Entertainment

“Downton Abbey” Finally Went Too Far

SPOILER ALERT! Why the show’s depiction of rape is becoming a real problem.

Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE

Downton Abbey viewers have been through a lot over the last two years. Sybil and Tom fled from Ireland on foot in the middle of the night, Sybil died after childbirth, Daisy married William on his deathbed, Matthew was killed in a car accident, and we can’t forget about Mr. Bates’ death sentence.

But when the show’s current fourth season began, it seemed like Downton Abbey was heading in a more lighthearted direction: Mary slowly found a way to overcome her grief over Matthew by focusing on repairing the estate’s financial affairs with Tom; mischievous Lady Rose brought a youthful personality — and a night club band — to the somewhat boring estate; and Anna and Mr. Bates were living in wedded bliss in their charming cottage up the path from the main mansion. But, after killing two major characters within episodes last season, we should have known better than to have believed that happiness could be sustained at Downton. And so arrived Mr. Green.

Anna’s rape scene in the second episode of Season 4 was extremely upsetting and difficult to watch. Viewers heard her drowned out screams as she tried to fight off Mr. Green while everyone else sat upstairs listening to an opera performance. When Mrs. Hughes found Anna in her office, badly beaten with her clothes torn, she confessed what had just happened but refused to tell anyone else the truth. It was heartbreaking. And when Anna couldn’t bare to let Mr. Bates touch her and walked away from him into the dark night, silently sobbing to herself, it seemed things couldn’t get worse for her.

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But on Sunday’s episode, Mr. Green returned to Downton. And that, in and of itself, was upsetting enough, but when Mrs. Hughes confronted him and he tried to put blame on Anna, claiming that they were both “a bit drunk,” it was just insulting.

Later, watching Anna sit directly across from Mr. Green at the dinner table, listening to him recall the other events of the night that he raped her with a grin on his face, that was one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever watched on television. The audacity of Mr. Green to dine with Anna was incredible and further spoke to his sick and twisted ways, as he seemingly found enjoyment in the whole scenario. How Anna sat there and ate is beyond comprehension. It felt almost as barbaric as the attack itself.

Most shows that have dealt with a rape storyline have focused heavily on the victim’s response. But the portrayal on Downton Abbey has focused heavily on the men involved, a stark contrast to a fall episode of ABC’s Scandal (SPOILERS AHEAD) in which Mellie Grant was raped by her father-in-law as her husband lay clueless in bed upstairs. The next morning, she and her father-in-law sat alone at the breakfast table together, but it was Mellie who was in control of the situation. As Big Jerry began to apologize, Mellie cut him off, saying, “I said, ‘Don’t mention it.’ I know I won’t. Instead, when Fitz comes down, you’ll take him aside and tell him whatever it is he needs to hear, not how ungrateful he is or sensitive or doomed to fail. You will tell him what he needs to hear.” “You are an asset,” Big Jerry replied. “I am his wife,” Mellie firmly stated. She loved her husband and knew that he needed his father’s support to win his campaign, so she turned her unspeakable situation into an opportunity to gain control and to make sure her attacker knew she had the upper hand.

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Though the 1920s England varied greatly from the 1990s California, Anna’s reaction was the antithesis of Mellie’s, not because of Anna’s lack of ambition but because of how the storyline was constructed. Of course, it’s unrealistic that Anna would be as firm with her attacker as Mellie was, considering how taboo the subject matter was during that time and how differently women were treated. But Anna would still be extremely upset in private, something the audience hasn’t seen on Downton Abbey. We haven’t see her struggling with the aftermath of that night in any context other than ensuring that her husband remained unaware; we just see her shying away from him and moving out of their home, which all stems from her determination to hide her rape, not from wanting to deal with it on her own. We haven’t seen her speak of what really happened, other than with Mrs. Hughes, which has never really been therapeutic.

What we have seen is Anna sitting and eating dinner directly across from the man that attacked her. While that scene could have portrayed with vivid emotion, letting the viewer in on what Anna was thinking and feeling even without words, the camera instead jumped back and forth between Mr. Bates and Mr. Green, with just a quick glimpse of Anna faking a smile in between. What I felt as a viewer during that scene was horror; Anna certainly had to have felt something.

We didn’t even see Anna alone at any point between the time she discovered Mr. Green was back at Downton and that incredibly unsettling dinner. Instead, the story centered on Mr. Green and Mr. Bates. And though Mr. Bates has been supportive of Anna, much of his attention has been on figuring out who hurt her rather than on helping her move forward, which has, in many ways, hindered her ability to put that scarring night behind her.

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There’s no need for a story about a woman’s body to be driven by male characters, but that’s exactly what that dinner scene did and what Downton Abbey has done with this storyline. We’ve seen plenty of Mr. Bates and Mr. Green’s emotions with little emphasis on Anna’s, who’s done nothing but suppress her feelings for the sake of the man in her life. And that’s made the whole situation — and the storytelling — that much more distressing.

As Mr. Green, Mr. Bates, and Anna sat at that dinner table together, Anna was more concerned with keeping Mr. Bates calm and clueless as opposed to her own discomfort. And the director seemed more focused on showing Mr. Bates’ clarity of the events on that fateful night than on Anna’s unease. Though selfless, it’s no wonder why Anna wouldn’t want to confide in her husband. Her worry earlier in the season that, “If he knew, he’d murder the man who’d done it,” is valid. Mr. Bates, once viewed as a lovable man who was wrapped up in an unfair story with a deranged woman, has become quite hostile. And we know from his speech to Mrs. Hughes after she confessed what happened that this “is far from over.”

As the episode ended, Downton’s depiction of what should be Anna’s story essentially forced the audience’s attention and concern on Mr. Bates’ realization. He knew that Mr. Green was the man who attacked Anna and instead of worrying about her being under the same roof as the man that violently hurt her, physically and emotionally, viewers were meant to worry about Mr. Bates and his certain impending altercation with Mr. Green. Now, it seems the wrong character is finding closure. It’s disturbing to be worrying about a man seeking revenge for his wife who has sacrificed so much to avoid any retaliation. And, yet, unfortunately, that’s where Downton has left us.

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