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'Downton Abbey' Recap: It Can't Happen Here

What tonight's disturbing scene says about how far 'Downton' should go

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates
Courtesy of ©Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE
January 12, 2014 10:05 PM ET

From the second the show began, it all seemed so cheery this week. After the season premiere's dour Mary-in-mourning makeover, the return of the opening credits – the sweeping, swirling theme music, the everything-in-its-right-place shots of bells ringing and servants straightening – appeared to indicate that Downton Abbey was back in full swing.

Five Big Downton Abbey Questions for Season Four

For the most part, the story followed suit. Lord Robert blundered his way out of and back into another fortune. (Cora on gambling: "What could be more stupid?" Robert in response: "I couldn’t agree more.") Carson complained about the changing times with far more heat than his masters ever did. Tom Branson acted Irish and uncomfortable. Lady Edith tried and failed to get her dad's attention, but looked increasingly smashing while doing so. Poor Molesley continued his devolution into the lead character of a Coen Brothers comedy. Visiting aristocrats were either good-hearted (the new Lord Gillingham) or nogoodniks (the card-sharp Samspon). Mrs. Patmore worked herself into a frenzy over vegetables. The Dowager Countess threw shade at everyone from Oscar Wilde to the entire English upper class. That's so Downton!

And then.

Soap operas have a long, if not exactly storied, history with rape, as they do with a wide variety of troubling topics considered "women's issues" by television of the time. The greatest romance in the history of daytime television, that of General Hospital's Luke and Laura, began with one. As that sentence indicates, the genre's handling of this topic can be quite dubious—written off as the actions of an overzealous suitor, say, or depicted mainly as an opportunity for an outraged significant other to white-knight on behalf of his beloved, whose own experience as a victim of rape is all but an afterthought in plot terms. Given the first things we hear from Anna Bates after her enormously upsetting assault by Mr. Gillingham, Lord Gillingham's servant – that Bates can never find out because he'd murder the perpetrator and hang for it – there's reason to worry that this is where Downton might head with it as well.

But you needn't consult with a crystal ball for future plot developments to question the wisdom of including such a harrowing and complex event in the context of this show. Most defenses of Downton, my own included, rest on the idea that it's okay for it not to be "English Manor Mad Men" – that as long as its exploration of relationships remains so astute, as long as its production values remain high, as long as its performances remain richly pleasurable, it's not obligated to depict the tremendous downsides of the class and gender inequities in which it's rooted. To so suddenly and viscerally introduce sexual assault into the equation…well, can well-made tearjerking eyecandy carry that weight?

There are several scenes in tonight's episode that give good reason to hope—Anna's foremost among them. Joanne Froggat has long been able to make Anna as endearing and empathetic to the audience as she seems to be to everyone else she meets (Thomas, O'Brien, and Edna excepted), despite frequently thankless material requiring her merely worry about, and be worried about by, Bates. Now that she's in genuine danger and distress — over her physical and sexual safety, her marriage, her reputation, her job — she's truly gutwrenching to watch. Look at how she leans in to Mrs. Hughes, begging for help, versus how she recoils from Bates, trying to hide what happened from him. What's been done to her affects her very body language. 

And while it's easy to forget given just how awful that entire sequence was, Anna's was not the only genuine suffering we witnessed tonight. Two other women, Lady Mary and Isobel Crawley, remain unmoored by their beloved Matthew's death. Mary continues to wrestle with her identity outside of her relationship with the man she loved, a rewarding topic the show explored on both sides of Matthew's departure. "You've known a great love," Lord Gillingham tells her, enviously. "Doesn't that enrich any life?" "I'm not sure. Matthew changed me. I loved him, but he changed me. If I were as tough as I was before I met him, I think I'd be happier now." Later, after Cousin Rose breaks out Matthew's gramophone and unwittingly re-breaks Mary's heart, she tells Anna, "Sometimes I don't know whom I'm most in mourning for, Matthew, or the person I used to be when I was with him." She misses both the tenderness he brought out in her and the toughness he suppressed.. That's complicated, compelling stuff.

Isobel is less conflicted: She simply misses her son, and crushingly so. She holds back tears as she tells the Dowager how she fears that the slightest enjoyment of anything would mean she's forgotten him. (I wasn't quite so successful with stopping the waterworks, I'll admit). Then she all but breaks down when she sees Mary laugh at dinner, despite being happy in knowing her daughter-in-law has at last found some happiness of her own, telling Tom that seeing all these vibrant young men around the table simply reminds her that her son no longer exists. In the hands of Penelope Wilton, a fine, restrained actor whose role on the show is usually as a gentle antagonist, this a lacerating level of grief.

In other words, Downton proved tonight — just as it's proven in the recent past, with Lady Sybil's death and Thomas's outing — that it can handle high levels of emotional difficulty. That said, Anna's rape is far more difficult, precisely because so many societal forces would deny that fact even to this day. To really do this event justice, Downton, unlike the perpetrator, can't slink back to the opera recital as if nothing happened. Anna's recovery, like Lady Mary's grief before it, must now be the estate's guest of honor.

Last Week: Lady Mary is Back in Black

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