‘Downton Abbey’ Review: The Broken Heart and the Broken Neck

By  · Published on January 21st, 2014

Downton Abbey was nice enough to give us time to exhale from last week’s shocking sexual assault, but it also made quick work of several romances and a fiendish plot to use an empty uterus as a means of social advancement. In other words, it was a lighter patchwork of dramatic gymnastics following the plunge.

Joanne Froggatt continues to prove herself a standout as Anna – dealing with the aftermath of rape with a frustratingly realistic, calm desperation. They’ve given her a logical response to not being vocal (that Mr. Bates would murder her attacker and end up with his neck stretched after all) alongside the pang of profoundly personal, deeply emotional reasons not to bring a despicable asshole to justice. She feels tainted, and it’s easy to imagine that she’d want to keep that shameful sentiment to herself to avoid risking an exposing stare from the court of public opinion. For a show that’s pushed hard against the progress of the time, it’s still easy to imagine a Downton where Anna is looked down upon through no fault of her own.

So we get a grueling tennis match between her and Mrs. Hughes, airing every good point from every angled mindset on what to do after such an intimate violation. When Anna attempts to create a silent shield for Bates, saying “better a broken heart than a broken neck,” she might as well be speaking about herself.

Meanwhile, Lord Gillingham The Pirate proved to offer a piece of his own heart in order to get Mary’s beating again. A sacrificial lamb, he’s exited stage left with a ring still in his pocket and the fleeting hope in the form of Mary’s regret that we’ll see him again when Matthew’s death isn’t still occupying her every thought. Ultimately, he boils down to a plot tool, but he’s been a fun diversion as the Sensible Pixie Dream Man of Downton. The broken heart whose consolation prize is an unseen debutante who he won’t make a fool of.

And then there’s the broken neck of the episode – another plot tool, one the show’s used before. Edna’s short return and whiskey-soaked sexual advance was annoying before but felt wholly unnecessary after she risked her neck to become a lady and fell firmly on her face. She existed solely last season to tempt Tom, push too far and get booted. She existed solely this season to tempt Tom, push even further and get booted.

Her scheme was abhorrent, but her expulsion from the house was truly bizarre considering that if they weren’t wearing Trojans, there’s still an odds-on chance that she’s pregnant. Mrs. Hughes waving around a book on the pull-out method doesn’t change the nature of impregnation, so as the show asks us to weep for the attack on an innocent in Anna, it’s also asking us to turn a blind eye to a wicked woman who’s potentially filled with a fatherless child. If there were a chance for her to return with a little bundle of unhappiness, it was tossed aside by the accusation that she was planning to get some other donor to cuckold poor Tom.

And what if he really did get her pregnant on the first try? She might end up in the arms of Isobel like long-forgotten Ethel because, after all, it’s clear they don’t mind repeating storylines.

On that front, Lady Edith is hopefully not in for a repeat of having the rug pulled out from under her, even as time shoves her boyfriend Michael Gregson toward Germany and the labyrinthine paperwork he’ll need to get a divorce and a marriage. This episode – really, Rosamund – reminded us of the danger Edith’s in of losing her public status. It’s a danger that’s almost laughable in the face of what else we’ve seen, in the face of Edith’s age, and in the face of her earlier prospects. You can’t spend season after season mocking Edith for not being marriage material and then expect a warning about her becoming un-marryable if she pursues the man she loves to stick. If she’s doing the math, staying with the man heading for the disgraced, economically desolate country is still her best bet. Unfortunately, the cloud of catastrophe looms over her, so it’s possible that she’s simply doomed to be the show’s Charlie Brown, perpetually having a broken heart. Either that, or it’s going to be a shock when Edith kills Hitler in the final season.

Interestingly, most of her romance has played out in secret, which made it necessary for an unnamed maid to catch her slinking in just before breakfast. Even with Gregson’s goal of making Edith’s father not dislike him (success!), their entire courtship has never felt embedded in the main story – always off to the side, always a train ride away from what’s going on.

And yet London seems to be playing more and more of a role in what happens to our Downton crew. Just as the show asks us to give consideration to Edna’s strange bedding scheme and its complicated outcome, it also doesn’t shy away from showing characters we appreciate in a negative light. Or vice versa. No one but Rose comes away clean (and human) in the racially-motivated rudeness at the jazz club. Jack Ross is a new wrench thrown into the system, but even as we build a pedestal for Tom or Mary or the others, it’s always nice to have a reminder that they are products of a different time.

For the most part, everyone who offered their heart got it broken this episode, and everyone who stuck out their neck got it broken. Here’s out it stacked up on the Dowager Countess Pearl-Clutch-o-Meter:

Here were the pearl-clutching moments:

Grab a spoon and butcher’s knife because next week we’re all testing to become chefs.

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