‘Downton Abbey’ recap: An unthinkable act changes the tenor of the show

January 12

Lady Mary and Anna, in less traumatic times. (Nick Briggs/PBS)

For 50 minutes or so, the second installment of “Downton Abbey’s” fourth season was a promising affair. A lively and welcome return to healthy class division, romantic intrigue and shady shenanigans, the episode contained much of what was missing from the season’s lackluster premiere. But in its final minutes, the show descended into a wholly un-”Downton” darkness from which I’m not sure it can fully recover and that likely will lose it some of the more than 10 million fans who tuned in to watch last week.

But let’s deal with the fun stuff first, shall we? There will be time enough for misery.

The procession of handsome cars up the gravel driveway and the bustle of servants looking after the arrangements while the rich folks say their hellos and mill about without a care signal that the party is back on. That is what “Downton” is about, after all. Or at least partly about. Every care attended to. Every need addressed. Every want fulfilled. It’s escapist fare for those of us who wish we hit the lottery in 1920.

Lord Grantham is in his element (well, technically it’s mostly Lady Mary’s element now) as the Abbey’s preening host. It feels like the good old days before the war and the arrival of electric mixers. After gathering in the great hall for tea, the guests are instructed to head to their bedrooms and told to return to the drawing room at eight for dinner. Such elegance! The only thing that could make that offer better is if the bedrooms have cable.

Meanwhile, downstairs is a-bustle as the servants scurry about joyfully in their quest to make everything just so for their visitors. Most seem to have things comfortably under control. All, that is, but our rattled cook Ms. Packlemore (or whatever her name is), who is feeling the heat as the young kitchen maids up their game and she falls further behind. “Stress,” declares Dr. Clarkson, and it feels like a very modern diagnosis.

Mary has emerged from her gloom cocoon to engage the world once again and, wouldn’t you know it, there already seems to be the hint of a suitor in the air. Lord Gillingham, an old friend of the family, has arrived for the weekend party, and from the moment he steps from his car, you sense that he might be the man for Mary. There’s something that’s almost Matthewish about him. Lord Gillingham is attended by his valet Green, who everyone calls Gillingham because that’s the name of his employer. (Using that logic, I may ask people to start calling me Bezos.) There’s nothing particularly noteworthy or ominous about Green when we first encounter him. Certainly nothing to prepare us for what will come.

A few more rapid-fire observations before we get to the show’s ending:

The Dowager Countess has evolved into a different character altogether this year. She’s less acerbic, more cuddly. It’s as if the Wicked Witch turned into Auntie Em. Last week she told Lady Mary she loved her (do Brits even use that word?), and this week she’s pulling out all the emotional stops to comfort Matthew Crawley’s grieving mother, Isobel. The world has turned upside down.

Could Mr. Carson really find no one else in the village to serve as a fill-in footman other than mewling Molesley? Why does the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, insist on foisting this character on viewers?

I know Branson doesn’t feel like he belongs at Downton, but is he really going to throw it all away for Edna? Think with your head, man!

With each episode it becomes clearer that Lord Grantham really is only about the money. He pays no attention to Poor Lady Edith’s attempts to get him to know her beau, Michael Gregson, better until the man bails him out of severe poker losses by outsmarting the visiting card sharp. Poker fans would love to have seen how Michael figured out the rogue card player’s chicanery, but Fellowes is less interested in explication than in moving on quickly to the next storyline.

Jimmy may be the only character more useless than Molesley. He hasn’t served a purpose on the show since Mr. Barrow tried (and failed) to seduce him. And that was a couple of seasons ago, wasn’t it?

I’ve put it off as long as possible, but now to the episode’s ending. Over the course of the show, Green (Lord Gillingham’s valet) is not exactly creepy, but there is something disagreeable about his greasy smile and too-eager enthusiasm. The sense of unease he creates for viewers is reinforced by Mr. Bates’s clear dislike for him. Still, nothing prepares you for what happens. Nothing prepares you for his violent attack and rape of Anna, “Downton’s” most likable and kindest character. It is an act so out of step and sensibility with what “Downton Abbey” has become that it feels almost like the worst sort of gimmick, an attempt to shock an audience that was just out for a nice walk in the park.

Simply put, the rape of Anna and the grim aftermath that will surely linger the rest of the season and into future seasons seems too disturbing a turn for a show that is at its core a celebration of fluff, frivolity and fabulous fashion. Yes, there have been numerous deaths on “Downton” and moments of great sorrow and sadness. But to this point, the show had steered clear of any close encounter with evil. The show had been a guilty pleasure. Now the pleasure is, if not gone altogether, certainly muted.

Reactions from fans on Twitter were swift and overwhelmingly negative. A sampling:

 

 

Joe Heim is an editor and writer for The Washington Post magazine where he writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column. He has recently written about candy, not saving for your kids for college, Downton Abbey, the role of presidents as consolers-in-chief and about Washingtonians personal experiences with gun violence.
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