Downton Abbey’s fourth season began last week with a polite shrug. Nothing happened. For the love of Molesley, nothing happened. We watched two hours of the blasted thing and the most exciting thing that happened was that Lady Mary, she of excessive sadness, finally changed out of her black mourning gowns and into a purple dress.
Of course, this is Downton Abbey, a series that has grown a legion of rabid fans based on just that sort of peculiar, benign titillation—minor molehills (a wardrobe change!) being turned into mountains (Lady Sybil’s pants, #neverforget). Still, Downton has a knack for getting viewers cozy with these amusingly slight storylines and then bludgeoning them on the side of their heads with plot shockers so out of the blue they make international headlines for the emotional distress they cause.
Cue: the rape of Anna.
Oh yes. Should anyone have gone too over the top with their complaining about how little happened in the Downton season premiere (guilty…), Sunday night’s episode made up for that in spades. While you were laughing at Tina Fey and Amy Poehler heckling George Clooney at the Golden Globe awards, Downton quietly aired one of its most controversial storylines yet. The alarming scene, finding fan favorite Anna raped by a visiting valet, caused a stir not seen since Lady Sybil dared put on those trousers (again, #neverforget).
The incident occurs during a concert the Granthams are hosting for their houseful of visitors, including a new potential suitor for Lady Mary, Lord Gillingham. Because when he’s not trying to swindle his daughter the fortune she is owed by her dead husband Lord Grantham is actually generous, he allows the house staff to attend the concert, too, leaving Anna alone in the kitchen. Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green, who had previously been seen innocently flirting with Anna, is down in the kitchen, too.
In what’s probably the most graphic scene Downton has aired to date, Mr. Green then brutally attacks and rapes Anna, while her screams are drowned out by the opera music upstairs. It’s a spectacular performance by Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, in the terrifying, tragic ways a performance of such a scene can be called spectacular. The episode ends with Anna tearfully confessing the attack to Mrs. Hughes, concluding with her heart-wrenching plea that she not share the information with her husband, Mr. Bates.
Downton Abbey is a drama, a “prestige drama,” at that, one that is routinely included in awards categories and critics' list alongside Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire—a grouping of series on which a character’s rapes, though suitably harrowing, would be just one travesty in a long list of dark and macabre incidents and arc that would haunt one of their seasons. That doesn’t mean, apparently, that its viewers are as conditioned to witness such attacks on Downton characters as ones on those other programs.
The tizzy over the storyline was already whipped and then abated over in the U.K., where the episode aired months ago. Viewers accustomed to the show being as staid and stately as its characters complained that the storyline was “morally reprehensible” and ventured that it was a cheap, offensive ploy to liven up the show. “What is it with male writers scribbling in a quick rape of a woman to spice things up?” tweeted one viewer. Another used the Lady Sybil’s Pants Defense (#neverforget): “I can’t support Julian Fellowes in depicting rape in a show that treats missing tuxedo shirts as a major crisis.”
Fellowes, who created and writes Downton, lodged his defense with the BBC, saying, “All of this is about taking characters to the brink. We know Anna is a strong personality, but it doesn’t mean she will able to be strong this. The whole rest of the series, for her story and for Bates’s story, is seeing how she negotiates her way through this.”
The studio that produces the show, Carnival Films, also argued that the storyline was not gratuitous: “The complex and loving journey of Anna and Bates has been central to the narrative of the show. The events in Episode 2 were we believe acted and directed with great sensitivity.”
Though often coasting on the tuxedo tails of lighter, fluffier storylines, Downton has proven itself adept at depicting how the period it is set in figures directly into the tragedies that befall its characters. The show’s most dramatic past storylines corroborate that, whether it’s Thomas being branded as less-than human because he is gay, Lady Sybil dying during childbirth because medical care was not up to snuff, or Ethel becoming an outcast after she gives birth out of wedlock, eventually being forced to give up her son.
Anna’s rape might have been subjectively harder to watch than those events, but the circumstances surrounding it don’t seem too out of place in context of the series. Anna has always been one of Downton’s most beloved characters and Froggatt one of its most gifted performers. It’s been a maddening experience to see both wasted these past few seasons on an impossible-to-be-invested storyline with Mr. Bates. It might seem callous to seem grateful for a rape storyline, but it did provide Froggatt with her most challenging material and produced her most moving performance yet. Watching how the incident reverberates in Anna’s life should also prove to be one of the more captivating arcs of the rest of Downton’s season.
Back in October, Fellowes said, “If we’d wanted a sensational rape we could have stayed down in the kitchen with the camera during the whole thing and wrung it out,” referring to the quick-cut camera angles the episode used to shield us from the more disturbing parts of the act. “The point of our handling is not that we’re in sensationalizing but we’re interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage.”
For the time being, we’re going to un-bunch our pantaloons (#neverforget) and tentatively agree.