Downton Abbey is better when it avoids the tough stuff

Series five is back to focusing on what it does best: social scandals, elderly flirtations and tin baths’s full of witty one-liners, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

Downton Abbey might be suffering a little in the ratings this year – each week has seen fewer and fewer people tuning into watch – but, if you ask me, the series is in a different class from last year’s.

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Mainly because it’s back to focusing on what it does best: social scandals, elderly flirtations and tin baths’s full of witty one-liners.

Julian Fellowes took a massive risk last year when he aired episode three, the hour which saw lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) attacked and raped by visiting valet Green (Nigel Harman). And it was a risk that not only sparked outrage – and hundreds of Ofcom complaints – but marred the rest of the series. 

It might have been a historically accurate and awful reality, but the scene was so at odds with what Downton is and why viewers love it.

Since that episode, the show has been accused of ‘fridging’ – when something tragic happens to a female character with the only purpose being to cause a reaction in a male character – and writers and commentators have been criticised for the way the show has dealt with and discussed the rape.

The problem is that the incident was so at odds with what makes Downton great – the sparring, the strange social formalities, the period dress, the gentle matters of the heart – that there was no way the two could work well alongside one another. How can you laugh about someone’s missing letter opener when another character is dealing with the repercussions of a serious sexual assault?

Sure, halfway through series five the storyline is still dragging on – the implications of the rape being that Bates and now Anna are being questioned as part of the police investigation into the death of Green – but the further we move away from that episode, the better.

It’s not that I think we should never be faced with difficulties or unpleasantness in period drama. Some storylines – Edith’s illegitimate child, Bates’ prison sentence, the difficulties Thomas faces as a gay man, even Sybil’s death – have been dark yet provided interesting period insights. 

And we can’t shy away from the realities of violent crime altogether. These things need to be explored, exposed and dealt with – and sometimes TV is a great way to open up discussion and question the way we think. 

But Downton Abbey is just not the forum for serious sexual crimes. How could an outdated reaction to Anna’s ordeal have ever shed any light on our current issues with sexual assault anyway? 

As series five has so far proved, ITV’s beloved period drama is better when it sticks to what it does best. 

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Downton Abbey continues on Sunday on ITV