Shouted expletives, wild cheering and forlorn gasps directed at Sunday evening television are typically reserved for football. But not this past week. During this Sunday’s dramatic “Downton Abbey,” viewers across the nation rooted for their favorite resident of Downton Abbey, a 1920s mansion that is a bastion of classism and conservatism in the face of the eroding British aristocracy. Typically a show dealing with all the snobbery associated with the noble Grantham clan, this episode was revolutionary and relevant in its treatment of race, sex, rape and class.
Replacing the show’s typical slow and artistic beginning (think a sunrise over the massive estate fading into a scene where the kitchen maids mix porridge), this episode gets dirty right away. Tom Branson, the chauffeur who married one of Lord Grantham’s daughters, is simultaneously dealing with his wife’s death and his feelings of inadequacy in the aristocratic world he now finds himself in. Last episode, Tom drowned his sorrows in gin.
This episode, it is revealed that Tom, in his inebriation, hopped into bed with a maid. It is the one night stand from hell. Not only does Tom inevitably have to deal with 20th-century encapsulations of honor, class and guilt, the maid he slept with claims there is chance she is pregnant. She tries to wheedle Tom into marrying her, seizing an opportunity to climb the rigid social ladder of her time. Of course, “affluenza” is not just a disease that plagues our time. This ignominious almost-scandal is neatly cleaned up for Tom, who faces no repercussions as the conniving (and decidedly not pregnant) maid is sent away.
The spirit of Tom’s indiscretion seeps into the rest of the house, pervading a sense of change in the two firmly patrician daughters of Lord Grantham. Lady Edith is the profoundly desperate friend whom we all have. Having been left at the altar by an old and crippled man, she is ready to commit to anyone who claims to love her. In this episode, not only does she sign an “authority contract” with her married boyfriend who is about to jet off to pre-World War Two Germany (he is something less than a catch), she spends the night with him. This is beyond scandalous. Lady Edith is bargaining with the only commodity she has. Perhaps mirroring the attitude of our own society, Lady Edith’s disapproving aunt scolds, “A lot may be changing, but some things stay the same.”
Lady Mary, the eldest Grantham daughter, has an equally dramatic romantic encounter in this episode, albeit more traditional. Mary, who is still grieving her dead husband (Dan Stevens abruptly left the show last season, throwing Lady Mary’s character arc completely off track) is nonetheless pursued by the handsome Lord Gillingham. Yes, Gillingham. Despite his ridiculous name, Lord Gillingham is attractive and rashly in love with Lady Mary. In an unexpected proposal straight out of a Jane Austen novel, he claims “I’ll never love again as I love you in this moment.”
She refuses his suit—after all, her husband is only six months in the grave—but in the “Downton Abbey” fashion of long-drawn-out plots, the audience should expect to see more of the dashing Lord Gillingham. The couple parts with a passionate kiss in the English country side, and Lady Mary’s enthusiastic participation makes it clear this liaison is not quite resolved.
Away from the glittering follies of Lady Mary and Lady Edith, the house is dealing with the very real implications of rape. Anna, the maid who was violently and brutally raped last episode, is stuck in a miserable place. She is obviously coping with extreme psychological trauma but is unable to tell her husband for a legitimate fear that he will kill her rapist.
Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, encourages Anna to report the rape, saying that no woman should have to deal with a violation of her most basic human rights. In this regard, “Downton Abbey’s” treatment of rape is valiant. It reflects the changing momentum of the show toward real issues, and, although much is undetermined, suggests a more heady and profound plot.
Despite all of this, perhaps the biggest legacy of this episode is a relatively unshocking element to modern audiences: the introduction of the first black character. Diversity is a hot issue in television these days. “Downton Abbey,” in its refreshing attempt to step firmly into the 20th century, succumbs to diversity pressure, despite there being infinitesimal numbers of black servants or black aristocrats during the time period (in fact, the introduction of the first black British aristocrat only happened in June 2013).
Perhaps because of this, “Downton Abbey” milks the opportunity to show a black character. A singer at a respectable jazz club, they place Mr. Ross in front of a perfectly white curtain. He is given plenty of air time, probably an unnecessary amount for any other background singer. The scene is astoundingly climatic in its simplicity.
“Downton Abbey” is finally embracing change, and the show wants its audience to notice it. The show is at last maturing, aging just as the fine wine Lord Grantham obsesses over instead of merely discussing it.