Things just keep getting more and more awkward around Downton just a week after Anna was raped by Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green. Mrs. Hughes tries to help Tom by threatening Edna, who claims she could be pregnant after their drunken hookup, telling her, “First I’ll lock you in this room. Then when he’s arrived, I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down if that’s what it takes.” The head housekeeper’s threat comes after confronting the lady’s maid who is trying to corner Tom into marriage. These attempts to scare her into telling the truth and stay out of Tom’s life come too soon after what may have been the show’s Waterloo, extending an unfortunate new trend on the show of violence and threats towards female characters. Is Edna a bad apple? I guess that depends where you feel other characters rank in terms of their willingness to step over others to get what they want. But a threat like that only expands the black cloud that has been hovering atop our favorite estate. We’re meant to believe that Hughes is telling Edna that she’d tear her clothes off and forcibly hold her down while a doctor examines her to see if she’s pregnant or not would be for good, but there is something very wrong with the idea of any person, no matter how evil you might think they are, being threatened in such a way.
Julian Fellowes is certainly dealing with being backed into a corner this season. How plots like Anna’s rape could in any way benefit the show is yet to be seen, and the show’s lack of diversity is another issue he has had to speak about more than a few times. To his credit, Fellowes has said that he’d like to make the show more ethnically diverse, but only when it was “historically believable.” That, of course, is an issue since Lord Grantham’s neck of the woods in the early 20th century wasn’t exactly a hotspot for people of color. Dealing with the period he has chosen for his show means that Fellowes has to try and figure out the right scenario for when and where he can introduce non-white characters. Now, after four seasons, we get some variety on the show in the form of a jazz singer who dares to dance with Rose, making the rest of the Downton crew who witness it incredibly uncomfortable.
The thing is, yes, this is probably historically accurate: white people in 1920s England — especially aristocratic white people — would probably get upset about one of their own dancing with a black man. So, for the most part, Fellowes did portray something that could be considered “historically believable.” But he couldn’t get a little more creative?
There may just be too much that Fellowes, as the show’s creator and writer, has to contend with. Downton Abbey can’t be an easy show to write since you are confined to a very strict time and set of characters, and stepping a half-inch over the line of what might be considered reality to those characters and their time would seem egregious. Fellowes is tasked with making the show believable while providing a story that is equally interesting to watch both in terms of keeping our attention and looking great. Thankfully he always has Lady Mary as his old reliable fallback plan. It comes as no surprise that we’re back to the widowed Lady Mary being proposed to by the nearly-engaged Lord Gillingham. Mary unsurprisingly turns down his advances. She is the one character on this show who can bounce back or deflect from any possible scandal or not be looked at as damaged even though she is a young mother with one husband already in the grave. She is also, oddly, the only person we have to both root for and dislike at the same time; a sad thing since that was the secret sauce that worked so well in the Downton stew for so long. You loved to hate some of the characters on the show, but now you just pity Mary while wishing she’d just move on already and maybe become a bit more of a dynamic character. The many loves and heartbreaks in her life are topics that Fellowes has been able to draw from for quite some time, but there is that whole adage about going to the well one-too-many times. Yet the fact remains that no other wells have presented themselves so far. We’re stuck between the same old stuff, and some really awkward attempts at growth. Until Fellowes can excel in the latter and spruce up the former, Downton Abbey will continue to suffer from this fourth season funk that it can’t seem to shake off.