sexist about how Edna could never be as pure or as marriage-worthy as his dear departed Sibyl. Edna mentions that he called her “Sibyl” a lot during sex—which takes us yet again to the “nonconsensual” interpretation, in that it’s yet another clue that Branson literally didn’t know what was happening to him—and Branson retorts with a bit of Downton Abbey Drama Dialogue. “I am full of regrets. There is nothing but regret in me,” Branson affirms. Well: regret and baby juice, Branson. I get the sense that Edna is counting on the latter.
Interlude #1: Everyone Is In Love With Each Other And I Don’t Know Why Edition. Daisy and Not-Daisy continue to hate each other. Tall Manservant and Short Manservant continue to hate each other, yet love Not-Daisy. Not-Daisy continues to love Short Manservant, but not Tall One. Edith continues to love Mr. Grigson, and plans a trip to London; Lord Gillingham continues to love Mary, and shows back up at the Abbey uninvited to bother her about it; Mary continues to love wearing purple dresses, and shows up in a slinky full-body plum velvet thing which I ought to adore but which reminds me uncomfortably of a Ye Aulde Veloure Tracksuite. Rose the Jazz-Loving Cousin loves jazz.
Back to the story: Downstairs, Joanne Froggatt is selling the heck out of Anna’s post-traumatic stress. She is too dissociated to carry on a conversation. She cannot bear to be touched. She is considering suicide. And, crucially, she is withdrawing from intimacy with Bates, because she feels that she is “not good enough for him” after what’s happened to her. She wishes to move out of their cottage. She confides all of this to Mrs. Hughes, who is clearly meant to be a stand-in for the contemporary viewer. Hughes affirms that what happened was not Anna’s fault, that she has no reason to feel ashamed, that she ought to go to the police, and all the other correct things that the 20th century has taught us to say about sexual assault. “You were attacked by an evil, violent man!”
It’s important to note Mrs. Hughes’ positioning as the one character in the story who truly understands rape and her characterization of its perpetrator as “evil.” Because, before long, Mrs. Hughes is also going to be the only person who knows what happened between Branson and Edna. And what she does to Edna is going to contradict every single thing she says in these scenes.
Interlude #2: My Heart Will Go On Plagiarizing Edition. Rose the Jazz-Loving Cousin, who—I believe the script may have mentioned this once or twice before—really quite likes jazz, takes Mary, Gillingham, Branson, and her boorish upper-class suitor to “The Lotus Club,” where a handsome African-American gentleman is singing. While dancing, Rose’s boorish upper-class suitor becomes extremely drunk, and the singer rescues Rose and begins flirting with her, before Rose is pried away by her racist relatives so as to avoid causing a scandal. A star-crossed love between the rebellious upper-class woman and this artistic young man unfairly looked down upon due to his social status is begun. His name? Why, I’m glad you asked. His name is… Jack. Rose… and Jack. The upper-class yet rebellious Rose is having a star-crossed love affair, with a bohemian artist, who saves her from her boorish upper-class suitor, and from whom her family tries to forbid her, and that artist’s name is Jack. Wow. I can’t wait to see how things turn out. Between Rose and Jack. I somehow get the feeling that quite a lot of the people in Downton Abbey’s servant quarters will be unexpectedly drowning in the finale.
And now, Branson, ready to confide, turns to Mrs. Hughes. But Hughes’ revenge is swift and terrible. She corners Edna alone in a room with Branson, and reveals that Edna cannot be pregnant, for Edna owns … a book about how to use contraception! Specifically, one titled Married Love, allowing Hughes to quip, “Although, in your case, it was more like UN-married love! Wasn’t it?” and us to learn that Mrs. Hughes’ strengths lie in housekeeping, not in clever wordplay. Thus accused of the unforgivable evils of birth control, Edna insists that she must be pregnant. And we get this bit of dialogue, which I think it is important to reproduce verbatim:
Mrs. Hughes: If you persist in your lie, I’ll summon the doctor and have him examine you.
Edna: You can’t force me.
Mrs. Hughes: Oh, yes, I can. First I’ll lock you in this room. Then, when he’s arrived, I’ll hold you down and tear the clothes from your body if that’s what it takes!
So, just to be clear: In the episode after an extremely disturbing rape scene, which the show has been eager to portray as an honest and clear look at how widely accepted rape “was” in early-20th-century society, we have Mrs. Hughes, the voice of rape-culture consciousness, threatening to restrain a woman, hold her down and tear her clothes off so that a man can touch and penetrate her genitals without consent. And this is portrayed as perfectly fine, rather than “evil and violent” (in Mrs. Hughes’ words) because that woman is sexually active, uses birth control, and isn’t a very nice person. It's possible that we're also meant to believe that Edna is a rapist herself—although I doubt it, and in which case I'd argue that gang-raping her is still not justice—but it's even more possible that her crime is fraternizing with the upstairs and refusing to keep her proper, silent place after the fact. Edna is promptly fired, and also told that she’ll never work again if she dares to speak about any of this, because heck: Once you’ve already got rape threats and slut-shaming in the picture, why not add a little bit of fear and silencing to the equation? Again: If she's a criminal, she's getting her comeuppance, but if not, a woman is losing her job for refusing to service her boss quietly and without complaining. The gender-role hellscape of Downton Abbey leads me to believe that Option B is more plausible than Option A, simply because this show never seems to run out of hellish karmic punishments (death! disgrace! prostitution! having to haul the guy's corpse out of your bedroom at three in the morning!) for women who have consensual sex.
Yes, it’s Sensitivity Training Season at Downton Abbey; an entire season in which we’ll be asked to parse rape culture in the context of Downton Abbey. And as awful as last week’s scene was, it’s clear from this week’s events that we’ve got nowhere to go but down. For indeed:
Interlude #3: COMPLETELY UNEXPECTED EDITION! Edith actually has sex! Edith actually has sex! Edith actually has sex! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!
Oh, wait. This is going to turn out terribly for Edith, isn't it? I mean, this is Downton Abbey. And she is Edith, so… damn. Like I said. Nowhere to go but down.
Correction: The title of this article previously referred to this as Episode 4; it is Episode 3 according to the U.S. numbering of this season (which counted the first two shows as a double episode).
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady