Rape scenes are a minefield. You can’t show someone forcing themselves on another person and expect viewers to applaud your efforts; all you can do is treat the victim’s story with sensitivity. This is enough of a problem when a film or TV show absolutely must feature a rape scene, but when one is inserted into a storyline simply to spice things up, it’s bound to read as cheap and exploitative.
Such was the case with last evening’s episode of Downton Abbey, which included a scene that alternated between shots of Anna being viciously raped by Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green, and the famous opera singer Dame Nellie Melba performing for all the titled British folks, as well as the help and Anna’s none-the-wiser husband, Bates. It was clumsily done, and its timing — at a moment when the show has killed off some of its best characters and lost most of its edge — means it could signal the final dagger in the show we once loved. The scene was poorly handled in itself, but even worse, it felt as if Anna’s rape was simply a plot device to shake things up in a season that is (so far) lacking serious momentum.
So, where do we go from here? The only bright side of the latest installment is that one of the darkest moments in the show’s four seasons came toward the end of an episode that, while comparatively tamer than Mr. Green hitting and forcing himself on Anna, really offered up very little of interest. There was a big party at Downton with a bunch of other English aristocrats, Lord Grantham picked out some wine, and the Dowager Countess uttered one of her famous lines that could very well sum up the entire show from start to finish: “If I ever search for logic, I should not search for it among the English upper class!” Carson acted like a racist jerk, deciding that the world-famous Dame Nellie Melba was good enough to sing for royalty, but too Australian to dine with English lords. Tom felt bad about hanging out with rich people, got drunk, and hooked back up with Edna — which we know can only lead to bad things.
But it all feels really lost among Anna’s cries and the poorly placed opera music, which seems meant to both contrast with her suffering and provide a certain gravitas. Like the first two hours of the season, this episode wasn’t very good. What made it worse, though, was that it used rape to liven up a boring season. Now, we can only hope that the show can fix itself up after perhaps its lowest point to date.