Sunday, January 19, 2014

Downton Abbey and the Car-Wreck of Fiction


(Stop reading if you don’t want Downton Abbey spoiled through the current episode of Season 4 here in the US.  And if you’ve seen past, be kind in the comments.)

If you do not watch Downton Abbey, you may be wondering why your Downton watching friends are either angry or horribly depressed.
You see:  there are these characters that we’ve really grown to care about…
We see them in part as friends and family.  Yes, we know they are fictional characters, but they and their relationships with other characters reflect some of the things that we either value in our own relationships, or wish that we had in our real lives.
When characters become “really good”, it usually means that they so reflect humanity that we invest fully in their fates.  Be it triumphant or tragic, we want to witness what happens to them.  We want to know their story, good or bad, with only one real requirement.
It has to ring true.
But the problem with these characters is that they are subject to the real lives of the actors who play them, and the writers and producers who ultimately decide their fate.
Season Three killed two prominent characters in Sybil Branson, and Matthew Crawley.
While there was great grief at Sybil’s death, it was completely believable.  She died giving birth to her daughter.  Then and now, it is a tragic reality that women die in childbirth.  It happened this way mostly because the actress wanted to leave the show, but it was not obtrusive to the plot.   It fit the story.

Matthew Crawley, on the other hand, died while “daydream driving” after the birth of his son, crashing and upending his car on top of him.

Any Downton watcher will tell you how much of a stretch this was on the believability scale:  the event as it happened seems completely out of Matthew’s character, and the events prior to it…making “everything perfect” just before it all gets blown to hell…makes it completely contrived.

And it was contrived:  the actor who played Matthew insisted on leaving the show.

I’m not without sympathy for those who are charged with telling the story.  There were only so many options, and I am aware that the actor gave them little notice.  But the primary thing I ask of story writers is that they are faithful to the story they tell.  Yes:  we all would have endless complained if they had replaced the actor with another.  But we would have understood.  Perhaps season four needed to begin with something like the final Frank Burns episode in M*A*S*H:  a story writing him out, even as they did not have access to the actor.  Yes, car accidents can happen to anyone, but the way it happened made us call foul.

The same thing may have happened to us again, in the latest episode shown here in the US, when the character of Anna was viciously raped.

I can handle shows going dark.  I’ve long been an advocate for the dark season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:  a season many loyal viewers balked at for the downward spiral the whole cast took.  It was tough to watch characters we cared about struggle so greatly, but I found it to be real.  In life, bad things certainly do happen.

But is this plot concerning Anna believable story?***

It is believable that Anna, like any woman, could be attacked.  Strong women certainly do get raped:  there is no doubt about that.  Her likability and kindness demonstrated on the show make her no more likely not to be raped.  The actual rape scene itself was terribly believable.  

Anna and Bates have had one thing after another happen to them to “destroy their happiness”.  A marriage that can’t be dissolved (an idea now recycled for poor Edith), the marriage finally gets dissolved, they get married…only to have Bates convicted of murdering his ex-wife.   And now that Bates is free from prison, the attack on Anna.  If this were real life, one would be dismayed at all of their misfortunate.  Because they are characters in a show, it seems somewhat absurd that all of this would happened to them (if they weren’t characters, it would be believable because, sometimes, that’s just the way real life happens).

The rape was carried out when the entire household was upstairs listening to opera (which follows another often used movie device of contrasting the beautiful passionate music while horrible violence is happening at the same time elsewhere).  It is also all but unheard of for truly EVERYBODY to be upstairs, but as Carson says grumpily, "times are changing” (convenient).  Anna goes downstairs, not feeling well.  The visiting valet sees this, followers her downstairs, tries to seduce her, and when she resists, bloodies Anna up and rapes her.  He leaves her in the head servants' office, and goes back upstairs to his seat with others.  (The acting in this episode is brutally excellent.)

My initial impression is that there is no way in the world that the valet could have possibly believed that he could get away with such a thing…Anna is, after all, the personal lady’s maid for the powerful Lady Mary.  Because Anna was beaten, it was my thought that the valet couldn't help but be seen by the household as guilty, and because of the wealth and power of the household, that he would likely be caught.

A number of people have disagreed with this particular assessment of mine concerning the valet, and upon reflection and a bit of historical reading (thank you Google), I sadly now agree with them.  The views of rape towards the victim in history has long been paternalistic, and in Downton’s time, was often outright blame of the victim.  It is completely believable that the valet may have assumed that he could get away with whatever he did, simply because society seldom believes victims, and most remain silent because of fear and shame.  

At this point, however, I still find Downton’s story too contrived.  The first night’s episodes brings Anna’s trustworthiness into doubt in the minds of Lord and Lady Grantham (thanks to the manipulations of Barrow and the new lady’s maid, Edna).  Anna’s helping Lady Rose get out of the house and helping her deal with the results is observed by another servant:  again, to potentially discount her honesty.  (Here may be part of what brings her back to “believability” in the mind of the house:  she previously discussed Rose with Lady Mary, who trusts her).  Before the attack, the story shows the valet’s interest in Anna, and Bates says “there’s something about him”, and Anna brushing him off.   They are setting up guilt.  And finally, when Anna partially tells Mrs. Hughes what has happened, she insists that no one can ever know because Mr. Bates would certainly kill the attacker and then be hung.  This is not just the fear that any woman of the time would have for her spouse.  Anna says, “He’s a convicted felon:  do you think they’d spare him a second time?”   I think the writers are saying that it’s because of the particulars of Bates' status as a convicted felon (taking the blame for his ex-wife's stealing, wrongly convicted of murder) that the viewer is to believe that this secret will be hid and fester between them. 

Many people have voiced that the warning at the beginning of the episode was nowhere near strong enough:  that viewers were not prepared to see something as disturbing as rape.  I agree, but ironically, the warning brought on a hollow pit in my stomach.  Somehow, I suspected a physical/sexual attack on Anna:  not because I picked up on any logical clues in the plot, but because I could see such a thing used by the writers for future conflict between Anna and Bates.  This only two episodes after overturning a car on Matthew because they NEEDED him dead.  

I think part of my feeling this is because how many have referred to Downton Abbey as a “PBS soap opera”.  I’ve rejected that label in the past, but perhaps the writers are trying to prove me wrong.  Unlike soap operas, Downton Abbey has multidimensional characters who have good and not so good qualities.  Their relationships seem real, and reflect much of real life situations (just with awesome costumes, dialogue, and scenery).  It’s fair to expect that some things will feel contrived…but at what point do the particulars of the show stop being believable?  

My belief is that the writers chose to have this happen to specifically Anna in order to create conflict between Anna and Bates, two of their most popular characters, "star-crossed lovers" that people desperately want to be happy (remember all the "Free Bates" signs and t-shirts), in order to create buzz...NOT to teach about the realities of rape.  I REALLY hope I am wrong:  I have not watched ahead.  

It is possible that the writers have taken this storyline in a truly needed direction, as this commentator who disagreed with my assessment has wisely said: 
“It is my hope that the writers of Downton Abbey will now do this subject justice and give an accurate portrayal of the emotional and physical impacts that Anna will suffer, now and for the rest of her life.  And perhaps shine a light on just how prevalent and damaging rape culture is.” 

I hope she is right.  And if they have, I will fully praise the series.  (Perhaps we’ll have more insight after tonight’s episode…)

Downton needs drama, but as the viewer, I’m no longer sure I trust the writers.  If plot is indeed being sacrificed for the spectacle of the wreck, I will likely be looking away.


*** I have greatly expanded this section of my essay thanks to public feedback.  It is necessary to be very clear when combining the words “believable” and “rape”, because far too often victims are not believed.  The misogynist view that a rape victim is somehow, in anyway responsible for their attack is completely false, and there is the false perception that “good people” don’t get senselessly raped.  The believability question here is how contrived is this plot in its writing and use within Downton Abbey.

An earlier version of this appeared in The Episcopal Cafe.

2 comments:

Barbara Buckley said...

What I find far more offensive than the juxtaposition of the rape with the opera music, is the "rape" of poor Tom. There is a subtextual comparison between Edna's seductive manipulation and Anna's playful interaction with and acceptance of the rapist's behavior pre-rape. It's almost as if the writers were saying, "See! It is so hard to tell what women are thinking. A man can never know."

I am thoroughly disgusted with this new turn of events. There have been too many misuses and abuses of female and male stereotypes and of unrealistic assumptions by the characters for me to trust the show anymore. And, as you said Kurt, the characters are becoming one-dimensional. Tom is a great example of how a passionate, interesting character has become a pathetic "type". Sure, he's dealing with the death of his wife, but to be as easily fooled as he has become is not in his character. He knows what's at stake, but he turns his back on his responsibilities and the memory of Sybil - again out of character.

It seems that the only objective of the writers is to sensationalize and evoke strong emotions from their viewers. The story has been sacrificed and my emotional response is not the one I think the writers are trying to elicit.

Martie Collins said...

I was sorry to see Matthew die, more for his mother's sake than Mary's. But her being single adds to the plot. (Even though I don't like her very much.)

I can't believe how upset I got about Anna. I hope someone gets the valet before Bates does.