Well, here we are, at the tail end of Downton Abbey’s fourth season. There’s only one episode left after this, and it’s the Christmas special, which (in the U.K.) aired several months after this one. So tonight, for all intents and purposes, is Downton Abbey wrapping up — resolving its arcs, tying up loose ends and making it clear what the season itself meant to accomplish. And now, at last, we can see that the last seven episodes revolved around one simple quest: A lone man, fighting against all odds, for the right to ignore the wishes of his rape-victim wife and commit cold-blooded murder.
For, yea: After Mr. Green let it slip during last week’s visit that he had been at the scene of the crime during the opera concert at which Anna was raped, Bates disappeared. And if Green’s subsequent off-screen death means what we think it means, Bates spent that time away whisking himself off to London and throwing Green in front of a bus, thereby fulfilling all of Anna’s worst fears. But before we turn our eyes to this touching tale of bus-murder and rape-victim re-traumatization, let us examine the other stories on display tonight.
#1: Brocialism with Branson!
Tom Branson, Firebrand Extraordinaire, continues to stand up for the working man, mainly by saying the word “socialist” a lot whilst living off his dead wife’s wealthy parents, hitting on chicks at political meetings, and — in this episode — catching Rose on a date with Jack and immediately freaking out and telling Mary about the interracial canoodling occurring on Downton’s premises. (Mary, having seen the two kissing several weeks ago, has tattled to precisely zero people. Also, she manages to get through the conversation with Branson without yelling some version of “YOU WERE OUR CHAUFFEUR, YOU SISTER-BANGING HYPOCRITE,” which most people would have done approximately 0.5 seconds after he opened his mouth. Mary is a woman of tremendous personal restraint, is my point here.)
At this juncture, Branson is not so much “a socialist icon” as he is “indistinguishable from every single pseudo-progressive white dude at my liberal arts college” — judgmental, selfish, pretentious and too well-funded to bother getting his own place. If the fifth season somehow revolves around Branson’s quest to invent Hacky Sack, I will not be remotely surprised.
#2: A Racist Imagines Your Relationship: The Jack and Rose Story
I don’t normally dovetail into personal asides in these recaps, but: I’m white. My partner is a man of color. And yet, in an estimated 97.85% of all conversations, we don’t feel the need to process or re-establish this fact. We are far more likely to discuss his video game progress or our varying opinions on Phish than we are to sit down and remind each other about our respective races. Indeed, when two people are in love with each other, my general experience is that they share activities and interests. They talk about who they are, not what they are. This is why most of my romantic partners have referred to me by name, rather than shouting, “Hey! You! The white lady with the glasses” when they wanted my attention.
And yet, this is not the case for star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose. There has not been a single conversation between these two that has not revolved around race: They don’t talk about music, the weather, the theatre, whatever the 1920s equivalent of video games would be (I’m guessing … croquet?) or anything except the fact that he is a black man. Typically, this takes the form of Rose shouting something about “DIFFERENCE” to the skies or yelling at Jack about how awful racism is when he asks her not to paw his face in the middle of a restaurant. Over the course of the season, Jack hasn’t been given a personality aside from “pleasant-seeming black boyfriend.” And he’s not getting one any time soon: Post-Branson-tattling, Mary repairs to Jack’s place to tell him that Rose only wants to be with him in order to shock the family.
And Jack, as pleasantly as he’s done anything else, dumps Rose to make the white people happy. He refuses to saddle Rose with the chore of being in love with a black man, because (he says) it would be too hard for her to deal with society’s racism. Then he disappears.
To sum up: Downton Abbey’s point, in re: interracial relationships, would seem to be that they’re something white girls do to make a point, because no white person could ever plausibly love a person of color for who they are. Also, that the polite thing for the partner of color to do is to vacate the premises so that white ladies can continue to float through life on the U.S.S. White Privilege, untouched by the icy seas of structural oppression. Why we needed an entire season of television to convey this incredibly offensive message when we could all get enough of it by reading some old racist’s Tweets for a half hour, I will never know.
#3: Dowager Countess, Pregnancy Detective
The Dowager Countess psychically intuits Edith’s pregnancy. She’s surprisingly cool with it. Also, Edith has decided to give her baby to a nearby villager, on the grounds that he seems very good at handling pigs.
#4: I Married A Murderer, starring Bates and Anna
This season started with a brutal rape scene — a hideous trauma inflicted on the saintly Anna for what seemed like mere shock value. That, dear reader, was bad enough. But, as the season winds to a close, it’s become clear that Downton’s real aim was far worse. Anna’s rape scene, it turns out, wasn’t just a pointless shock. It was intended to jump-start Bates’ plot line. So in order to re-visit the “is Bates violent” question (which has already been pretty well answered, given his alarmingly creepy, controlling and possessive treatment of Anna), we’ve gotten a whole season of a woman’s pain played as necessary fuel for an essentially male story.
And now, we get the kicker: Bates menacing his already fragile wife and making her worst fears — that is, that she is married to a violent man, that Bates will murder her attacker and that she will be widowed when he’s found out — come true. Sure enough, at the end of the episode, Green has been killed off-screen, and Bates is returning from a mystery trip with a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step. Anna is terrified, and Bates could not be happier.
It’s hard to over-sell how insensitive this is. The scenes in which Bates plays sleuth — leaning over a clearly intimidated and upset Anna to ask why she doesn’t like Green anymore — make him sound for all the world as if he’s jealous of Green and trying to suss out an affair instead of an attack. It’s clear that killing Green isn’t what Anna wants, and it isn’t something Bates has done to protect her. If Bates is, indeed, responsible for Green’s death (and there seems to be very little mystery on that front) he has saved no one and reawakened a victim’s trauma in the process.
And yet, even Mary, when she catches wind of Green’s abrupt and mysterious death, concludes that (a) Bates probably offed him and (b) he would have had the right to do it. It’s ugly, it’s sexist and it relies on ancient ideas of rape as a property crime: Bates is “protecting” territory by avenging a slight on himself, rather than acting in accordance with Anna’s needs. It’s a wretched way to resolve an equally wretched plot line, and I can’t imagine a course-correction that might save it.
Even now, however, all is not lost. For, in this episode, a miracle comes to Downton:
#5: Molesley in love
It’s true! Molesley has a girlfriend! Said girlfriend is Baxter, the new lady’s maid. He takes her on a date to the bazaar, wins a carnival game for her, defends her honor when Thomas attempts to blackmail her into doing his evil bidding, and basically acts like a normal, non-disastrous human for an entire episode. This is a tiny little run of scenes — maybe five minutes within the hour-long episode — but I nonetheless feel morally obliged to report upon it, because by God, Molesley taking a girl out on a date turns out to be absolutely adorable. I couldn’t have predicted it; I wouldn’t have believed it. And yet, the quiet befuddlement on his face when he realizes that a girl is willing to speak to him for more than 25 seconds at a stretch and the horrified high-pitched giggle he gives when she compliments him are some of the more purely enjoyable things I’ve seen on this season of Downton.
So: More Molesley dates, I say! Nothing but Molesley dates! Make an entire episode where these two go to Applebee’s and get comically large margaritas! This is a tiny little drop of sunshine in an increasingly murky and unpleasant season, and I don’t mean to put more weight on it than it can reasonably bear. But anything that turns the camera toward joy, and away from Anna and Bates, is to be commended. In the end, I do believe it may be Molesley who saves us all.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are 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 them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.