This post contains spoilers for Downton Abbey Season 4
Perhaps surprisingly, Downton Abbey has made a major comeback this season. After two increasingly disappointing seasons, where female characters were mistreated and the writing and continuity spiralled downhill, season four has burst onto the scene with massive improvements in coherency, enjoyability and feminist storytelling.
After Matthew’s death, Mary is dealing with the loss of the person who she not only loved but who, she thinks, softened her, and so the loss of the person she was with him. Edith dabbles in rebellion, while Rose becomes a more fun-loving Sybil-esque character. We even see the unlikely developing relationship between Isobel and Violet, as Violet attempts to help Isobel with her grief.
The relationship between Sybil and Branson is long over, and so we can see Branson as an interesting character, rather than the controlling jerk he often was during their “love” plot, and although Robert contains to be something of a fail, but we’re clearly meant to side against him and his sexist old-world views now.
All in all, it’s working very well. But one plotline has caused a lot more controversy, and its positive and negative aspects are difficult to untangle. At the end of episode 3, Anna was raped by the valet of one of Mary’s suitors.
I’ll admit that I was predisposed to be biased against the handling of this plotline. I did not watch the third episode of the season live, and when I learned what had occurred, I vowed not to watch it. I couldn’t imagine Downton Abbey handling the story well, and most of the voices I heard who had seen it expressed horror and disgust with the direction the story had taken. Anna was attacked, it seemed, simply to add more drama to the otherwise settled Anna-and-Bates plotline, and ultimately to create some “will Bates really be a murderer??” tension. However, after hearing people then praise the show, and even its treatment of this storyline, in following weeks, I finally decided to catch up, and ended up marathoning the three episodes I had missed all in one go.
And after all that, my feelings are rather mixed.
On the one hand, the impact of Anna’s attack has been given a lot of screen time, and its consequences have been given a lot of narrative weight. The attack was not quickly forgotten, and Anna has not recovered simply by deciding to recover. Although it is heartbreaking to see Anna declare that she is “spoiled” by the attack, it’s a realistic response, especially considering the 1920s setting. And although the original episode had the potential to frame Anna’s attack as somehow her fault, because she was friendly and joking with the valet while Bates was suspicious of him, the series has never given any credence to the idea that she was even vaguely at fault since then. Rape plotlines might put me off a story, and should come with warnings because of potential triggers, but the consideration of it, both in the moment and its consequences, is not necessarily bad, especially when treated with serious thought and consideration.
But Anna’s attack has only been partly Anna’s story. We also must come to Bates. It makes sense that Bates would be confused and upset when she won’t tell him what is wrong, and that he would be both furious and protective of her when he finds out the truth, and so we can hardly complain that those elements were included. (Although I might try anyway… I’m rather disposed to hate Bates these days). But Bates and his anger have had excessive weight in the narrative from the beginning. Anna must keep her attack secret, and cannot go to the police, not because she is ashamed or doesn’t think it’ll be taken seriously, but because she cannot trust Bates not to commit murder if he finds out the truth. Her immediate response and long-term recovery are framed entirely around Bates and his emotions. The emotional focus of the story therefore shifted almost immediately, from Anna’s recovery to Bates’ reaction to it. His pain at hearing of his wife’s suffering (which is admittedly justified and realistic) is given more weight than Anna’s own trauma, because everyone must lie and hide and sneak around in order to protect Bates, and because he is unwilling to put Anna’s own needs and fears before his own anger when he does find out.
The plotline has also done little to make Bates appear a more likeable character. Although it’s easy to sympathize with the husband who knows that something has happened to his wife but does not know what, his manipulation and intimidation of Mrs Hughes was unacceptable. He knows that Anna does not want him to know, but he threatens Mrs Hughes until she is forced to break her promise of silence, and then pushes even more to gather information that will allow him to act expressly against Anna’s wishes.
Except for one very unfortunately phrased moment, when Bates tells Anna that he loves and respects her even more because of what she has suffered, Bates’s support of Anna in recent episodes has generally been very good. But his treatment of Mrs Hughes, and his secret schemes against the valet, linger over everything, creating promises of a more Bates-centered narrative to come. Although I don’t want to assume that everything will take a turn for the horrible, there’s a lot of potential for the story to put Bates front-and-center from now on. We could see Bates as he tracks down the valet. Bates as he attacks him. Bates held back by a pleading Anna, or Bates arrested for murder. Although I wouldn’t mind a Bates-less show, this cannot be Bates’ story, and any further movement in their direction, or any suggestion that his violent reaction is anything other than unreasonable selfishness, threatens to mar an otherwise excellent season.