Downton Abbey Jumps the Shark


I don’t want to make this all about me, but last night’s “Downton Abbey” wrecked my Sunday.  With so much to watch on TV, I was looking forward to starting with the Golden Globes, switching to “Downton” at 9 and then either switching back to the Golden Globes or “Girls” at 10.  But “Downton” was so profoundly disturbing that it was all I could do to keep from throwing up at the end and I certainly wasn’t in the mood for the frivolous Globes or the narcissist “Girls.”

If you haven’t seen the episode yet you might want to stop reading here because of the major forthcoming spoilers, but what Julian Fellowes did in this episode was an assault on the viewers, who had become accommodated to a certain kind of escapist entertainment and were then thrust suddenly and without warning into a melodrama.

I understand that in a soap opera like “Downton Abbey,” the screenwriter constantly needs to invent new plots, and there’s no question that the Anna/Bates characters had become dull and predictable.  But the way to address that is not to contrive a brutal rape on the saintly Anna.  To make something like that work you need a better storyteller than Julian Fellowes.  This was just brutality for its own sake.

Worse, there are some intimations that Anna and modernity itself are partly to blame for what happened.  After all, if Anna had only listened to Bates and not accepted the visiting valet’s flirtations she might not have led him on.  And the downstairs quarters where the assault occurred would not have been empty if the Granthams, over Carson’s objections that certain of the staff should not appear upstairs, had not allowed all the servants to attend the recital that was going on during the rape.

Anna’s reaction to the assault has an unsatisfactory soap opera logic to it too.  She wants to hide the rape because she fears Bates will kill the assailant and then end up swinging from the gallows, which he narrowly escaped once.  This kind of noble self-sacrifice, which she and Bates have gotten down to a science, is clearly designed for plot purposes; she recoils from her husband’s touch when he inquires why she’s been beaten to a pulp, and we can only presume that it will take several episodes for them to work out their forthcoming marital coldness before the valet’s crimes are exposed and punished.

But whether we’ll still care by the time the valet gets his just desserts is an open question, because I’m not sure I even want to watch any more.  The show has always been a silly bit of fluff, with absurd plots, gorgeous set design and funny one-liners from Maggie Smith.  There are those who love the show and others (myself included) who watch with morbid fascination to see how bad the wealthy can behave, in the same way that others watch “The Real Housewives.”  But I fear that the viciousness of the rape and the obtuse way in which the aftermath is handled, might be the moment at which “Downton” jumps the shark and spirals into more and more outlandish plots.

Loosely connected to Anna’s fate is a different sort of sexual assault – the attempt by the lady’s maid Edna to seduce Tom.  Tom’s “woe is me” storyline is becoming tiresome; he had seemed to be fitting into the family after assuming estate management responsibilities but the house party, where he is required to wear white tie and chat with a Duchess, revives his old class insecurities.  Whatever.  That’s so Season 2.  The scheming Edna, who got fired last season for making a pass at him when she was a mere maid and somehow obtained a better job this year, still has her eye out for the main chance and she seeks to take advantage of Tom’s vulnerabilities.   In the world of “Downton Abbey,” where the good characters never do anything cruel and exploitative and the bad characters never do anything but, Tom has resisted any forays into inappropriate female accompaniment, even though as a young strapping Irish lad he must have his male urges.  He’s either still in mourning for Sybil or has the natural nobility of the upper-lower-middle class, but none of the local lasses can get him to crack.

But Edna picks her spot and plies him with Irish whiskey just as he’s feeling most insecure and in the closing scenes we see her slipping into his bedroom.  Is he awake, asleep or too drunk to perform?  Clearly this is not rape in the same way that Anna was attacked, but it’s a kind of emotional rape.  How likely is it that Edna won’t exploit this for her own nefarious means?  Because even if he is asleep in a drunken stupor, you can bet she’ll claim they did the deed and make him act honorably about it.

That also is a plot to which I do not look forward.

Some other thoughts:

—  Twelve years ago, Julian Fellowes won an Academy Award for Gosford Park, a Maggie Smith movie about a house party at an English country estate.  Last night’s episode hearkens back to that firm, centering as it does around a weekend house party at Downtown.  The visiting servants, for example, are called by their master’s names, so that the valet, whose real name is Green is called Mr. Gillingham, after his master Lord Gillingham (a potential suitor for Mary, meaning that if she goes to visit him, and Anna accompanies her, Anna will be confronted again by her rapist.)

—  Apparently there was a real opera singer named Nellie Melba (see here for more on the real Dame).  I didn’t recognize Kiri Te Kanawa, as the singer, probably because she appeared to be dolled up to look like Carol Burnett’s version of Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard.”

—  Julian Fellowes apparently believes in the Rule of Three when it comes to screenwriting because every character has to articulate what he or she is feeling at least three times, just so that no viewer misses the point.  I sometimes think this explains the popularity of the show.  Unlike “Mad Men,” where you have to infer or intuit a character’s emotion, “Downton Abbey” lays it right out there; you don’t even have to connect the dots.  Hence, from their own mouths we hear multiple times about:  Tom’s insecurities; Carson’s difficulties adapting to post-War customs; Molesly’s feelings of failure; Gregson’s concern that Lord Grantham is trying to avoid him; Mary’s feeling that she’s not as good a person she was when married to Matthew; Isobel Crawley’s feelings of emptiness after her son’s death.  Taken together, all these spoon-fed declarations make “Downton” a high-toned version of “Television for Dummies.”

—  Lord Grantham continues to be a blithering idiot, smugly brushing off warnings against playing poker with a card sharp (“I think I can look after myself”), insulting his dinner guest, the singer Dame Nellie, until she manages to identify his claret by taste; insisting on selling revenue-generating land to pay the death duties; avoiding his daughter’s boyfriend until he wins back the Lord’s IOUs.

— This is an episode in which one servant gets raped and another servant is in agony because he has to wear a footman’s gloves. No wonder we have emotional whiplash.  Mosely has always been one of the few interesting characters on the show, a mediocrity with aspirations and ambitions, someone who has bought whole-heartedly into the social system even though it’s not working for him.  I’ve often wondered if his character’s name was supposed to evoke the British fascist Oswald Mosley, who led a popular Black Shirted party in the 1930s.  Our Mr. Mosely is precisely the kind of supporter that the real Mosley had and it’s hard to imagine their names are so similar by coincidence.  In any event, I’m not sure what we are supposed to make of our Mr. Mosely.  Fellowes usually portrays him as a self-deluded fool, like Charlie Brown would be if he was a servant.  Personally, I always feel a little squeamish looking down on Mosely; after all, even he wants to be the star of his own life.

— And speaking of stars, not much has been made recently of Cora Crawley’s American birth, but her excitement at seeing the famous opera singer does display some typical America characteristics.  Yes, she insists on having the singer to dinner on near-equal terms, but is this a latent democratic tendency?  I don’t think so, since she can be as snooty as an English-born peer. No, what’s particularly American about her reaction to the famous soprano is her star-chasing tendencies.  Nellie is FAMOUS — a celebrity — so of course Cora wants her not only in the house but at her table. I think we can agree that not much has changed in 100 years.

  1. I had to wait until I watched the show to read your post (no easy feat, believe me!), but now that I have I must say that I’m perplexed by such a strong reaction. Like most soap operas, the show has always blurred the line between believable historical drama and ridiculous “evil twin” situations. The long-lost – and horribly disfigured – heir suddenly returning, or Matthew’s miraculous cure, contrasted pretty sharply with the all too real situation of Sybil dying in childbirth, for example. This episode didn’t feel that different to me – I was shocked, for sure, but the reality is that there was doubtless a lot of violence against women going on below-stairs – so I didn’t see the scene as the assault on the senses that you did. The test, for me, will come in future episodes. Is there something about rape, in particular, that feels more exploitative than the other tragic moments in the show?

  2. Thanks for the perspective Cindy. My reaction was so visceral because the mood of the show had been so light — even trivial (would Mosely wear gloves, would Grantham sit with the singer, etc.) that I wasn’t prepared for it. I also object to the hints that she brought it on herself by not listening to her husband’s warnings to watch out for the valet. And I really objected to Anna’s reaction afterward. I know that women were probably raped in those houses, but it seems that a more period-specific response would have been for her to try to cover it up out of shame or to turn him in; certainly in that house she would have had all the support she needed, especially with that bloody face and torn dress. Obviously sad things have happened on the show, but when a character dies we can shed a tear and experience a catharsis. That’s not the case when a character is brutalized (rape, child abuse, etc.) We just get a feeling of unrelieved disgust. The thing is, it depends on the context. If you’re watching “The Wire,” it will treated seriously. I can’t help but feel this rape is being used exploitatively, to cause some drama in the Bates’ otherwise dull relationship. So, as you say, we shall see how it plays out.

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