‘Downton Abbey’ Review: A Violent Damascene Conversion

By  · Published on January 13th, 2014

How badly did you want Mr. Bates to go check on Anna in the servant’s quarters? To descend the stairs, discover the worst and find his fists. Or for Carson to need another bottle of wine. Or for Barrow to get tired of the music. Or for an earthquake to strike – anything to stop what was happening from happening.

Late into the second episode of Downton Abbey, Cora calls Robert’s change-of-mind regarding Edith’s editorial boyfriend a “Damascene Conversion” – a swift alteration evoking St. Paul’s religious swap along the road to Damascus – but the show itself underwent its own conversion last night. A fundamental change that erases the last vestiges of its storybook nature. This is the same show that made light of a man’s death in season one by laboring his body from room to room, the same show that introduced a silly long-lost heir like a writers’ room Hail Mary, and the same show that lives for people using the wrong fork at dinner.

This isn’t that same show anymore.

Almost 30 long-form episode into the series, Downton Abbey has gotten serious. Yes, there have been devastating events, hearts broken and tears shed before, but there’s never been something so viscerally disturbing as what we saw last night. From its placement alongside a soaring, empowered diva to the way it was shot (particularly the barren hallway paired with implicating screams), Mr. Green raping Anna was an angry punch to the soul.

That’s in part because of who the victim was. Anna has consistently been the sweetest character on the entire series, finding good in everyone, enduring a happiness held behind bars and still smiling. The sexual assault offered actress Joanne Froggatt to prove her intensity, but it also blew the wind out of the frivolity featured in the rest of the show. From now on, it’ll be much harder to find mirth in someone having the wrong evening clothes.

As a counterpart, there was another sexual assault that remained mostly invisible, or at least overshadowed. Still plotting (perhaps from a place of infatuation), Edna poured Tom a massive bourbon and later slinked into his bedroom to take full advantage of the effect. In any other episode, it might have dropped a jaw, but after seeing Anna assaulted, Edna’s act become something sinister and heartless.

With these two house-altering events mirroring each other (and remaining as secret to everyone else as Robert’s poker losses), Downton Abbey has set itself up to become a purposeful, fascinating exploration of a singular idea this season. It would be a shame – especially after the dragging on of Mr. Bates’ boring jail time – for either of these developments to be swept under the rug of convenience in an episode or two. Mostly because it will be difficult to get the sounds of one woman’s song overpowering another woman’s cries for help out of our ears without a thorough catharsis.

On the non-traumatic end of the show, Isobel’s continual mourning was handled with a realistic sense of conflicting ideals. For anyone who has lost someone close to them, there is no time limit on grief, no acceptable method of staying reverent to a missing memory. Isobel and her appearance at the dinner party spoke to that fragility while building around an idea shared during Lady Mary and the glamorous pirate’s afternoon ride: that no one is ever alone in their misery.

With the house at its full capacity, we saw characters marked by grief finding their way to that principle. Mr. Gregson attempting to prove himself so he won’t have to be lonely anymore; Mr. Molesley stooping far below his professional stature to fit back into the fold; Tom becoming vulnerable as a fish out of water, finding someone who understands, and Edna exploiting that to be with him.

Ultimately, all the stories of this episode attempted to prove that concept of community while building to the loneliest moment of Anna’s life.

As such, this episode rates high on the Dowager Countess Pearl-Clutch-o-Meter:

Art by Derek Bacon.

Here were the pearl-clutching moments:

See you next week. Hopefully they’ll let us catch our breath. At least we get to go to a jazz club.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.