Friday, January 17, 2014

Downton Abbey, S4, E2: Oh Dear... It's This Episode

No sooner has Series Four gotten started than it gives us its first darkly disturbing episode.  As if Sybil's torturous, horrible death wasn't enough to make us shiver, now this?  I had read about this episode and storyline on Internet message boards, so I knew it was pretty hot and controversial.

Yet unlike the Sybil episode, which seemed to deliver a thunderclap of doom from its opening moments, this one is actually fairly lighthearted until That Scene, where everything changes.  

Plot Synopsis

The Crawleys are throwing a house party for 16 people and several notables are invited, including Lord Gillingham, an attractive young viscount whom Cora invited to tempt Mary out of her seclusion.  He arrives with his valet, the flirtatious Mr. Green.  Another guest to the party is Edith's beau, Michael Gregson, who tries to ingratiate himself with Lord Grantham, only to get the cold shoulder.  

There to entertain the guests will be Australian opera singer, Nellie Melba, who was a real person, although older than the singer who plays her here.  Even though she is world famous and honored by King George V, Carson doesn't think she's fit to sit at the dinner table with the aristocratic company, and intends to have her eat with the servants.  Lord Grantham, while slightly distracted, agrees with him.  Fortunately, Cora wakes up from whatever coma she is in ninety percent of the time and tells Lord Grantham in no uncertain terms that Nellie Melba belongs at the table and will sit right next to him.   

The other plot lines are pretty light hearted up until That Scene.  The most serious involve Mary and Isobel, with Mary deciding whether to let Lord Gillingham woo her and Isobel deciding whether to come out of her own isolation.  Violet comes to see her and invite her to dinner, and Isobel at first declines, believing that if she is happy, it means that she is forgetting about Matthew.  Why is Violet the one reaching out to Isobel instead of Mary?  More on that below.  However, Isobel later changes her mind and decides to come and watch Nellie Melba sing.

At dinner, Isobel spies Mary chatting not-at-all reluctantly with Lord Gillingham and doesn't like it.  Indeed, at six or seven months, it does seem a bit soon for her to already be considering a new beau.  Fifty years earlier, her mourning period would have lasted two years.  Mary herself has reservations -- though she seems to enjoy horseback riding through the countryside with Lord Gillingham, discussing how to deal with the death tax, she later flees to her room when she realizes that they are listening to music on Matthew's gramophone.  She tells Anna that she mourns the person she was with Matthew, the person who is now gone.  Anna assures her that the person is still there.  Maybe it would help if instead of Mary lamenting and lamenting about it, she actually did something to show that she was that person.  Like, I don't know, hold her son, or have a conversation with her mother-in-law.

But anyway, Mary's not the only depressed widowed person at the party: Branson feels out of his depth among so many aristocrats.  He dances with one duchess -- and in turn teaches the viewers a valuable lesson about the right time to use "Your Grace" and "Dutchess" as forms of address* -- and must dodge questions about whether he knows her Irish aristocrat friends.  Later, as he is brooding downstairs, he meets Edna and tells her miserably that he doesn't belong.  Edna gives him a large glass of whisky with her sympathy.  Later still, she sneaks into his bedroom.  Gee, that sure was a great idea to not tell Cora why Edna was sent away from Downton!  SILENCE IS ALWAYS THE ANSWER!

In lighter hearted plots, the home and visiting servants smoke and gossip and get into a rousing game of cards in between their duties.  Green flirts quite a bit with Anna, and Anna doesn't seem to mind, much to Bates's disapproval.  Mrs. Patmore is so frenzied with preparing the elaborate meals that she gives herself an anxiety attack.  Alfred, who aspires to become a chef, steps in and does a surprisingly good job with the dishes.  Meanwhile, Lord Grantham and most of the male guests have been losing hoards of money to one card shark at the party.  Fortunately Gregson knows a thing or two about cheating at cards from his younger years and wins the money back for them.  Lord Grantham, who has been cold shouldering him the entire visit, has a change of heart.  Yay?

Then everyone goes to watch Nellie Melba perform -- even the servants have been invited.  She sings beautifully, but unfortunately having everyone upstairs makes That Scene possible.

For you see, Anna decides to go downstairs for a headache remedy and is met by Green.  Like every nightmare strangler in a dark alley, Green grabs her, knocks her around, and rapes her as she screams for help.  Of course no one hears her because of the concert.  And though she is absent for a long time, strangely no one thinks to look for her.  Only much later does Mrs. Hughes find Anna huddled in the corner of a room, bleeding, sobbing, her dress torn.  Anna tells her about Green, and of course Mrs. Hughes wants to go tell someone what happened, but Anna begs her to stay silent.  She is afraid that if Bates finds out, he will try to kill Green and he can't possibly escape a harsh sentence after his last felony conviction (even though that was overturned).

Anna's fears are justified, but there are about 10 other ways she could get help without triggering the Bates Beast.  This includes telling Mary, who might be able to work the quiet aristocratic channels to have Green brought to justice without Bates knowing until Green was in custody.  Instead, Anna just wants to pretend the rape never happened.  Because silence is the solution to everything on this show.

Even though Anna seems hurt and like she needs a doctor, Mrs. Hughes reluctantly agrees to respect her wishes.  She gets Anna a change of clothes, and Anna later greets Bates shakily and lies that she fainted and hit her head.  As they are leaving to go home, Green has the gall to casually call out goodnight to them from the other end of the hall.  As if raping vulnerable women were something he was so used to doing, it scarcely affected him.  A tortured Anna must call back as if nothing had happened.  And given that Mary and Lord Gillingham are getting better acquainted, this is unlikely to be the last time Anna and Green meet.    

Other Observations

What Relationship?  Not Isobel and Mary's, that's for sure.  Last season, I noted that Matthew did not interact much with his mother, and this season, I don't think Isobel and Mary have exchanged one word of dialogue.  They are two very different people, and yes, Mary is a self-absorbed ice queen, but Isobel is her mother-in-law.  Why hasn't she reached out to her in a shared moment of grief?  Okay it's Mary -- enough said.  Then why hasn't Isobel tried to talk to Mary?  In the dinner party scene, one would think that there would be a confrontation of some sort, but no, Isobel expresses her displeasure to Branson instead.  It just seems so odd that the two women have no interaction whatsoever.

It Seems So Long Ago...  Since can I remember Lord Grantham being something other than a stand in for the buffoonish, out-of-touch aristocrat.  As if we haven't already seen he's bad with money, of course he gets suckered by a card shark and loses a huge sum.  He's afraid to tell Cora, but the one he should really be worried about is Mary, since that was Matthew's money invested in the estate.  Hugh Bonneville is a good actor and deserves better.

* Violet tells Branson that only servants use "Your Grace" while fellow aristocrats typically say "Dutchess."  But I could have sworn that in the first episode of the series, Lord Grantham addressed the Duke as "Your Grace."  Either that rule applies only to women, or Fellowes slipped up.

Next Time: Rose continues with her ambitious efforts to yank the Crawleys into the 20th Century by reminding them that black people exist. 

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