Downton Abbey and the Car-Wreck of Fiction

by Kurt Wiesner

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading now if you have not seen Downton Abbey through Episode 3 of Season 4.

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 happened to us 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?

Strong women certainly do get raped: there is no doubt about that. The choice and circumstances of Anna’s attack, however, rings false for a few reasons.

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. It seems absurd that all of this would happened to them, especially concerning the circumstances of it all.

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 rapist sees this (himself, a visiting servant), 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. There’s no way in the world that he 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. And yet, Anna is the one person who would have some reason to hide the fact that she’s been raped because her husband was once imprisoned for murder and would certainly “kill the rapist and then be hung” (something the rapist would not have known she would do).

Additionally, 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 for 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. I also think I guessed this in part because, in Matthew’s death, they had already shown a willingness to sacrifice the story to suit their purpose. I sort of EXPECTED a contrived plot device such as this, and that’s not good.

Many have labeled Downton Abbey 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 things stop being believable?

Downton needs drama, but as the viewer, I’m no longer sure I believe the story. If plot continues to be sacrificed for the spectacle of the wreck, I will likely be looking away.

The Rev. Kurt C. Wiesner is rector of All Saints’ Episcopal in Littleton NH, loves his role as a Spiritual Faculty member of CREDO, and writes a blog called “One Step Closer: Religion and Popular Culture”. He’s a big fan of U2, everything Joss Whedon, and all Judi Dench films and series (but maybe no longer Downton Abbey). He is the Wednesday news blogger for Episcopal Café.

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