Michelle Gillett: Not a helpful place on 'Downton Abbey'



I survived last winter thanks to "Downton Abbey." More or less housebound because of a broken arm, I looked forward to Sunday night and the third season of the PBS series the way the English look forward to a break in the clouds.

At 9 p.m., I would settle onto the couch, my damaged arm propped on a pillow, a blanket over my legs, and forget my troubles for the hour I was transported to Edwardian England, where the Crawleys and their servants and friends acted out their romances and trials at Highclere Castle. Spending an hour on an elegant estate, looking at beautiful costumes, fabulous décor and table settings, delectable concoctions whipped up Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen, helped me forget I was suffering and incarcerated in my New England home in the middle of winter.

Even though I am healed now, I was just as eager to immerse myself in the fourth season of "Downton Abbey" this January. After all, it is still New England and winter, and there is not a better place to be on Sunday night than the couch tuned in to PBS. "Downton Abbey" warms my spirits on frigid winter nights -- at least it did until two weeks ago.


The season began nicely: Lady Mary is cheering up a little after Matthew's death; Lady Edith has interesting new love, a married magazine editor; Mrs. Patmore is trying to master an electric mixer; a potentially tricky new lady's maid has been hired; the Nanny was fired for being classist. Then, for no apparent reason than to perhaps boost viewer numbers which are already well over 125 million globally, something terrible happened. Sweet, kind-hearted head house maid Anna was unexpectedly, unnecessarily, brutally raped.

Maybe the writer and producer thought things were getting a little boring at Highclere and decided a violent sex crime against one of the show's most beloved characters would keep them from losing viewers. In England, where the season begins in October, an article in the Daily Mirror said, "The rape scene was disturbing not only because it destroyed the pleasure in watching the pleasurable life of the landed gentry, but because it introduced something truly evil into the program." As one viewer commented, "it was akin to having a murder on Teletubbies."

Gareth Neame, the producer, defended the plot twist. "(It) is not that we're interested in sensationalizing but we're interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage," he said. "When you handle very difficult and sensitive storylines, the minus is that they do expect more work from the audience, but the plus is they can take you to a helpful place in terms of self-analysis," he said.

More work from the audience? Well, yes -- here I am at my desk working on a column about how horrifying it is that we live in a world where there is an epidemic of gender-based assault against women, where the victim is often blamed for a crime that devastates her life. But, whatever "Downton Abbey"'s producer thinks, I have never found that watching a violent act against a woman gets me to helpful place.


As June Thomas wrote in Slate last week, "'Downton Abbey' has a long record of punishing women who dare to challenge convention. This week, Anna the lady's maid was raped after she ignored her husband's warning and was -- gasp! -- polite to a visiting valet. In previous seasons, Lady Sybil died in childbirth after marrying below her station; Lady Edith was dumped at the altar after choosing a husband her father didn't approve of; and Cora, countess of Grantham, lost a male heir after she tried to undo a complicated legal arrangement that effectively disinherited her daughters.

Like many women, Anna won't be able to report the crime. As Thomas points out, "Bates' bad temper and his history of violence -- he was found guilty of killing his first wife, though he narrowly managed to avoid being hanged for it, thanks to Anna -- mean that she can't report the assault. She knows that if he found out about it, he'd kill her attacker, and he couldn't avoid the gallows a second time. ‘Downton' creator Julian Fellowes, wasn't coarse enough to suggest that Anna deserved to be sexually assaulted -- not directly, at least -- but the rape was a consequence of changing social standards ... Anna had dared to ignore her husband's intuition about Green.

"There's something about him that gets my goat," Bates told her, but she mistook her husband's unease for jealousy."

Just as it wasn't helpful for me to experience Anna's rape, it won't help my self-analysis to watch her struggle to recover from this horrific crime. I guess I will be watching "The Good Wife" on Sunday nights at 9 -- at least for a while.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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