Web Only / Features » February 2, 2014
Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 5: A Black Man Enters Downton, Panic Ensues
Race, like rape, is something Downton’s writers don’t seem equipped to handle.
We get to sit on our couches and watch Carson asking Jack if he’s ever been to Africa and what he thinks of slavery, while the servants stare at Jack with panic expressions.
Oh, happy day! At long last, things have finally settled down a bit on Downton Abbey. Now, granted, “things have settled down” might sound worrisome, given that this is a show where a line like “we haven’t done much with pigs before” signifies breathtaking suspense, and a plot development such as “the Dowager Countess misplaces her paper knife” can turn into a multi-episode mystery. Normally, I would fear a settled-down Downton Abbey, lest the show turn into one long shot of Lady Cora taking a nap.
But, after three straight episodes of rape, implied rape and rape-centric plot lines, I for one am grateful to catch a break and to see these honest working-class folk and entitled adult babies finally just get back to bickering with each other and selecting dresses. Yes, it’s time to finally sit down and start recapping the saga of the Dowager Countess’s missing pen knife, for it—
—Oh. Oh, wait. This is also the episode where everyone at Downton Abbey meets a black person for the first time in their entire lives. Well, so much for that! “Unsettling and offensive” would appear to be the order of the day on Downton.
But before this happens, we get to spend much of the episode luxuriating in the sort of arcane, detailed, strangely soothing scenes of old-timey bickering that Downton does best. For example: Alfred is heartbroken over his recent rejection from culinary school. Daisy, love-stricken lass that she is, attempts to console him by offering the first slice of toast at breakfast. Carson shuts this down right quick. Unrequited love is one thing, unrequited love that interferes with the order of toast distribution is completely unacceptable. Alas, toast alone cannot cure what ails Alfred; the pain of culinary-school rejection is so deep that he cannot even be roused to help Daisy make a simple anchovy sauce. Fortunately enough, his rejection also only lasts for about five minutes; almost immediately, Alfred’s acceptance letter from the Ritz arrives, allowing him to rub his victory right in the face of his romantic rival James and break Daisy’s heart all over again. This clears the way for two exciting plot developments: Firstly, Not-Daisy goes on a date with Fun James, where he affirms that she owes him sex because he took her to “the cinema and the theatre,” because apparently Downton Abbey isn’t going to let me get past even one week of television without invoking rape culture. Secondly, Molesley shows up at the Abbey to beg for Alfred’s job, which he is refused approximately 9,000 times before Carson finally relents and lets him join the crew.
Meanwhile, upstairs: The Curious Case of the Dowager Countess’s Untidy Desk! This woman cannot stop losing desk accessories. Last week, it was a paper knife given to her by the King of Sweden. This week, it is a bit of ivory netsuke, which has no regal history, but which she is still very upset to have lost. She blames Pegg—an aspiring gardener whom she recently hired at the insistence of Mrs. Crawley—and Pegg is fired for presumed desk-accessory theft. Mrs. Crawley is irate, and accuses the Dowager Countess of being a materialist. (This is a strangely obvious insult to hurl at a woman who wears approximately 3 metric tons of jewel-encrusted velvet to breakfast.) She soon retaliates by breaking into the Dowager Countess’ house and finding the missing paper knife—quite conveniently, by sitting on it—and then comes back to insist that the Dowager Countess rehire Pegg. This results in a lot of yelling between the two ladies, who hurl lines like “What can I say to persuade you out of your injustice and stubbornness?” and “If you wish to understand things, you must come out from behind your prejudice and listen!” which gives me the perverse desire to watch the Dowager Countess and Mrs. Crawley have Ye Aulde Twitter Fighte—until the Dowager Countess finally reveals that she just re-hired Pegg. Duly humiliated for the grave sin of having her own plot line, Mrs. Crawley slinks away into the background once again.
And, speaking of humiliation: It’s time to check in on Edith. For, reader, there are certain constants on Downton Abbey. Carson, for example, will always be ridiculously conservative. Mrs. Patmore will always flip out when faced with any technology more advanced than “the wheel” or “fire.” And Edith, well: Edith will always, always get dumped in the worst way possible.
At long last, the life-success-attaining streak that defined Edith for much of this season—and inspired a few think pieces on how “great” she had become—is over. For it appears that Mr. Grigson, her beau, has dumped Edith so thoroughly that he has, in fact, “disappeared into thin air.” Even private detectives cannot find this man; that is how thoroughly he has dumped Edith. She weeps quite a lot over this development, and wonders what could have caused it, naming specifically the fact that he may be a) “trapped somewhere,” b) “falsely imprisoned,” and/or c) “dead.” She does not name the somewhat more likely possibilities of d) “is a Nazi now” and e) “dumped Edith.” But getting dumped is the least of Edith’s problems. For, in the grand tradition of Downton Abbey concocting baroque and deadly punishments for sexual activity, Edith is now pregnant with a mini-Grigson. At the very least, this ought to make her feel badly for telling everyone about that time a guy died having sex with her older sister; getting a fetus out of your womb in 1920s England is probably even harder than getting a dead Turkish diplomat out of your bed, and, if the process is not properly attended to, may take up to nine months to accomplish.
Speaking of sex lives: Rose the Jazz-Loving Cousin is planning a surprise for Lord Grantham’s birthday party! And that surprise? IS JAZZ. Indeed, she has invited the dashing jazz singer Jack to bring his band all the way up from London, to play a private set at Downton Abbey. Aside from the horrors of listening to Jack’s band again—the actor, Gary Carr, is doing his best to make Jack’s singing style historically accurate, hyper-enunciating all the lyrics and singing in a voice that’s pitched approximately eight octaves higher than his spoken lines; I understand the historical context, but the result is still supremely weird—this means that every single one of the 87 white characters on Downton Abbey get to process their emotions about meeting a black person. And it is rough.
The conversation descends immediately into the worst possible version of White People Hell: We get to sit there, on our couches, and watch Carson immediately start asking Jack if he’s ever been to Africa (no; it turns out that not all black people have been to Africa) and what he thinks of slavery (he’s generally against it), while all the servants stare at Jack with wacky panic expressions that make them look like they’re repressing barf. All of this is clearly meant to make a point about racism—Carson’s awkward questions are clearly meant to be tee-ups, so that Jack's nobility and politeness in the face of White People Hell can shine through—but the fact that the show treats a black man like a nuclear bomb, making approximately 18 separate verbal and non-verbal statements about how “shocking” and “odd” and frightening his presence on the screen must be, makes it seem offensive and dehumanizing nonetheless.
Upstairs, it’s no better: Everyone plays along, dancing to this “jazz” cousin Rose is apparently so fond of, while barely repressing their existential horror. Not showing horror, but nonetheless managing to cause it, is Mrs. Crawley, who decides to be loudly pleased about all the progress the white people are making, and decides. to start talking aloud about the Diversity Signifier that is standing in the living room. “You see, Tom, things can happen at Downton that no one imagined even a few years ago,” she exclaims cheerfully. “Gee, thanks, Mrs. Crawley,” Jack does not say, from the place where he is standing, which is approximately three feet away.
Branson, meanwhile takes the occasion to start whining about how he’s too oppressed to date. But, as always, Branson might want to slow his roll a little. For, when Mary goes downstairs to settle the question of the bill with Jack, she finds Jack and Rose kissing. Kissing! Lands! Mary doesn’t say anything, but the expression on her face makes it clear that she would not be much more horrified if she had found Jack and Rose feasting on Carson’s corpse.
And so, here we are: Stuck in the middle of yet another forbidden love on Downton Abbey. With Anna still trying to thwart her husband’s murderous tendencies, Mary still widowed, Not-Daisy being told that she owes men sex for movie tickets, and Edith impregnated to teach her the horrors of premarital intimacy, it’s hard to see what else this show can devise, in the way of horrific punishment, for its sexually active female characters. But something tells me Rose ought not to celebrate too prematurely. Her ship is about to sink right fast.
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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