Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: Rape story mars Downton Abbey finale

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TV reviewer Chris Philpott takes in the season finale of Downton Abbey, and says it was very nearly ruined by an unnecessary rape storyline.
Joanne Frogatt as Anna Smith in Downton Abbey. Photo / AP
Joanne Frogatt as Anna Smith in Downton Abbey. Photo / AP

The latest season of Downton Abbey, which came to a close this week (Monday, 8.35pm on Prime), broke one of the biggest rules on television: never use rape as a plot point when anything else will do the job. It nearly ruined the entire season.

It wasn't all bad. The fourth season of Downton Abbey was actually pretty good when it engrossed itself in discussions about the fate of the estate, or spent time on the attitudes toward black people, courtesy of Lady Rose's fledgling affair with Mr Ross, a jazz singer from a London nightclub.

The show probably didn't go far enough into the outright bigotry of the upper class toward coloured lower class folk at that time, but there was the seed of an idea there, more than enough to make Lady Mary's confrontation of the young musician one of the most riveting moments in the finale.

I like the mysterious disappearance of Mr Gregson and Edith's pregnancy, too. Young women were often forced away from home to give birth out of wedlock, a practice which carried on into the sixties here in New Zealand (and was very well dramatised in local film Piece Of My Heart).

Surely there is a decent storyline in there when the show comes back next year.

It wasn't all good. I could care less about the "desire of suitors" lining up for recent widow Mary; just ask that Turkish guy from season one what it's like hopping into bed with her. I'm also baffled as to why Thomas still acts like a villain. The guy had motive early on (Bates stole his job as valet to Lord Grantham), but what does he have to gain now? It is forgivable though - melodrama comes with the soapy territory in which the Crawley's exist.

The most infuriating problem this season, and an unforgivable problem at that, is easily the rape storyline involving poor Anna's assault at the hands of the evil Mr Green, and the unmitigated writing disaster that took place in its wake.

It appeared to me that head writer Julian Fellowes used the sexual assault of one of the most beloved characters on the show to simply drive a wedge between her and Mr Bates.

We didn't really spend any time on the emotional fallout, on the effect the attack had on Anna. While she mentioned that she blamed herself a few times, hinting at her mental state, Anna mostly fretted that Bates would kill Green if he ever found out - and that mostly just calls her loyalty to Bates into question. If she is concerned that Bates would kill Green, that probably means she thinks he killed his ex-wife.

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That wasn't even the worst of it. Bates blackmailed Mrs Hughes into revealing what had happened - itself a form of emotional abuse - and fired a few knowing stares at Green because, for some reason, the decision was made to keep Green returning to the estate.

In a fit of insanity, Mrs Hughes confronted Green - a known sex offender - alone in the staff room at night, which made me jump out of my seat yelling, "What on earth are you doing, you fool!"

Next season promises a murder mystery involving the now-deceased Mr Green and Mr Bates, the would-be killer.

And that was it. Rape storyline done.

Look, if you want to drive a wedge between Anna and Bates, that is absolutely fine - just have her walk in on him in a compromising position with some housemaid.

Heck, even if you wanted to include the "Anna hates herself" angle, just have someone - maybe Mrs Hughes - walk in and interrupt Green before he can complete such a heinous act.

The point is, I don't think rape should be used as a plot point on a scripted drama unless there is nothing else that can be used in its place. There are exceptions, I suppose.

Procedural dramas often use rape as the crime of the week, but those shows are concerned with the crime-solving process, not the characters involved.

But a show like Downton Abbey is all about the characters. A good show gets you invested in characters, concerned for their well-being. Avoiding the emotional angle meant that any investment in character was undermined by how the story played out, and constitutes a huge blunder on the part of the writers.

The show didn't even do a good job of portraying cultural attitude toward this kind of crime, which is a shame since Downton has been pretty good at playing with post-Edwardian society. Anna turned down assistance from authorities multiple times, and it was always explained away by her concern that Bates would kill Green - and, again, that was it.

This decision by the writers meant that we missed out on social commentary about the marginalising of women and the patriarchal nature of society in post-war England, and even the culture of victim-blaming - "She was flirting with the guy, she brought it on herself" - that still carries on to this day.

I know Downton Abbey is a drama and I know they are looking for storylines, but rape is a serious crime with real emotional repercussions that should have been, nay deserved, to be explored.

It felt like the writers here didn't try to tackle any of that side of the assault on Anna, instead sweeping her feelings under the rug with a soothing, "I know, I know" from Mrs Hughes. Maybe attitudes toward sexual assault haven't changed all that much after all.

It's a real shame because it throws a pall over an otherwise entertaining and interesting season.

* Chris Philpott is a regular columnist, blogger and TV expert for nzherald.co.nz.

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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