Before I even begin to talk about this season, which just ended in the UK and premieres on PBS this January, I have to say that if you have not seen this season, do not read any further. To say there are spoilers would be an understatement. I do not want to ruin all the pain you’re going to experience, particularly at mid-season.
You have been warned! Past here there be
There’s one even that is of premiere importance in this season, but I’m going to start with some other thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this season.
1-This season, and this season alone, changed my mind about some of the male characters. For one thing, Lord Grantham is a big ole pain in the ass. He got on my bad list in the very first episode. In a callback to season 1, once again Mary’s place as an heir to Downton is in doubt. And, despite all that she’s been through, and her undeniable abilities, Lord Grantham doesn’t think she’s capable–or just does not want to share power with anyone. I know this is the 1920s, and women had just gained suffrage in the UK and in the US. But Julian Fellowes has portrayed Lord Grantham, not as a sexist, but as someone who just doesn’t want other people interfering in what he views as his own responsibilities. And he tries to do it once again, planning to skip Mary as a partner in the estate and only turn over his ‘powers’ to her son when he comes of age. I think I find it all the more insulting and annoying that he either can’t see or doesn’t care that Mary a-needs this and b-is completely capable of excelling at it. I found my affection for Mary growing by just as much as my dislike for Lord Grantham.
And Bates? I’ve heard chatter before that he and Anna don’t belong together, because she is young and wonderful, and he is old and a killjoy. I never understood it before, because I quite liked their story. But now, I totally get it. In mid-season, before the …event… Anna was having a good time, having some fun! What did Bates do? Sulk and be angry and not join in. And what did Julian Fellowes do? Punish Anna, obviously. More on that later. But after the event? I felt some sympathy for Bates–he doesn’t know what’s wrong, he’s done nothing but his wife is just gone from him. But when he finds out? Instead of doing what Anna needs (supporting her, helping her to move on), he focuses on what he needs: revenge. And he gets it. I suppose there are people who think he didn’t do it, but I’m not one of them. I was never entirely certain he didn’t kill his wife, and now this? We know he’s violent, we know he’s single-minded. Anna, you deserve better.
2-The one character I disliked for the entire season was Rose.
I get that they needed to inject some youth and optimism into the cast, because they killed off lovely, wonderful Sybil, and turned Mary into a widow. Edith never was cheerful. But didn’t Julian Fellowes learn anything from Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch? No one likes the new kid. Rose is no Sybil. Rose is vapid and willfully naive, with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old. Sybil was kind and thoughtful, rebellious when she believed in something, but not rebellious for the sake of rebellion. Rose only wants to shock; it’s a desperate cry for attention from her disinterested parents, and it is boring. Get rid of her.
To be fair, she didn’t annoy me too much at the beginning of the season. But by the end I was rolling my eyes, and truly a bit disturbed by her desire to marry someone out of a combination of youthful infatuation and to anger her mother.
3-Can we talk about Mary’s suitors? First, there’s Lord Gillingham
He didn’t seem too bad, at first. I don’t think he’s a villain, at least. But you can’t go from saying ‘Oh, Mary, I only want you’, then immediately become engaged to someone else, but still hang around frequently hoping Mary will change her mind. That has me very suspicious. At best, he’s wishy-washy and lacks courage. At worst, he cares very little for the feelings of either woman in question.
Then there’s Mr. Napier
His character is too bland and flimsy to ever have a remote chance with Mary, but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to know that. His chief function in this season (despite boring me to death) is to introduce his friend, Mr. Blake, to Mary. Mr. Blake is the obvious choice for Mary’s next beau. Of course, they claim to dislike each other passionately at first. Mr. Blake is very cynical about the upper classes, and thinks they don’t deserve their wealth. Mary is (understandably) offended by this, and dislikes having him around. Remember season 1, when Matthew and Mary got off on the wrong fit along similar topics? Matthew’s middle class background, his insistence upon working, his reluctance to have a valet…it’s all echoed in Mr. Blake.
And, like clockwork, the two begin to feel differently about one another. Mary earns Blake’s respect when she proves that she is willing to change and adapt in order to keep Downton financially successful. Her active role in the estate, along with Tom’s guidance, bring Downton into the 20th century (against Lord Grantham’s wishes). It’s easy to see reasons why Blake and Mary will continue to be thrown together, and that’s who I’ve got my money on.
4-Edith. I didn’t mind her this season! I am really confused about why her beau just went missing at random, apparently as soon as he arrived in Germany! Germany wasn’t a particularly good place to go at this time, I think, but I find it hard to believe he disappeared without a trace. Edith kept mentioning that private detectives and the police were searching for him, but we never seemed to see any proof of that–correspondence with them, or with his office in London. It was just sort of an undercurrent to the latter half of the show, without ever being brought to the forefront. I found that very strange, and am very curious. One assumes that he’ll turn up at Christmas, but then I expected him to turn up at the last episode of the series, so that proves my instincts are generally wrong. Either way, her story line made me extremely grateful to live in a time with birth control.
Well, there’s nothing else to discuss except the big thing this season. No deaths, no war, no Spanish flu or miscarriages. But what Julian Fellowes did to Anna seems worse than all of them. I (and a lot of people who watch the show) felt that it was like a slap in the face. So, let’s talk about why it does and does not make sense for rape to be a feature of this show.
For one thing, it absolutely did happen, and it was covered up. When you have a society that prizes secrecy as fervently as the Victorians & Edwardians did, you are never going to even be able to estimate how prevalent a problem it was. And when you have girls in positions of submission, as maids in houses owned by powerful men, they don’t feel capable of speaking out. Even if the crime wasn’t perpetrated by one of the family, a maid would probably lose her position if she admitted what had happened. The family wouldn’t want any shame brought on them. So…we can be sure it happened, and we can be sure it happened far more than we could ever prove. The majority of the time, the perpetrators probably faced no consequences. Is that an important topic to cover in a history of the period? Sure.
On the other side of the coin, this is not a nonfiction. This is a primetime soap opera. In the past, it has shown no remorse in exploiting tragedy and death to garner ratings and accolades. But it’s also an idealized version of past reality. Shows and their show-runners have a pact with their audience. An agreement among the two parties. The show-runners provide titillation and excitement, depression and happiness. They are allowed to play with our emotions, because we like it. We enjoy a cathartic cry over the deaths, and we smile at our television sets when the hero and heroine finally get together. We get enjoyment for watching, but we are giving a bit of ourselves to the show, being vulnerable to whatever happens next. The same pact exists between writers and readers. As I said, we expect to be tossed and turned a certain amount; that’s what we want. But it’s a delicate balance, and when the powers-that-be go too far, we feel hard done by, used and abused. I can’t adequately describe how furious I was when I read Atonement.
Julian Fellowes has done a good job, up to this season, creating a safe but believable world. A world where bad things do happen, but usually because of huge ineffable forces like war or disease.
And has Julian Fellowes broken our contract this season? I think he has. I feel cheaply thrown about with no real purpose or reason. Other times, he has stretched believability to create a safe and acceptable version of actual history. The most obvious examples are the ways the family dealt with Thomas’ homosexuality, or the black bandleader, Jack. We like watching Downton Abbey because the 1920s seem more polite, more elegant, less harsh and grating. Undoubtedly they were, if you were a rich, white man. In truth, very few people would have been accepting of gay people in their homes, or black Jazz musicians performing for them. It’s the sad and terrible truth of it. We overlook it when Julian Fellowes fibs to us, because it makes it easier to enjoy the world he’s created for us. But, as is often the case, a lie that placates us is twice as acceptable as a truth that hurts us.
He punished Anna, the best of the lot of them, and destroyed all her happiness. And there is something truly disturbing about a man, with his own share of power, writing a rape scene for a young girl. And then a real woman has to act out that horrible scene. It’s almost like a mirror of the attack itself. It reminds me of tales of Alfred Hitchcock, who tortured some of his actresses (notably Tippi Hedron) with horrible scenes and multiple takes in the Birds, who wanted to tear her down and used his scripts and his direction to do it. I’m not saying Julian Fellowes is a vile pervy old man, but when I think about the scene in this light it is even more difficult to accept.
I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt this was too much to deal with from what has been a safe space. In reality, though, if you kept watching past that episode, you’ll keep watching the rest of the season. And on to the Christmas special! I think it would have been a better season without the rape, but it was still good enough that I kept tuning in and wanting to watch.