After an uneventful two-hour opener last week, Downton has gone Gosford Park on us here in Episode 2 (E2 on PBS. In UK aired Sept, 2013 this is E3). Don’t forget, Julian Fellowes wrote the Oscar winning screenplay of that Altman directed movie Gosford Park. And so we’re warned from the start. ‘Viewers Discretion Advised’, as scenes may not be bearable for everyone.
Before we move on to discuss that tragic scene, I think there are several good things in this episode. First is, good for plot development, Mary finally has stepped out of mourning. She reconnects with her childhood acquaintance Anthony Gillingham at a weekend house party in Downton. That’s seven months after Mathew’s death, too early? Isobel Crawley may think so. While this is the first time Tom hears Mary laugh, Isobel sadly replies, ‘I find it hard to join in the merry-making.’ Lord Gillingham seems like a decent prospect, but here’s the rub: he’s engaged. Of course, under the pen of Julian Fellowes, that isn’t too big an obstacle.
During that party, Tom feels absolutely out of place. Edna is quick to console. Troubles brewing.
A moving scene is Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the real-life diva herself, appearing as a guest star in this Episode as the real-life Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba upon the invitation from Cora. She sings several arias to entertain the guests. One of them is her favourite, O mio babbino caro, which she dedicates to love and lovers. Kiri Te Kanawa’s mesmerizing voice singing this Puccini aria has made an indelible mark in my movie memory from the Merchant Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View (1985). Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley) must have felt an affiliation with this piece since she herself had starred in that legendary film. (Click here to listen and view a short clip.)
Edith has brought Gregson to the party but Robert avoids talking to him, until money is involved. Gregson has done some heroic poker playing to gain back lost ground for Robert who thanks him for ‘saving his bacon.’ Gregson winning back ‘fair and square’ from the dubious poker player Terence Sampson just might have revealed a bit of his past, schemes he learned in his ‘misspent youth’. This person remains a mystery still. Should Edith be more cautious?
As Dame Nellie Melba sings the love aria upstairs, good-natured Anna encounters evil embodied in Gillingham’s butler Green downstairs. I’m afraid from this point on, she will be a changed person. Green strikes Anna hard on the face and drags her into a room. The subsequent rape is hidden from our sight, thankfully, but we can see the aftermath. The charming voice of a diva singing a love aria upstairs is juxtaposed with the unheeded screams from Anna downstairs makes a powerful and ironic dramatic device. Anna has been the bulwark, a pillar of quiet strength and principle in the Series up to now, I can understand the outcries from fans.
Is this too harsh a dealing from Julian Fellowes? I don’t feel this scene is gratuitous or sensationalized. Why, Mr. Bates has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, William dies from a war wound, Lavinia a casualty of scarlet fever, Ethel has to resort to prostitution and give up her son, Sybil meets her end after childbirth, Matthew crashes out, it’s not the first time tragedy happens to Downton characters. No, I wouldn’t want to see Anna suffer either. But if that is the twist in the plot, I’m eager to see what will happen next. This drastic turn will bring some tension between Anna and Bates as she tries to hide the fact of her wounds, worrying that if Bates knows about it, he will likely do something to Green that will send him back to prison or even hanged. Further, the social stigma of being a rape victim would lead to even more detrimental consequences.
Julian Fellowes has just reminded us that Downton Abbey is more than fashion and parties, etiquettes and zeitgeist of the roaring twenties. It is foremost a world inhabited by humans, with all their tragedies and ugliness.
I’m adding this note in. Some of you have provided stats on sexual assaults and a link to an interview with Joanne Froggatt, all point to the unfortunate social reality that crimes against women are still happening today, and, tragically, the stigma of being a rape victim is just as acute as in the past, while reporting only threatens them even more. Like Anna, they are twice victimized; first being raped, and after, silenced.
Yes, Mr. Carson, this is a topsy turvy world you’ve come to.