Sunday, January 26, 2014

Downton Abbey Jumps the Shark: Julian Fellowes reveals a crude sensibility

Julian Fellowes, writer, producer, and creator of the English costume drama, Downton Abbey, has jumped the shark. He has yielded to his lust for higher ratings by including a gratuitous scene of rape in the third episode of Downton Abbey, series 4.

The scene is gratuitous because there is nothing in the character of Anna, the victim, that makes her a candidate for rape. She is smart, competent, and independent. She knows her assailant, yet she places herself in a position where she and he are alone in the servants' quarters while all the rest of the household are listening to an operatic recital in the main hall. She has a headache, she says, though it takes all of her acting skill for Joanne Froggatt to convince the audience that this character needs a headache powder in the middle of a recital.

The scene does not work dramatically. It is reminiscent (perhaps intentionally) of the scene from the Godfather where Michael orders his gangland rivals killed while he is getting married. That scene works well, since it reveals Michael's cold-blooded calculation. Francis Ford Coppola interposes a solemn scene with scenes of sudden violence. The murders are completely predictable within the framework of a gangster movie. Nevertheless, Coppola does not destroy one scene by including the other.

Anna's rape does not work because it shows her leaving her husband, John Bates, a large and sometimes violent man, in the salon while she goes off alone to seek relief for her raging headache, the only one she has ever suffered on the show. Bates simply nods passively as his wife leaves the recital, which is entirely out of character for him. He has shown great empathy for his wife in the past. It would be more in character for him to fetch her a headache powder. The scene thus undermines Bates's character as well as Anna's.

While Fellowes is demonstrating his homage for Coppola, he is completely ruining the segment where Kiri Te Kanawa sings arias to the assembled Downton Abbey residents. The rape scene occurs just after Kanawa sings the first phrase of O Mio Babbino Caro, surely one of the most tender and affecting arias in all of opera. The audience does not hear the second phrase, however. This breaks the cardinal rule of musical theater, which states that the camera must follow the entire song and not break away. The effect, in this case, is to create a mood consonant with a romantic aria and replace it with a scene of violence. Kanawa should bring a lawsuit against Fellowes for eviscerating her role and denigrating her talent.

The repercussions of the scene are horrendous. Anna loses her close, honest relationship with Bates, because she refuses to tell him about the incident and lies when he questions her about her cuts and bruises. Here again, Fellowes undermines Anna's character, as she has never before been anything but competent and well-groomed. Fellowes has no understanding of the nature of rape or of the suffering he is inflicting on rape survivors who may also be fans of the show. Scenes like this force rape survivors to relive their sufferings, much as a soldier with post-traumatic stress relives his experiences on the battlefield. Fellowes includes this scene with no warning. Instead, he revels in the unexpected and shocking nature of the crime.

Finally, the inclusion of a scene of rape in the Downton Abbey household lowers the tone of the entire series to the level of a standard soap opera, where the actors are merely pawns for the writers to exploit. In such programs, every episode can bring a complete alteration of a character's personality. Good, honest people become dishonest and deceitful, modest women become promiscuous.

The previous episode contains this kind of plot-driven scene. The servant, Thomas, conspires to destroy Anna's reputation with her mistress by claiming that Anna has ruined an article of clothing. He does this to save the reputation of a completely worthless servant, Edna. This plot device completely goes against Thomas's self-interests, since Anna's husband, Bates, is the only reason Thomas still has his position at the Abbey. Furthermore, Thomas is gay, so he cannot possibly have any attraction to Edna.

Fellowes does not let details of character development stand in his way. His worst failings come in his failure to retain popular actors for Downton Abbey. Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens both left the show. Fellowes killed both characters off, thus preventing their return. Fans were appalled at the brutal treatment of these actors, but Fellowes once again seemed oblivious to what his audience might feel.

My wife and I will not be watching any more episodes of this program. It has beautiful production values and fine acting, but seems to exist now only to further the egotistic whims of its creator. A shame, that.

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