Dame Nellie Melba serenades the house party – courtesy of Section of Randomness

Tonight’s episode was the third episode that aired on ITV; however, since Downton always begins on PBS with a two-hour season premiere, the episode where Anna is raped smacks American viewers in the face in week 2. Not that seeing this a week after the premiere of S4 is worse than seeing this two weeks after the S4 premiere, but at least it didn’t seem so breathtakingly sudden when watching along with the UK.

It’s going to be difficult for me to recap subsequent episodes, because the aftermath of Anna’s rape will likely displease a lot of viewers.

I will say right now that I felt it a cop-out to have a fellow servant rape Anna. It’s not an impossible situation, but:

a) a regular servant was more likely to be prosecuted than an aristocrat
b) it supports the largely romanticized interactions between the Crawleys and their servants–just imagine how the show would unfold if a Crawley family friend had raped Anna. Would we see them bow to social pressure to close rank around the aristocratic rapist? Would choosing a side rip the family and staff apart? Would have been very interesting to watch.

However, up until to the rape scene, I classed this episode as Downton’s finest hour. It was very Gosford Park-like in its setting and in its basic plot that could only happen in this upstairs/downstairs milieu. Julian Fellowes’ strengths obviously lie in a self-contained story sustained by a series of overlapping smaller conflicts that culminate in an ending that ties every character together.

Mary has emerged from her zombie-like mourning, but the family decides she still needs some cheering up. A house party is the solution, and a bunch of family friends arrive at Downton to shake things up. The main plot threads occurring during this house party: the appearance of childhood friend Anthony Foyle, Lord Gillingham–who makes a beeline for Mary in the most obvious way–; Sampson the card sharp, who fleeces the gentlemen out of their money; Michael Gregson, who is determined to win Robert over (nevermind that Gregson is still a married man!); Tom’s awkwardness over his place at Downton; and the guest appearance of famed opera singer, Nellie Melba (portrayed by real life opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa).

The Nellie Melba plot made me roll my eyes a bit because famous singers and entertainers had been invited to aristocratic houses and dinner parties since the 1880s and 1890s (the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, caused considerable social disruption when he took up Sarah Bernhardt in the late 1870s). Robert and Carson treating Nellie Melba as though she were a servant was very anachronistic.

Meanwhile, Anthony Gillingham’s valet, Green, stirs up raucous fun belowstairs for the Downton staff, and Anna’s involvement in his games stokes Bates’s jealousy. This jealousy is, however, painted as husbandly concern (or overbearing, patronizing condescension, IMO), and Bates frequently scolds Anna for her interactions with the valet. I guess we were supposed to infer that his stint in prison gave Bates the power to sniff out bad ‘uns, but in the wake of Anna being sexually violated, it came across as “if only you’d listened to your husband.”

Speaking of the staff, the odious Edna Braithwaite once again preyed on Tom’s insecurities–in fact, there were two rapes this episode. Edna getting Tom drunk and sneaking into his bedroom wasn’t the sign of his consent to whatever she planned that night.

This episode had lots of the beautiful dresses, witty dialogue, and social mishaps that characterize Downton Abbey, but it cannot enrapture now that the show has introduced the very serious topic of rape.

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