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Downton Abbey: “Season Four, Episode Two”

Illustration for article titled iDownton Abbey/i: “Season Four, Episode Two”
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The best thing I can say about this episode is that through and through, this felt like an episode of Downton Abbey. It had a rhythm to it that didn't falter, even though (as I observed last week) the storylines are largely disconnected from each other. Part of that is, I think, that this season is re-establishing a general truth of the show that got lost in the last few seasons: This is a show about the house, not the people. All of those adventures in prison, or off to war, might have been realistic and even heartfelt, but they didn’t seem related to the show. I’m beginning to realize that pretty much every scene in Downton Abbey that doesn’t take place in the house or on the estate’s grounds is doomed to fail; scenes in Downton Village, or in that mysterious no-man’s-land called “Ripon,” get about a 50 percent chance of succeeding. But it’s the house that draws the viewers in, and it’s the house that is the raison d’etre for all of our characters. This is a show about investing and defending feudal holdings, a parable about private property. No wonder we all find it so fascinating.

Given that context, the story of Anna’s rape makes some amount of sense. It is one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen on the show, perhaps only comparable to Sybil’s death from eclampsia—so at first it didnt make sense to me. Why a plot point that seems to appear out of nowhere, happening to Anna just as Puccini was happening to the rest of the house, upstairs? There is a certain laziness to the pure shock value of it that reminds me of Matthew’s death-by-plot-device at the end of last season.


But on further examination, I think this plotline of Anna’s—though horrible—is an incredible storytelling choice for Downton Abbey. It capitalizes on the inherent drama of the house, the you wouldnt believe what goes on under this roof quality of Downton Abbey. Anna’s rape is a crime committed through convenience, in a below-stairs that is deserted, an upstairs that is occupied, and the conventions of how a bunch of strangers might suddenly be in the same confined space at any given moment. This rape is just another plotline for a house that is full of intense, awful plotlines.

Which is not to minimize it, at all. I’m wary of rape being used as any sort of casual plot device, and there’s no way to get over the shock of such a thing happening on-screen, in what is otherwise a fun, light episode. But Downton isn’t just tossing this into the plot for a big gasp—or, to be exact, it’s doing that, but it’s also giving the story enough weight and attention that it could be meaningful. Joanne Froggatt’s Anna is one of the unsung heroes of the show—an always-reliable actress playing an always-reliable character—and Froggatt really sells it. This is not going to be a universally adored plotline—it’s uncomfortable as hell. But it’s not like this is unrealistic, either. Of all the ridiculous things that have happened on Downton Abbey, a not-that-sudden sexual assault of opportunity in a world where rape was (still is) considered the woman’s fault is probably the most realistic.

That being said, the whole scene where a horrible crime happens as the rest of the house is listening to a musical performance was cribbed right from Julian Fellowes’ Oscar-winning Gosford Park. Points for execution, but not so much for originality.

On to the other development of the night: The introduction of Tom Cullen’s Lord Gillingham, as one of Lady Mary’s handsome new suitors. Unlike Anna’s story—and like almost every other Downton story—this romance seems to be heavily foreshadowed right from the start. (I think everyone in Downton just sees a handsome man and assumes they’re in love with Mary; they’ve been right like 90 percent of the time.) I admit that I am hook, line, and sinker already invested in a Downton Abbey romance where Mary, the recovering widow, falls in love and learns to enjoy her life again, and Gillingham has chemistry with her, it’s undeniable. In fact, their little horse ride through the endless rolling hills of her estate felt romantic in a way that Mary’s marriage to Matthew often didn’t. Despite what started out as a romance with serious passion, you never got the impression that Matthew and Mary shared a vision for their lives together that matched up with the other’s expectations. They disagreed so much about day-to-day matters with the estate that in some ways, I agree with season four’s retconned narrative of the marriage, helpfully voiced largely by Mary herself—she was a different version of herself with Matthew, someone who was much less the hard-as-nails character from season one. It feels a little like she got carried away with her first boyfriend, and now she could settle down into something more real. (All of which fuels my theory that Matthew was holding Mary back, but I’ll save all my thoughts on that for later in the season.)


And, you know, that’s kind of it for what happens. Most of the other storylines continue without too much change. It’s interesting to see where they’re all going, but so little happens with them, most of the time, that it’s more that we’re getting a brief, immersive visit to the house rather than seeing a story. But this episode, more than usual, is a trip that feels well-contained and organized. That might be as good as Downton gets in its fourth season.

Stray observations:

  • Tom’s small talk was very funny, as was his mincing little hop-step with the Duchess. And it inspires this masterful little zinger from Lady Grantham: “We can’t all be Oscar Wilde.” “Thank goodness.”
  • Edith’s halter dress is to die for, but even I am not so dumb as to think that her family would embrace an already married older guy to be their middle daughter’s life partner.
  • Isn’t Daisy supposed to be a sous-chef now? I’m not sure if I understand hierarchy in the kitchen these days.
  • Lord Grantham sure is bad with money!

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