Monday 20 January 2014

Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 3: Rape culture and the slimy slope of situational ethics (please see Note 1)

SPOILER ALERT: conjecture on the season 4 plot appears in the last paragraph of this post. (Not that most of us probably couldn’t see it coming…)

Anna and Mrs. Hughes in episode 3

Last night’s episode of Downton Abbey was even darker and more troubling than the previous week’s violence. And that’s because, in this latest installment, action tantamount to rape is advocated by those we have taken to be “the good guys.” That we are beguiled into viewing it as justified only makes us complicit, bringing us one step lower on the slippery descent into situational ethics.

Episode 2 featured two major skirmishes in the battle between the sexes: Green’s rape of Anna, and Edna’s “seduction” of Tom. The contrasts between these acts are multiple, from the genders of the perpetrator/victim, through location of the event, and the style of depiction: man vs. woman, downstairs vs. upstairs, explicit violence vs. implied non-violence. And the reactions Sir Julian Fellowes cultivates within us, the viewers, when faced with each of these despicable acts, are also very different: fear, horror, and tears vs. vague unease.

Tom Branson

Both victims are among the most attractive and sympathetic members of the cast, haling from among the virtuous lower classes. There is also the aspect of their relative blamelessness: though Anna had no reason to believe ill of Green (beyond the tingling of Bates’ spidey sense), it’s hard to avoid the impression Tom should have known he was playing with fire in rekindling a relationship with Edna. The two attackers also issue from among the poor, albeit the undeserving, non-virtuous kind (they’re also clearly the less attractive member of each doomed couple).

In both sexual attacks, the sympathetic natures of the victims are taken advantage of in order to gratify the perpetrators’s needs--for sex, power, and, in Edna’s case, as a gambit to improve her social situation. Can a man be raped? Episode 2 makes a clear case for the affirmative.

Edna Braithwaite

But it is episode 3 that I find more alarming, and specifically the scene where Mrs. Hughes confronts Edna on Tom’s behalf. But first, let’s backtrack a smidge: having plied Tom with whiskey and slipping into his room, Edna approaches Tom the next day, demanding he commit to marrying her if their encounter results in a pregnancy. Tom refuses to accept the premise of the question (a neat lesson also stressed in West Wing, Season 7, which I’ve been watching recently). Conception, Tom tells Edna, isn’t that simple. Edna challenges Tom: so he regrets their encounter?

Tom, in his sad sappiness nearly a fit heir for the dopey Lord himself, responds: “I am already full of regret. There is nothing but regret in me” (though I’m guessing it was something quite other than regret that issued from him on the night in question).

Later, in London, Lady Mary recognizes Tom is in difficulty. When he refuses to open up about his problem, she advises to find some way of unburdening himself. Which sends Tom to Mrs. Hughes, the one person in whom Anna has also confided.

The stalwart Mrs. Hughes, believing herself partly to blames for Tom’s situation—for having she assisted in, albeit grudgingly, Edna’s return to Downton as a ladies maid. She subsequently confronts Edna on Tom’s behalf, but not until she’s discovered the Mary Stopes book Married Love, a sensation at the time, in Edna’s room.

Dr. Mary Stopes

According to Mrs. Hughes, possession of the book means Edna had planned the whole thing, and that she must have known all about preventing pregnancy. Unfortunately, Fellowes—and, by extension, Mrs. Hughes, are mistaken on this. The version of Married Love available online only hints at methods of contraception—primarily douching, presumably, and possibly condoms:

It should be realized that all the proper, medical methods of preventing undesired pregnancy consists, not in destroying an already growing embryo, but in preventing the male semen from reaching the unfertilized egg cell. This may be done either by shutting the semen away from the opening of the womb, or by securing the death of all (instead of the natural death of all but one) of the two or three hundred million spermatozoa which enter the woman…To render inert the ejaculated spermatozoa which would otherwise die and decompose naturally, is a simple matter, now familiar to every intelligent physician and layman.2

How to do this, Stopes writes, is “knowledge…easily obtainable” elsewhere. Apparently, one of the commonly used fertility regulators of the time was “half a lemon, partially squeezed out and then inserted in the vagina to cover the cervix like a cap.”3

But I digress.

My point, finally, concerns the lengths to which Mrs. Hughes appears prepared to go in her attempts to foil Edna’s plan:

Edna: What proof have you got?

Mrs. Hughes: None, at the moment. But if you persist in your lie, I’ll summon the doctor and have him examine you.

Edna: You can’t force me.

Mrs. Hughes: Oh yes, I can. First, I’ll lock you in this room. Then, when he’s arrived, I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down, if that’s what it takes.

A forcible gynaecologic examination? Does that sound far from rape to you?

In the face of Mrs. Hughes’s determination, Edna folds. And we, let’s face it, are stoked. Because a devil, for once, has got her comeuppance.

Edna: He still seduced me. You can’t change that.

Mrs. Hughes: You made a man drunk and climbed into his bed. You call that seduction? Because I don’t.

Edna rushes out. To Tom, Mrs. Hughes allows she was bluffing, that a doctor’s examination at that point would have found nothing.

But haven’t we, too, been seduced? Seduced into accepting the threat of a near-rape as a justified response to Edna’s aggression. 

Ethel Parks
And finally—SPOILER ALERT—having watched the entire fourth season, may I say that another Downton character could have used the lemon treatment, and that it is not a coincidence that Fellowes’s choice of the names Ethel, Edna, and Edith is not, thematically speaking, a coincidence.
Lady Edith


1This is not a summary of the episode. For an excellent recap of episode 3, please see Robin Kawakami’s Wall Street Journal blog piece, here

2 Stopes, Mary Carmichael. Married love or love in marriage. New York, NY: The Critic and Guide Company, 1918. Available online at

3 Short, R.V. “New ways of preventing HIV infection: thinking simply, simply thinking.”
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2006 May 29; 361(1469): 811–820. Published online 2006 February 3. doi:  10.1098/rstb.2005.1781

Monday 6 January 2014

Downton Abbey: from "jumping the shark" to sharknado (hook's still in deep, though)

At long last, possums, we're back in Downtontown, and I couldn't be happier! It's a show millions love, yours truly included, though this love can't blind me to the show's faults.

And so, in honour of Downton Abbey's season 4 launch last night on PBS, I'm reposting last January's  rueful commentary on Downton's lunge over the top (below). But first, a few nits picked from last night's episode, and the shape of the season to come:

--A few too many info dump scenes, or overly short scenes, for example, the one where Lady Mary finally breaks down to Carson (Carson, and not her own father! How pathetic is that?), and the other between Carson and his old friend Grigg. These scenes reminded me of that West Wing axiom: no meeting ever lasts much more than 30 seconds. Would that real life was this way! Yes, yes, I know: short scenes keep the story clipping along (as does all that rushing around), but lesser writers are forever cautioned to make each scene exist on its own merits and not simply to set up a future plot point.

--I'm sorry, but even Lord Crawley couldn't be that big a ninny (the Dowager's repeated references to fetching the Nanny to care for him were downright ridiculous). 

--Speaking of Nanny, there's another laughable pseudoconflict generated at breakneck speed. It gives me no pleasure to say it (by which I mean it gives me HEAPS of pleasure), but Downton Abbey's becoming a caricature of itself. From "jumping the shark" to sharknado.

--Despite Cora Levinson Crawley's supposed shiksadom (see below), last night's episode leaves little doubt Lady Edith being set up for a "peril in Germany" story line, lifted right from Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (a much worthier miniseries, IMHO).

"Sorry fans, no Yiddishkeit at 'Downton Abbey'"

The reason neither Martha Levinson nor Lady Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern) are Jewish, it turns out, is very simple: They’re Episcopalian.  
We know this because the definitive guide to Season 3, Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis’ “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey,” tells us so. (They should know: She’s the niece of Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator.)...

--Finally, still in the Jewish content vein, could somebody PLEASE tell us why Fellowes' is allergic to actually casting Jews as Jews? Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti?? SERIOUSLY? (Okay, I know Martha Levinson isn't supposed to be Jewish but simply a brassy nouveau riche New Yorker...but isn't that kinda the same thing?) I suppose he'd feel comfortable casting Whites in Blackface to play Blacks, too? (PS This last is a joke...sort of)


Downton Abbey jumps the shark (January 9, 2013)

Downton Abbey's season 3 premiere: Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, foreground) continues to do dopey things, his mother-in-law, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) is fizzle and a gasbag, and viewers are reminded of familiar Downton truisms: “Downton’s in peril. Wills are complicated. Servants are sickly. Canadians are trouble.”

Photograph by: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece-PBS

Spoiler alert! Contains Downton plot twists: If you haven’t yet seen the opening episode of Season 3 (or, for that matter, Seasons 1 or 2) and plan to, you might want to hold off on reading this article. It contains some of the notable developments in the plots of the series.

I’d been psyched for months by the promise of the newest season of Downton Abbey, which the New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley recently called the Fifty Shades of Grey of its ilk: “soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex.”

But I was hugely disappointed by the two-hour series opener the other night, which drew the Crawley family — and voyeurs like us along for the ride — to new depths of fatuousness.

In the interregnum prior to the start of Season 3, hubby and I took the opportunity to rescreen Seasons 1 and 2. I’d been struck by writer Julian Fellowes’s apparent initial intention to make Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley (played by Hugh Bonneville), the heart of the series. The opening credits have him striding majestically through the grounds, golden lab at his side. But it wasn’t long before daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), whose young Turkish lover shockingly expires in her bedchamber (in most morality plays, death is what happens to the girl seduced, not the rake) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, who makes the most of the immortal line “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house — especially somebody they didn’t even know”) began to steal the show from him, and run with it. Lord Grantham becomes sadly befuddled — for example, imagining that he will see active duty in France during the First World War.

But this year’s offering is a contraption so creaky with ersatz conflict that it reminds me of Oz the Great and Terrible at the moment Dorothy discovers that behind the curtain is an ordinary little man.

Opening with the revelation of Lord Grantham’s utter and advised-against squandering of the family’s fortune in Canada — as June Thomas says on Slate, “they sure do return to the same themes over and over: Downton’s in peril. Wills are complicated. Servants are sickly. Canadians are trouble” — the episode continues at breakneck pace to the wedding of Mary and Matthew — though skipping completely what true Fifty Shades fans would prefer to have seen: the honeymoon. But first — oh, irony — it picks up their latest complication: the father of the late Lavinia, Matthew’s one-time fiancée, has died and Matthew is third in line to inherit his huge fortune.

While the issue of whether the two men before him as inheritors are alive or dead is needlessly spun out, Matthew — looking a tad overfed and unctuous, proving himself a fitting heir to the doltish current lord — announces his resolution to give away the money should it come his way, because taking it would constitute a form of theft. He arrives at this weird notion through tortured guilty logic: Lord Reginald Swire could only have intended the money to come to Matthew because he was the great love of Lavinia’s life, but Matthew betrayed that love, sending Lavinia to an early, broken-hearted death by way of the Spanish flu.

It makes Harlequin romances appear deep.

Lady Mary castigates Matthew with the deadliest of accusations. In refusing Swire’s bequest, in his willingness to allow, dare one say it, Downton to be lost, Matthew is, she charges, betraying that he is “not on our side.”

Seriously? This is the complication on which Fellowes seeks to hang the season?

It was the moment that Downton Abbey, despite its high production values and effervescent cast, finally jumped the shark.

And it was only downhill from there.

Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson in Downton Abbey.
Photograph by: Image courtesy , Nick Briggs

Shirley MacLaine, looking like she might have had a tad too much plastic surgery, was a total fizzle, her Martha Levinson (mother of the U.S.-born Cora, Lady Grantham) little more than a gasbag of accented clichés.

I'd heard rumours Dan Stevens (Matthew) would be gone from Downton, and this flop of a premiere was just the impetus I needed to root around the Internet to discover what happens to his character, while imagining all the time I might regain Sunday evenings by not having to watch the rest of the series.

As if.

Like Fifty Shades of Grey, Downton Abbey has become, most assuredly, one more in a long line of life’s guilty pleasures.