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Anna and Bates in Season Four of Downton Abbey

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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.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

5 thoughts on “Anna and Bates in Season Four of Downton Abbey

  1. I could quite understand Bates. I believe that rape is a serious trauma, but Anna’s behavior towards Bates gave me a bad feeling. She is almost hostile to him out of the blue, loathes his affection, rudely runs away from every conversation and he can’t even know why, or whether she still loves him at all. As I remember, him contemplating to leave her was the threatening which forced Mrs. Hughes to tell him the truth. And he did take the responsibility for it in front of Anna. And we still have yet to see what he is planning to do about the rape. He might be capable of violence when forced to, but that doesn’t mean he is a reckless beast, he may very well know what he is doing. Anna’s wishes and fears were for his sake, so it was his right to think for himself as an adult who appreciates others’ care and good advices but isn’t obliged to let others think and decide for him.

    1. But as I saw it, Bates wasn’t simply contemplating leaving in Mrs Hughes’ company. He was using it as a threat to force Mrs Hughes to say something she clearly did not want to say, and then continued to push in quite an aggressive way to get even more details out of her. He isn’t obliged to let others make decisions for him, but I think he is obliged to listen to what Anna wants, in a situation that is entirely about her. He’s only involved in a secondary capacity, and making it all about him, and completely ignoring her wishes, seems unpleasant at best to me. But then again, I’ve never been a big fan of Bates.

  2. I agree with Charsi about Mr. Bates. He was in total agony at Anna’s sudden shift away from him. Bates has said that he had a bad childhood and we know he has had a bad adulthood as well, that is until he met Anna. When he escaped to Downton it seems his only goal was to get away and hide from Vera and to be “comfortable”. Anna’s love was something he never dared dream of having. Now, Bates’ biggest fear in life is that he is undeserving of Anna and her love; that he is not good enough for her. But in the past, she continually sought after him even declaring her love first. When in prison she was his lifeline and savior. He feels she is a “pearl of great price”, a lady, and as he agreed with Mary, that Anna is “marvelous”. He is in total love and wants her happy and safe. I think that Anna’s biggest fear is losing Mr. Bates. In the past when he left Downton she was in tears, she sat through the shock of hearing a death sentence proclaimed and thought she had lost him. Then she worried about his safety and missed being with him as he was in prison for nearly two years. She is in total love and wants him safe and happy. Bates being safe and alive comes first for her. That being said, I think that Anna not trusting Bates, not talking to him and shutting him out was indeed torture for him because his worst fear seemed to be coming true, that he was undeserving and had lost her love and indeed him being in her life was making her unhappy. He wanted to fix it, understand it, work things out but she completely shut her husband out. One day was perfect and the next their world was crashing down. She knew why, but he was left alone in the dark. Over the next days or weeks, Anna wouldn’t look at him, talk to him, touch him or let him touch her, kiss him, she said them being together constantly was too much, she wouldn’t walk with him, sit with him and then she moved out of their marriage cottage. Despite his pleas to talk, she kept shutting him out more and more. Mr. Bates could see she was in agony which caused him to be in agony as well as frustrated because he couldn’t comfort her. When Anna took the wedding vow it was “for better or for worse”. She proved her love for Bates in the past by being there for him when he was in prison, however, when his letters stopped coming she was in tears and emotionally devastated. This is what she was doing to Bates only worse. It wasn’t just letters, it was everything between them suddenly stopping and upon his approach she shut him out. She denied him the opportunity to be with her through her worst which left him hurt, confused, desperate, alone, tortured. Just like when he left before to protect the family and Lady Mary’s secret, Bates was dead serious about leaving Downton for good. As he put it, Anna seeing him or being near him seemed to be torture for her and in turn he was in torture at being the cause of her pain. When he told Mrs. Hughes he was leaving, it was a statement of fact. If he had to be heartbroken for Anna to be happy, he would make the sacrifice. Anna may have felt she was protecting Mr. Bates from his own temper, but in reality, she was being cruel by keeping her husband in the dark. She never wavered in the past with her trust in him and belief in his innocence, she should have trusted him in this and given him the chance to be strong for her. She should have sat him down in their cabin expressed her fears in losing him, her love for him, how she needed him with her, had him promise to discuss with her what they were going to do and then tell him the truth. He should not have had to hear it from someone else and Anna should not have lied to him. They should have worked it out together, the way they did when Bates had troubles. I did feel sorry for Mrs. Hughes when Mr. Bates was questioning her. But you could see his desperation. I guess I am old-fashioned but he is the husband and he should have known what was going on, even Mrs. Hughes had said this to Anna. It was also Anna and her fear that put Mrs. Hughes in this uncomfortable situation to begin with. Bates did grill Mrs. Hughes as any loving husband would do, wanting to discover who had hurt his wife. I excuse Bates here and I am sure Mrs. Hughes did too as you can see the agony, hurt, guilt, sense of helplessness, rage, understanding, and frustration at not being able to protect his wife flood over Bates. He had already been in emotional confusion and agony for quite some time and probably had suffered many sleepless nights alone in the cottage wondering what had gone wrong. That said, Bates is not stupid. He has shown in big and small ways that he can plan and execute events, from Craig in prison to helping Mr. Molesley. He has a temper and a sharp probably caused by a tough childhood, but he is not mean nor a murderer. He knows that violence will separate him from Anna when she needs him most. Bates may feel like killing Green but that is a long ways from doing it. Love for Anna and being with her will win out. But he will still try to find some revenge on Green.

  3. I like Bates, but I am so angry at him!! He is totally putting his will of vengeance before Anna’s. What he had to do now is support her and talk to her, maybe trying to convince her to press charge against the asshole, but in the end agreeing with what she decides. And, as you said, even if he doesn’t act like a jerk, this part of the plot will be centered on him, when it should be all about Anna and how she is dealing with the pain and everyone supporting her. I would like to see Mary doing something about it, specially since she is friends with Lord Gillingham. Let’s see how they will handle this.

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