“It contains violent scenes that some viewers may find upsetting.”
Not a normal disclaimer before an episode of Downton, and not a normal episode, with an influx of guest characters, a party with a celebrity musical cameo, and a dramatic hammer blow at the end that was dark and risky new territory for the show. It might cast a shadow over the whole series.
Lord Grantham’s weekender caused a flurry of urgent status updates between Carson and Mrs Hughes (“The Duchess of Yeovil’s no trouble at all.” “Mrs Jefferson? They’re in the Chinese!”) and consternation among the members of the upper-middle class, who found themselves adrift in a sea of proper toffs.
The Duchess of Yeovil was trouble for Branson, since he was stuck talking to her over afternoon tea and found his small talk lacking. His interests – soil acidity, the price of turnips, and setting fire to duchesses to co-opt their land and establish an anarcho-syndicalist commune – were not likely to be shared. Although to be fair, he didn’t directly ask.
Wearing white tie made Branson feel like “a fool” too, a vulnerability that was immediately sniffed out by komodo-dragon-in-a-pinny Edna, who appeared periodically throughout the episode with increasingly large tumblers of whisky and an understanding ear. Branson made it clear that their days of lunching intensively in the village pub must be over, but Edna’s poison teeth are in him.
Also struggling to mix it with the aristocracy: Gregson, a mere newspaper editor who kept trying and failing to bond with Lord G, the potential future pops-in-law. Would his Lordship like a walk after brekkers? No, far too busy. Wine to be chosen, cummerbunds to be alphabetised. How about a chat in the library re his marvellous Gutenberg bible? Sorry – the librarian’s not here and in any case oh look at that over there, I’m going to literally run away into the vestibule. Gregson needed a plan.
Making the most impact above and below stairs were Lord Gillingham and his personal gentleman Green. Lord Gillingham latched on to Lady Mary straight away and chatted her up using the failsafe pulling technique of announcing that he was about to be married, then awkwardly forgetting that she had recently been bereaved. Smooth.
But it worked! Just one sticky moment later – Mary responding to Gillingham’s romantic horse-riding invitation by methodically asking every other party guest if they’d like to come along, to no avail – and they were off across the grounds: Mary side-saddle and looking slightly like Bernie Clifton, Gillingham scoring more love points by offering practical tax advice. Playa got game.
In the servants’ quarters, Bates immediately recognised Green as a malign presence who was hovering too close to Anna, flirting with her as she tried to get on with knitting dried blueberries together to make pot pourri. His raucous card game Racing Demon went down poorly too: a cross between Twister, Whack-a-Mole and Snap, it meant he could jostle with the female staff and, more importantly, it created a lot of noise while Mrs Patmore was trying to have a heart attack in the kitchen.
Mrs Patmore wasn’t really suffering a coronary: Clarkson, the reassuringly Scottish doctor, futuristically diagnosed a panic attack brought on by excessive catering and unpredictable underlings. In particular, M-Patz was vexed by Ivy “slapping it out like a trained seal”, an announcement that could have caused another man down had Alfred overheard it. Alfred’s wan attempts to woo Ivy failed, meanwhile, when he was unable to heroically open a stiff jar of chutney.
Jimmy did manage to get the lid off but, in a terrifically will-this-do plot convenience, he hit his head and sprained his wrist in the process. Molesley stepped in. He’d been reduced to delivering produce to the Abbey for the local shop, a predicament that caused Carson to coin a new euphemism for being lower servant class: “working at Bakewell’s”. For now, Moles was back in service, albeit as a footman, forced to wear embarrassing white gloves as a sign of his downfall.
Upstairs in the party house, anticipation was growing for the performance of Nellie Melba (Kiri Te Kanawa), but the menfolk were more concerned with playing cards: not Racing Demon but good old-fashioned five-card draw. A raw bounder called Sampson had given Gregson, Gillingham and Lord G a suspiciously good hammering the previous evening, harvesting IOUs with unpalatable shiny-faced glee.
Gregson was back for more, landing his suave two-day hustle by counter-fleecing the card sharp and winning back everyone’s money, which he magnanimously returned to Lord G and the others, thus winning his place as a grudgingly tolerated honorary member of the landed gentry.
In order to play more poker, the toffs had snuck out of Dame Nellie’s operatic tour de force, a performance that was otherwise attended by all the guests and staff. What happened next was made worse by every development in Downton being clearly visible ten minutes in advance: Anna innocently whispered to Bates that she was venturing downstairs to hunt for headache medicine, to cries of concern from us at home.
Green followed her down to the deserted kitchen and he wasn’t just a cad, he was a rapist. A bizarre and jarringly horrible scene followed, Nellie Melba’s high notes intercut with Anna’s screams.
After the party, Mrs Hughes found Anna in her room, bruised and frantic – the worst of it being that sweet, sensible Anna had already worked out that telling her husband would mean him taking revenge and going to the gallows. So although Bates knew something was up, Anna has already decided to face the pain and shame alone.
Downton has always been careful at least to acknowledge the grim reality of life 100 years ago for the unlucky majority of the population. It’s not all duck shoots and tangled inheritances. And Joanne Froggatt was disturbingly good as Anna: this cast might not have to do proper acting too often, but when called upon they rarely falter. Yet the aftermath of a rape is drama of an entirely different shade to anything the show has attempted before. This isn’t a situation that can be remedied with one of Julian Fellowes’ trademark jolly coincidences. Let’s hope he knows that.