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Downton Abbey Recap: Diversity, Downton Style

This week, we finally got to meet the first black character on Downton Abbey. His name is Jack Ross. He’s a handsome singer. And based on the way he treated Rose when her escort, Sir John Bullock, dashed off the Lotus Club dance floor to drunk-vomit, he’s also considerate, suave, and respectful.

So naturally, he scares the shit out of Lady Rosamund.

“Oh, Mary,” Rosamund gasped when she spotted the man dancing — in public, where others can see! — with her lily-white relative. Immediately, like a Navy SEAL on a rescue mission, Tom was sent in to extract Rose from the situation while everyone looked horrified and will probably continue to look horrified when Jack (played by British actor Gary Carr) shows up in future episodes of season four.

From the viewpoint of Downton Abbey audiences living in 2014, the response to Jack was totally ridiculous. (Truly, when Rosamund uttered that horrified “Oh, Mary,” I guffawed loudly enough to be heard all the way back in 1922.) But it also may have been the most realistic thing that happened on an extra-soapy hour of Downton Abbey.

I say that because: One, the Crawleys and their extended relatives, friends, and staffers live in a sheltered, exceedingly Caucasian environment that likely would make them uncomfortable around anyone whose skin is even a half-shade darker than alabaster. And two: Everything else that happened on this week’s Downton was so preposterous plot-wise that black-man gasping seemed weirdly understandable by comparison.

Julian Fellowes tossed it all in the slow cooker this week: race relations, jazz music, marriage proposals, pregnancy threats, lady’s maid firings, premarital sex (which could lead to actual pregnancy and not just the threatened kind), and unnecessary spousal separation. Yeah, it was kind of a lot. But on Downton Abbey, isn’t it always?

First and foremost, the ramifications of the horrifying rape from last week continued to be felt. Anna (still a shattered, wounded mess) hasn’t changed her mind about keeping the whole episode from Bates. In fact, just a day or two after the incident, she announced to Mrs. Hughes that she wanted to move out of her cottage, away from the man she loves, and back into the main Downton house. Mrs. Hughes reminded Anna that the valet-violation was not her fault and urged her to be honest with Bates about what happened. But Anna refused, rebuffing her spouse in a way that only heightened his concern and deciding to become maid to both Cora and Mary because it would make her relocation seem necessary. (Braithwaite’s ultra-convenient exit — more on that later — made that double lady maid shift an easy excuse for Anna.)

Okay, let’s unpack all this for a second. Based on Anna Bates Logic, she is not telling her husband that she was raped because he’d hypothetically kill the guy who did it, then hypothetically get caught, then hypothetically go to jail, then hypothetically be executed and hypothetically be separated from Anna forever. So, to avoid all those hypotheticals, Anna is emotionally and physically distancing herself from Bates, which actually, completely non-hypothetically is separating them from each other, now and perhaps forever.

Show of hands: Does this make sense to anyone? (Julian Fellowes, put your hand down!) No, it doesn’t. Okay, I’ll grant you this: It does make sense that Anna feels uncomfortable being touched by another man right now. That I get. But all this secrecy-and-potential-move business seems too drastic, too quickly. And it suggests that this story line exists simply to cram a wedge between Anna and Mr. Bates, since having them be happy together is about as dull as living Daisy’s sad-ass life. All of which strikes me as problematic.

Look, I’ve never written a television show. I couldn’t even finish the stupid play I wrote in the eighth grade that was vaguely inspired by episodes of Moonlighting. But as a professional TV writer and critic, what bothers me about this whole rape subplot — and may bother me about Downton’s attempt to explore racism, depending upon how it’s handled — is that it’s a serious issue that’s been reduced to mere plot device. It’s okay to decide to portray a rape and its aftermath on TV. Lord knows it’s been done before. But when it’s been done well, the aftermath of the rape has been handled sensitively, as a means to explore the lasting impact on the victim, its effect on those who know the victim, and/or comment on the gender politics of the time (see Mad Men).

To her credit, Joanne Froggatt has been doing a marvelous job of trying to take things in that direction. When Anna said she felt “dirty” and “soiled” because of the attack, that spoke loudly and clearly about the irrational guilt that women, both then and now, can feel when they’ve been sexually abused. But between Anna’s constant, unconvincing attempts to mask her sorrow and her irrational focus on running away from Bates, what could be an affecting look at a beloved character’s personal crisis is turning into a bunch of melodrama that’s hard to take seriously. That’s not Froggatt’s fault. That’s the script’s.

Just imagine, for a moment, how this whole story might be playing out if Anna actually told Bates what happened and Bates surprised her by putting her well-being ahead of his anger. It would add shades of depth to Bates that are lacking right now and it would be an opportunity to show a man and woman, as a unit, dealing with female victimization at a less than gender-equal time in history. That would be interesting to me, far more interesting than: “I’m soiled and now I have to move. Oh: and no, my beloved husband, nothing is wrong. I swear.”

In other shadowy corners of the Downton household, Braithwaite tipped her hand too soon and foiled her master plan to con Tom into marrying her. Come on, Braithwaite, you were supposed to be good at this! Barging into Tom’s room and trying to coerce him into a nuptial commitment in the event of a theoretical pregnancy was such a lame, rookie mistake. In addition to being lame, it also didn’t work because Tom took the information to the Human Repository for All Downton Secrets, Mrs. Hughes.

Then Hughes called Edna into her office and said, “I know you can’t be pregnant. Because I found a book. That’s right: a book about how married people do it without winding up with 5 jillion babies. Any woman who owns such a book knows how to keep herself from getting pregnant … or, possibly, uses the book as a diaphragm. I don’t know if that’s right, my knowledge of diaphragms is a bit limited. Either way: Make no mistake, I will call a doctor to test you for real! 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!”

Here’s what’s weird: That last sentence wasn’t even a joke. Mrs. Hughes actually said that to Edna, which seemed excessive. (Imagine how fired up Hughes would have been if she’d found the other book Edna was hiding in her bureau: Impregnating Yourself With Tom Branson’s Man Juices for Dummies.)

Mrs. Hughes was already suspicious of Edna because of what had happened with Tom before. In all fairness, she should have been. But her attitude toward Braithwaite seemed like a repeat of the slut-shaming she directed at Ethel back when she was getting it on with members of a higher class, an attitude Hughes reversed when Ethel was driven to prostitution. Mrs. Hughes doesn’t have to like Edna, but surely, as a woman who has proven that she’s compassionate toward other women, she might have treated her with a little more respect? Then again, let’s not forget the sexual code of Downton Abbey, where it’s inappropriate for unmarried, aristocratic women to have sex, really inappropriate for unmarried, non-aristocratic women to have sex and borderline criminal for unmarried, non-aristocratic women to have sex with semi-aristocratic widowers while they’re drunk. Yeah. Sure. That seems fair.

Hey, speaking of slut-shaming, remember that girl who slut-shamed Mary by writing a letter to the Turkish Embassy to announce that Pamuk died in Mary’s bedroom? Oh, that’s right: That was Edith. Well, guess what? Edith no longer cares about what happens in other people’s bedrooms because she’s getting action in her own. Yes, Edith finally got laid by the man she loves — complete with a real walk of shame and everything! Unlike Pamuk, Michael didn’t die afterward but Rosamund seemed like she wanted to kill Edith when she realized where her niece had spent the night. How much do you want to bet that Edith winds up pregnant? Why? Because she didn’t have Edna’s book, that’s why. No matter what happens, Edith’s proven that she’s actually a hell of a lot more mysterious than a bucket, despite Mary’s claims to the contrary.

Now let’s talk about Mary: she’s getting married again. Okay, not exactly. She’s just fielding marriage proposals from Lord Gillingham who, like Matthew Crawley before him, is hopelessly in love with Mary even though he’s engaged to be married. Pssst … Lord Gillingham. People don’t fall in love and plan to get married when they’ve only known each for five seconds. Dude, didn’t you see see Frozen?

Wisely, despite the dazzling poetry that came out of Gillingingham’s mouth — “You fill my brain,” “But he’s dead and I’m alive” — Mary turned him down,  expressing a sense of subsequent regret that suggests Gillingham may fill her brain, and our TV screens, again sometime soon.

Now, in closing, here are a few things that were not at all regrettable about this episode of Downton Abbey:

* Isobel’s continued campaign for most noble griever of all time, which still moves me considerably and is even thawing the heart of the Dowager Countess.

* Dr. Clarkson saying to Isobel, “I know you always suspect me of trying to get you back into harness,” which led to some disturbing dreams about Clarkson and Isobel starring in a production of Equus.

* Hot Jimmy’s proclamation that he wants to “see the world, meet beautiful women, spend money, and drink champagne,” which confirms what I have long suspected: that he will grow up to be the white version of Diddy.

* Carson’s observation that “I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast,” which confirms that he’s basically the more mannerly, British version of this very famous cat.

Photo: Carnival Films/PBS