Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 5: Pushing Progress

Julian Fellowes wields his drama for serious reflection on the present-day issues of racism and sexual assault.

This week, Downton Abbey played out some familiar story lines, but the conflict between pomp and circumstance (tradition and reality) played out in a way that moved the story forward - a movement sometimes lacking in the Abbey.

Just when I thought that Fellowes was going to abandon the interracial dating story that he teased earlier in the season, cousin Rose throws the whole household into the deep end.

It is Robert’s birthday, and  Rose has arranged a surprise for him: she has invited a jazz band to perform after dinner. It’s the same band that she, Tom and Mary saw at the club in London.

When the black bandleader, Jack Ross, arrives downstairs, the servants’ collective reaction is somewhere between awed and appalled. However, they are not overtly prejudiced; their surprise is a discomfort with unchartered territory and concern about the social ramifications that may come from Jack Ross’s presence in the Abbey.

The family reacting to the arrival of jazz band leader Jack Ross

Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ conversation with Jack about where he’s from and if he’s ever been to Africa highlights the fact that, of all the changes shaking up the way of life these two are used to, they are not opposed to the acceptance of black people into society - even if they still have a complicated relationship with the history of slavery and the realities of integration.

“Mr. Ross, you’ve uncovered something about the past Mr. Carson doesn’t approve of!” Mrs. Hughes quipped. “Well done.”

Slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833, but just like in the United States, the movement for true racial equality did not take off until many years later. At the time of this episode, the Pan Africanist movement was just becoming vocal in opposition to racism and colonization of Africa by European nations.

The Pan African Congress, which began in 1919 and lasted through 1994, was a series of seven meetings of worldwide leaders in the movement to recognize the injustice of European colonization, foster solidarity among displaced African peoples across the world, and call for the decolonization and independence of African nations and peoples. The summer of 1922, when this episode is set, falls right between the second (1921) and third (1923) congresses, both held in London. The Cardiff race riots are still fresh. These are tumultuous times for race relations in Britain, and I’m glad that the conflict is coming to Downton.

I hope they deal with race in as nuanced a way as they have dealt with the subject of rape this season. The series’ first few episodes drew outrage when they aired in Britain in October and among American feminists last month, who excoriated the series for its supposedly gratuitous use of sexual violence to drum up ratings. However, had Jessica Valenti (for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration) actually watched the season, and seen its arc, she might have appreciated the way the show illustrated the effect of sexual assault on women. 

That is especially true for this episode, which contained Anna’s best line of the entire season so far:

“I’m not a victim. That’s not who I am. The worst part is that you see me as a victim.”

Bates’ answer is chivalrous and just a tad dismissive, but still: the writers’ handling of Anna’s pain (not to mention Joanne Froggatt’s disarming acting), coupled with her refusal to let the assault rule her life, are admirable. Would I like her to go to the authorities? Yes. But as I said in my review of that episode, her options were limited in 1922. The authorities may not have been able (or willing) to do anything for her. At the very least, because of the status of women at the time, she would not have believed she had a choice.

In this episode, Bates and Anna plan a nice date at the posh Neverbee hotel, hoping to spend a night away from the emotional struggle they continue to deal with. After a moment of class consternation at the door, they sit down to a classy meal, but neither is unable to escape the weight of the assault. 

Again, just as he did with the Gianni Schicchi aria during the assult, Fellowes uses classical music to convey symbolic meaning. As the couple sits down, the pianist is playing Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 3, commonly known as “Tristesse,” or “sadness.” The piece, which oscillates between a tragic descending melody and a jaunty, hesitant dance of escape, perfectly captures the state of being in which they are both stuck.

The series continued its tackling of the subject of sexual assault in this week’s episode, when Jimmy takes Ivy to a movie, gropes her and accuses her of leading him on. She stands her ground, and later discusses the issue with Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore. The older women validate that Jimmy was out of line, but warn her against playing with people’s feelings (both friends and suitors) without thinking about the consequences.

It is these kinds of complex (okay, mildly complex, but still bold) conversations and subtle handling of the intricacies of this subject matter that keeps me invested in this show, and its potential to use a historical setting to explore the prejudices and ideals of the present.

One last thought this week: moving forward, I hope to see more of Cora. Elizabeth McGovern has so much more potential, and in the past couple of seasons, we haven’t seen much character development for her. There was that time she was pregnant. She used to be a much more vocal advocate of modern values in a tradition-bound household. But recently, she’s just been a sweet go-with-the-flow kind of gal. 

This season has set up a number of opportunities for Cora to grow as a character. Maybe as the racism issue comes to the fore, or as Mary deals with Charles Blake’s evaluation and opposition to their way of life, Cora’s democratic American spirit will re-emerge. Or maybe, as Edith deals with her unexpected and taboo pregnancy, Cora’s will come to her aid as a mother and fellow woman. C’mon, Julian. Let’s get back to that spirit of woman power that I so loved about the season’s pilot.

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