TV REVIEW: Downton Abbey - Episodes Three and Four

This post contains major spoilers - please don't read if you haven't seen the episodes yet.

Dear reader, I've been really struggling to put down my thoughts on Downton's third episode. It was an episode that started out well enough. A country party was taking place at the Abbey; there was gambling, light flirting and a world famous singer came to stay in the form of cameoing Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. And then the episode came to a close with one of the most shocking scenes in the show's history as Anna was raped by Nigel Harman's Mr Green.

Suddenly, the rest of the episode fell away. It didn't matter that Mary was flirting with another man in the wake of Matthew's death. It didn't matter that Evil Edna was about to seduce a rather drunk Branson. It didn't matter that one of the most famous opera singers in the world was appearing on a Sunday evening period drama. Because Anna (one of the most beloved characters with frequently the darkest storylines) was raped.

Downton Abbey is no stranger to dark moments, the most recent of which saw Matthew apparently fly headlong from a car to his death. Before that, there was his paralysis after his service in the Great War or Sybil's untimely death after the birth of her child. William died slowly and in great pain after an explosion in the trenches. A returning soldier committed suicide. I could go on really because, despite the fact that Downton's most common association in the minds of the public is one of comfort, it is important to remember that there has been a dark streak in the series right from the beginning which began with the sinking of the Titanic. 

However, in all of these moments, however conveniently placed they might have been, they all felt essential to the developing plot. At no point did I ever think that Sybil dying was a shock tactic; it wasn't. It was a timely reminder of the historical period when medical knowledge wasn't what it is now. It has also proved essential in the development of Branson's character and his ongoing discomfort in a world in which customs and traditions are simply alien to him. 

In contrast, the rape scene felt cheaply constructed to exhibit the exact shocked reaction that it was clearly intended to do. The otherwise genteel proceedings in the rest of the episode was wrenched apart with the shocking violence of the scene. The deliberate combination of the operatic singing and Anna's screams as the scene's soundtrack was emotionally manipulative and frankly insulting to the viewer. Joanne Froggat's performance was, it must be said, outstanding and just as heartwrenching as it should have been. But the key to this scene was the development from it in the next episode.

Downton Abbey is one of the most-watched shows on television and this was a real opportunity to explore the issue of rape sensitively in a historical context that is removed enough from our own to allow for reflection. Instead, Fellowes has given us the most simplistic view of rape he possibly could; Green is your stereotypical 'bad' man who no-one knows, attacks Anna out of the blue and scarpers before there are any repercussions. To put it simply, and in awful terminology, this is a traditional rape where a man leaps out of the metaphorical bushes and forces himself on some poor unsuspecting victim. Rape is a far more complex issue and to not even delve into that, but to present it in such a base and simple way, is a terrible decision.

The fourth episode in the series' run may not have had quite the same shocking scene in one place, but the horrific treatment of female characters just kept on coming. Now I understand that this is taking place in a historical context and must therefore be considered as such, but really, so much was wrong with this episode that I don't even really know where to start.

Probably best to continue with the aftermath of Anna's rape. Anna is internalising the blame for the rape and Mrs Hughes tries to convince her to go to the police, but Anna refuses on the grounds that she is saving Bates. She's forced to sit next to Green at breakfast and does nothing to tell the truth of the situation to anyone. We're clearly being set up for the big dramatic fallout scene, a narrative development that will do nothing to silence the protests against this particular storyline. It's so frustratingly simple and doing absolutely nothing to challenge or explore. Anna is punishing herself. Nobody is punishing Green.

Elsewhere, there were plenty of secretive affairs going on all over the place that were of the morally questionable variety. Ivy and Jimmy were finally revealed to be kissing and Daisy started accusing Ivy of giving herself up all too easily. Nothing to Jimmy. Rose was seen dancing with the band leader of the jazz club, Jack, and admonished slightly for her forthright behaviour. Nothing to Jack. Edith finally has a dalliance with Gregson and returns to Aunt Rosamund's early in the morning who promptly rages at Edith for being so wayward. Nothing to Gregson. Then Mrs Hughes rains down fury upon Evil Edna who, after sleeping with Branson, is claiming she is pregnant in order to trap him into marriage. Branson gets a bit of an earful, nothing major.

It is this last narrative development that is definitely the most problematic. Granted, Branson is recognised as being at fault, though the blame is laid entirely at the feet of Evil Edna. Evil Edna is about as pantomimey a female villain as we'll get on Downton, but following on from the rape, her scene with Mrs Hughes was woefully insensitive. Not only does she embody the myths around women who exploit their sexuality to entrap men, but she is again another frustratingly simple character. There's not even an attempt to provide motive. Mrs Hughes was patronising and forceful, literally threatened to imprison Edna, hold her down and strip her naked to prove that she wasn't pregnant. Seriously Mr Fellowes? Did no one at any point during this process think that that might not be the best way in which to phrase this? 

Downton Abbey has carved a reputation for comforting Sunday night television that allows a cathartic cry once again at the untimely demise of a beloved character in amongst endless witticisms and fretting about dinner jackets. In these past two episodes though, there has been nothing comforting about it.

This is the last time I call for any madcap plot twists.

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of the second episode here.

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