Downton Abbey’s fourth season promised to tackle some serious subjects: rape, abortion, unwanted pregnancy, racism. But Sunday’s episode — the penultimate of that fourth season, as broadcast on PBS — seemed to confirm that none of those matters will be dealt with in any deep, meaningful way. What was it the Dowager Countess told Edith? “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. The first one, then the next, and then the next, until at last we die.” That’s what it felt like Downton Abbey was doing this week: expediently resolving the myriad plot problems faced by its characters while avoiding the messy, complicated issues that lurk beneath those problems.
Let’s start with the valet, or rather, the valet’s untimely squashing by a runaway lorry ... or possibly a bus. Lord Gillingham and Mary weren’t exactly clear about the nature of the vehicle that ran over the guy. But this much was certain: The valet that raped Anna Bates is dead, dead by accident. That’s right: accident. He fell into the road.
The valet died by pure, cruel happenstance, and not because, like, Bates killed him or something. We know for a fact that Bates had nothing to do with what happened because he spent the day the valet died in York. Bates even went into Carson’s office and, for absolutely no good reason, announced that he was planning to go to York: “Mr. Carson, I want you to know I am going to York tomorrow. Yes, sir, if anyone asks where good ‘ol John Bates is after the sun rises in the morning, the answer is: York. To be more specific, when I am in York I will be doing both this, as well as a little of that. But I definitely won’t be going to London to shove rapists in front of oncoming vehicles. All right? Good day then, Mr. Carson. [Mutters under breath as he leaves the room] Mur-der.”
Nope, Bates would not possibly have shared that information for alibi purposes. Not at all.
Honestly, the ambiguity about whether or not Bates killed Mr. Green, while predictable, didn’t bother me nearly as much as some other things about the valet portion of the Downton Abbey narrative. Things such as:
Anna’s comment about why she fears the valet.
After finding out that Lord Gillingham — who seriously will not go away — planned to return to Downton, Anna finally confessed to Mary that Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green, was the man who raped her. “I’m terrified every time Mr. Green and Mr. Bates are in the same room,” she said. I can understand why it would be unsettling for her husband and her rapist to be near each other, especially when she’s trying to keep the identity of her rapist a secret. But first and foremost: Wouldn’t she be terrified just to be in the same room with Mr. Green? On the list of things that terrify her, shouldn’t “possibly being raped again by this horrible bastard” be first and “memories of previously being raped by this horrible bastard” be second, with “my husband possibly trying to kill this bastard who raped me” coming in a distant third?
When Julian Fellowes forces Anna to say things like that, it suggests that one man’s violation of a woman is really the story of how another man (Bates) will respond to it, instead of how the woman who suffered is dealing with it. That’s been the flaw with this plot line from minute one. Using Anna’s rape primarily as a (possible) setup for Bates to commit another crime trivializes the actual crime committed against Anna. This is what I mean when I say that Downton Abbey is avoiding the messy, underlying issues of its narrative and opting instead for quick and easy resolutions.
Mary’s insistence on firing the valet and Lord Gillingham’s willingness to comply.
To ease Anna’s pain, Mary asked Tony Gillingham to fire his valet, explaining that the guy had done something horrendous but not saying what. It was an unfair request, and surely Mary realized that. Just one episode ago, Mary told Mrs. Hughes that she needed to know why Bates couldn’t accompany Lord Grantham on his trip to New York because, after all, they do pay these people to work for them, and she can’t make decisions without knowing all the facts. Yet there she was, expecting Gillingham to make a decision about his staff without knowing all the facts. And there Gillingham was, actually complying with it! It was ridiculous, and implied that Tony is even more of a pushover for Mary than we thought. For all we know, Lord Gillingham preemptively shoved the valet into oncoming traffic, thinking it would doubly-impress his beloved: “Mary, I had this feeling you were going to ask me to fire Mr. Green, so I went ahead and killed him and made it look like an accident. Wanna kiss?”
At the end of another Downton Abbey season, someone has been killed by a speeding lorry.
Again! Again with the sudden collision that cuts a life short just before the Downton Abbey season is over! Granted, this one was a little different from the Killing of Matthew Crawley. It took place offscreen. It ended the life of a reprehensible character, as opposed to one that had been beloved for three seasons of Downton Abbey. Still: kind of lazy, no?
Presumably the circumstances of Mr. Green’s death will come up again, perhaps in next week’s final season four episode. So for now, let’s table further discussion and move on to the matter of Edith’s pregnancy.
Edith and Aunt Rosamund finally came up with a plan for handling Edith’s growing fetus: Rosamund will take Edith on an extended trip to Switzerland, where they allegedly will spend time improving their French. But actually, Edith will deliver the baby there, then give up the child for adoption. Really? That’s your cover story, Rosamund? We’re going to Switzerland to learn French? The distracted, bazaar-obsessed Cora was dim-witted enough to buy it, but a person needs to weave a far more effective tapestry of lies to put one over on the Dowager Countess. The D.C. immediately knew something was up — “Rosamund has no interest in French,” she noted. “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.” — and she immediately figured out what it was. Unfortunately for Edith, her granny agreed with Rosamund that decamping for Switzerland and pursuing adoption was the best plan.
I have to say, I really don’t like this whole situation. Granted, Edith’s idea — to convince Mr. Drew to raise the child so he/she could grow up at Downton — was no better: “Oh, look, this guy is really good at hydrating pigs. Surely that means he won’t mind raising my child for me.” Still, there has to be some other way to handle this that would allow Edith to have a connection with her baby, even if she does consistently refer to that baby as it.
I mean, the people of Downton Abbey do nothing but concoct cockamamie untruths all day. Surely they could cook up another one. Perhaps “Edith is raising the baby on behalf of an indiscreet maid who delivered the child at Downton,” or “Edith decided to care for this child after an anonymous ruffian broke in and left the baby here.” Everyone believes a story when there’s a ruffian involved! I know, I know: As Rosamund pointed out, if the boy or girl looks a lot like Edith, it will be obvious she’s lying. But who cares? As I said in last week’s recap, Edith’s decision to keep the baby is a brave one that could make a strong statement against the sexist social mores of the time. Instead, Edith has to go into hiding and give up a child she could love as her own because “people might talk.” It’s totally stupid and unfair. “Sometimes I feel like God doesn’t want me to be happy,” Edith said. No, no, Edith. It’s not God who’s insisting on your unhappiness. It’s Julian Fellowes.
And then there’s the relationship between Jack Ross and Rose, which accelerated rapidly this week into engagement mode, but screeched to a halt before it could become an opportunity to semi-seriously explore British racism during the early 1920s.
Rose told Mary she planned to marry Jack because she wanted to see her mother’s “face crumble when she finds out.” In other words, Rose — who has been impetuous and immature this season, but still likable and seemingly genuine — suddenly transformed into a heartless brat intent on ticking off dear old mum. Certainly that’s the way Mary portrayed her when she went to see Jack and attempted to persuade him to call off the engagement. She didn’t really have to do much persuading because Jack announced remarkably quickly that he would not be marrying Rose. “If we lived in a better world, I wouldn’t want you to,” Mary said, meaning that even if the world they lived in were more racially tolerant, he still deserved better than her silly, selfish cousin.
As in the rape subplot, Downton Abbey went through the pretense of tackling a serious issue — racism — without really digging into it. It was a ridiculous cop-out for Jack to decide that, despite his love for Rose, he wanted to spare her from a lifetime of dealing with racists. Yes, let’s save the poor, white, rich girl from potential harm. For God’s sake, what about the racism Jack has to deal with every day? Shouldn't he have been more outraged that he had to make this choice, or that Mary so presumptuously came to talk him out of committing to a woman he supposedly loved? Apparently not. Apparently such matters can be discussed and resolved with pleasantries, a polite parting of the ways, and a spot of tea.
It was also absurd that Mary was telling Jack to cut off his Rose ties, yet still came out of the situation looking like the enlightened, totally accepting one. The fact is this: Mary wanted that engagement to end because she knew that having a black man in the Crawley extended family would be an embarrassment. So she squashed that possibility, the same way valets get squashed by cars and unwanted pregnancies get hidden by trips to Switzerland. She can blame the situation on the fact that she doesn’t live in a “better” world. But she’s not exactly doing anything to make it “better” either.
Man, this recap is already quite long and there are still 85 other things that happened this week on Downton Abbey that it hasn’t covered. Here’s a quick(-ish) rundown of the the key ones.
Ivy and Alfred and Daisy: Speaking of completely unanticipated marriage proposals, another one came this week courtesy of a letter from Alfred to Ivy. The gist, via Alfred: “You were nice to me during the five seconds I visited Downton recently. So, Ivy, will you marry me and move to London?” Ivy couldn’t say yes, but knowing that the offer had been extended was painful for Daisy. Still, Daisy ultimately showed she was the bigger person and said good-bye to Alfred, who — with his father now dead and his ties to the York area forever severed — supposedly will never visit Downton again. “Friends forever,” Daisy said in her touching farewell speech to the ginger she always loved “Friends forever,” Alfred agreed. That, by the way, was the Downton Abbey equivalent of a Friday Night Lights Texas Forever moment. (Also: When Patmore told Daisy that her mature behavior made her proud, I may have teared up a little.)
Molesley and Baxter, sittin’ in a tree: Is the connection between Molesley and Baxter real? Is she just manipulating him because she thinks he’ll share intel with her that she can then pass on to Thomas? Or does she genuinely like him and empathize with him, in a way that makes her realize she doesn’t need to be beholden to Thomas anymore? The latter. Please let it be the latter.
Isobel and the Godfather: Isobel met Lord Merton, Mary’s godfather, for the first time this week, and already there seems to be a love connection. He sent her flowers and everything. Which is lovely, but: How will poor Dr. Clarkson feel? Who heals a broken heart when that heart belongs to the village healer?
The Omnipresence of Sarah Bunting: Sarah Bunting was like the Visa card of Tom Branson’s world: She was everywhere he wanted to be — in the street, on the side of the road with a broken-down car, at the bazaar. Obviously her interest in Tom as well as her anti-aristocratic tendencies suggest she and Tom are destined to be together. The question is: If they marry, will they reside at Downton? If they do, maybe she can pretend Edith’s baby is hers. She seems open-minded enough to give that a go. This is what I’m saying: There are all kinds of options if you’re willing to think outside the retreating-to-Switzerland-in-secrecy box.
The Many Suitors of Mary Crawley: This episode closed on an image of Rose, Edith, and Isobel tilting their heads to consider which of Mary’s many smitten men will win in the Olympics of Courting Mary Crawley. Clearly Evelyn Napier has the bronze, at best, right now. He’s not trying nearly as hard as the other two gents, although given how stalkery Tony Gillingham is acting, maybe that’s to his credit. “I won’t give up, Mary,” Tony told her at one point. “Not until you walk down the aisle with another man. And very possibly, not even then.” Mary said she found that statement both irritating and beguiling. It also might be grounds for pursuing a restraining order. I’d say Tony has silver at this point, while Charles — who is also a little stalker-y, but slightly less desperate — is current closest to gold.
Perhaps we’ll find out the winner in next week’s episode, the final attempt this season to solve Downton’s never-ending series of life problems.