Julian Fellowes, what a glorious party you threw on this week’s Downton Abbey. Aside from the parts where Isobel practically started weeping for her dead son and Tom felt totally awkward, it was just a delight. The estate was filled with music, and dashingly handsome lords, and elaborate meals that nearly sent Mrs. Patmore into cardiac arrest, and wry Oscar Wildean quips from the Dowager Countess. Lady Mary was even giggling again, which just goes to show you that light always replaces darkness and joy always triumphs over sorrow and —
Oh, no. No! Why did that have to happen?
There was a rape in this episode. A really, really awful rape. Forgive me: all rape is awful. But the one that occurred near the end of this Downton hour — a violent attack that came out of nowhere like … well, like a speeding truck killing Matthew Crawley in the prime of his life — was particularly upsetting because it involved dear, sweet, respectable, always-do-the-right thing Anna Bates. No one deserves to be brutalized but least of all someone like her, by an arrogant valet who thinks he has the right to attack women just because they seem politely bemused when he flirts with them.
Before you ask: No, technically, we don’t know that Anna was raped because the camera didn’t show us every unseemly detail of what happened. But it certainly revealed enough to strongly imply that Mr. Green’s assault was of a physical and sexual nature. Oh, and before you ask the next question: the visiting valet’s name was Mr. Green, but Anna and others referred to him as Gillingham out of deference to his boss, Lord Gillingham, a bit of social niceness that also served as a subtle nod to Green’s obvious sense of entitlement. The name-switchery didn’t make a lot of sense but as the good ol' Dowager Countess reminded us: “If I were to search for logic, I would not look for it in the English upper class.”
The fact that Anna was attacked downstairs while Nellie Melba’s soaring vocals upstairs muted the sound of her screams brutally underlined a truth that, as Maureen Dowd recently noted, sometimes can be forgotten on Downton Abbey: that there’s still a wide, ugly gulf between living above and working below. The staff may have been permitted to sit in the company of finely dressed aristocrats and enjoy the lovely concert. But beneath the surface, Julian Fellowes reminded us, things often remain grim and unforgiving.
Which brings me to my next question: Good God, Fellowes, must you always be such a melodramatic masochist? Oh, wait, that’s right: You must. As you said in an interview last year, “Nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness.” Anna was finally happy, married gleefully to Bates and no longer fighting to get him out of jail. As I noted in last week’s Downton write-up, that made the Anna-Bates relationship sort of boring. But surely there are ways to combat boredom that don’t involve some arrogant, visiting valet beating Anna while a noted opera singer sings arias on and on at a house party. Surely? Surely?
The whole thing was so quick and, with its toggling back and forth between performance and female violation, oddly reminiscent of this scene from Moulin Rouge. It also laid the foundation for Anna’s story line for the remainder of this season; in the aftermath, she tearfully appealed to Mrs. Hughes and begged her to say nothing about the incident, especially to Bates. (God, Joanne Froggatt was just heartbreaking during that scene.) Why does Anna insist on keeping this trauma to herself? Because she’s convinced that if her husband finds out what Green did, he’ll murder the stinking, presumptuous louse, then go back to prison and actually have to stay there, for real this time. Which is probably true, and also a little sad. Shouldn’t Anna be able to tell her spouse important things without being worried that he’ll go on a homicidal rampage?
In real life: yes. In Downton Abbey life: No, because apparently season four needs more ongoing, soapy-sudsy story lines. As a result of this terrible situation, Anna now has a secret to keep from Bates, Mrs. Hughes carries the burden of keeping that same secret, and — I hear the sound of dramatic irony approaching — Bates won’t know something important that we, the audience, know about the woman he loves. Also: with Lady Mary and Lord Gillingham growing closer (did you enjoy that “get back on the horse” dating metaphor, brought to you by the image of Lady Mary on an actual horse?), surely Mary’s maid and Gillingham’s valet will collide again. I love it when a horrifying, exploitative-plot plan comes together, don’t you? Actually, I’m not sure if I love it, but let’s move on.
The violation of Anna Bates may have been the harsh breaking news of this episode. But some other key things happened that should be noted as well:
- Lady Mary attempted to keep the clearly very interested Lord Gillingham at arm’s length. But she was obviously enjoying his attention, at least until they started dancing and the ghost of Matthew appeared, in the form of a gramophone. Personally, I don’t want to watch Dour Mary all season long. But I’d like to see her wait a little longer before leaping back into a relationship. However, I will say that as Gillingham — or, if you prefer, the Artist Formerly Known As Anthony Foyle — Tom Cullen exudes an air of gentle chilliness that seems well-suited to Mary.
- Also making progress (of a sort) in their relationship were Edith and Michael, who finally managed to win Robert’s respect the same way all potential spouses of the Crawley daughters do: by making sure the patriarch doesn’t blow the entire family fortune in the amount of time it takes to sneeze. Seriously: How much stupider does Lord Grantham need to be? He almost lost most of his money last season on an ill-advised train investment. This week he nearly pissed it away in a poker game. If his daughters didn’t date and/or marry men with financial and common sense, Lord Grantham would be completely destitute and begging Molesley for a job as junior assistant delivery boy.
- Which brings me to Stupid Robert Thing No. 8 bazillion-gajillion: the decision to serve dinner to the elite opera singer Nellie Melba in her room, because it would be inappropriate for her to eat with the upper-crusty Crawleys and their guests. Honestly, that would be like hiring Beyoncé to perform at your son’s bar mitzvah, then telling her she’s banned from the open bar and free buffet. In fairness, this was more Carson’s fault since Robert was barely listening to his recommendations and Carson was so adamant about Melba not co-mingling with the Downton elite. As he announced to Mrs. Hughes in Carson’s typical Über-traditionalist tones, it would destroy literally every thread in the fabric of society to have “an Australian singer eating with her Ladyship.” Take that as a warning, Olivia Newton John: you are not welcome at the Downton Abbey dining room table! Fortunately, Lady “Am I the only member of this family living in the twentieth century?” Cora stepped up and fixed everything.
- Not so fixable: Hot Jimmy’s wrist, which was severely injured in a tragic jar-twisting accident. God, they really need one of those rubber jar grips in the Downton kitchen. But don’t tell Patmore because if those technological marvels show up, she’ll definitely think she’s being downsized.
- While we’re on the subject of Patmore, I’d like to state, for the record, that I don’t want her to have a heart attack. But paradoxically: I love watching that woman have heart attacks! When she gets all flustered about syllabubs and chill soup and the fact that Ivy is “slapping it out like a trained seal,” it is the best and the greatest and I want to hug her, then yell at her so she’ll continue being agitated, shouting at Ivy and careening wildly from sink to prep counter. For her health, she really should retire. She’s already gone blind once and now she’s practically dropping dead from panic attacks. But for our health as Downton viewers: Keep up the high blood pressure and racing heart rate, Patmore!
- Question: How long does it take the returned Edna Braithwaite to seduce Tom Branson on Downton Abbey? Answer: One episode. Ugh, this was so predictable. Tom was feeling terribly out of the place at the party, never more so than when he was dancing with the Duchess and she asked if he knew her niece, Lady Powerscourt. (Tom: “Why, yes, I think we may have crossed paths that time I was torching a castle and flipping the bird at the tyranny of my Irish oppressors.”) Within the span of maybe ten minutes, he concluded that he doesn’t belong at Downton, and that the only person on Earth who understands him is Edna Braithwaite, gold-digging lady’s maid. WHY? Oh, and by the way, who was watching the little ones in this episode? We never got a glimpse of baby George or lil’ Sybill, which leads me to assume that poor Sybie is still sitting in her crib, believing that she’s a wicked little crossbreed. I believe the children are our future, and the future is looking pretty damn bleak in this already bleak house.
- Final observation: Penelope Wilton is amazing. As the still actively mourning Isobel, she is bringing an authentic, quiet, teary grace to the character that, once again, was the most emotionally touching thing on Downton Abbey. The way she swallows her resentment of the Crawleys throwing such a lavish affair, and looks away when Mary begins to glow in the light of Lord Gillingham’s attention, was marvelously subtle. And as the terrible Anna Bates incident unintentionally reminded us this week, elegant subtlety must always, always have a place at the Downton Abbey table.