Like millions of Americans I am absolutely captivated by the PBS period drama Downton Abbey. Now in its 4th season the program follows the happenings of the well to do British family in the 1920’s and their servants. A modern version of Upstairs Downstairs if you will.
The show has not been afraid of tackling all of the difficult questions that would have arisen in the day. Why is it that a woman cannot inherit her family’s fortune? This was the question in season one of the program. Also in that season we saw the ladies maid O’Brien put a piece of soap on the floor so her Mistress would slip and fall. The resulting fall triggered the loss of her unborn child. The First World War was also dealt with and the resulting injuries and the changes that would follow in British Society.
But last night the program took on a situation that one would not have expected on this particular program. A large group of visitors had come to the Abbey for a few days and they, as always, brought their servants with them. This is always an interesting time on the program as servants from other “grand houses” come and there is usually a clash of some kind. One the Valets took a shine to Ladies Maid Anna May Bates to the point where he rapes Anna downstairs whilst the servants are treated to a concert upstairs. I had an inkling that something was going to take place as there was a warning about adult content at the start of the program.
Reaction to this has been mixed. When the program originally aired in Britain late last year people wrote to the network to complain about the topic but I did not find it offensive in anyway. In a shift away from most modern TV dramas the scene was not specifically about the violence, you knew something was happening, and you even knew what that something was, but just as it was about to begin the scene changed. It left the viewer to determine what was happening.
In an October 2013 interview with the BBC Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes said, “The whole point of the way we do things on Downton is we don’t do them gratuitously.” The rape was not done for the sake of the rape itself but to show how Anna and her husband John Bates, will now have to deal with this issue.
We got a bit of a glimpse of that last night when Housekeeper Mrs. Hughs came into the room and found Anna in the dark and sitting in the corner crying and obviously shaken up. She did not want anyone but Mrs. Hughs to know what had happened, and based on her reaction one could tell she knew exactly what had happened to Anna. The covered it up so no one would know.
The Actress who plays Anna, Joanne Froggatt spoke to the BBC in 2013 about the scene and where it was going to go, “I think it’s a really brave thing to do… I believe that Julian has written it in a way that is not gratuitous at all.” She said she was “proud” that this was being tackled and, “We all felt a big responsibility to get it right.”
For me the problem lies not in what was and is being portrayed but the reaction to it. Americans, by and large, like to watch TV for the entertainment value they do not like programs that make one think about anything. Just look at some of the programs like Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives nonsense that is all the rage. Smart and engaging programing is not popular, or is it?
Dowton Abbey has not been afraid to take the viewers to the very brink, hey they killed off one of the main characters right at the height of his popularity and that is exactly what they are doing here. Set in a time when a woman had no voice in society, especially a servant woman, this will set the stage for the rest of the season.
It is my hope that the program will take this head on and show the effects of this type of trauma on a person not only of the last century but of the present one. How Anna will deal with the mental trauma will be a great direction to explore. Anna is a strong character but will she be able to bounce back from this? Will she open up to her husband and perhaps to Lady Mary? I guess we will just have to watch and see.