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Downton Abbey Review: "Episode Two" (Episode 4.02)

January 13, 2014  |  11:45am
<i>Downton Abbey</i> Review: "Episode Two" (Episode 4.02)

Downton Abbey seems intent on reminding us how different things are this season. This week marked the second time in as many episodes that a character has not-so-subtly uttered the line “It’s a changing world,” but the fact remains that the new post-Matthew era has yet to show us anything we haven’t seen before.

A fancy dinner party at Downton serves as an excuse to retread plenty of old ground: Mary kinda-sorta-maybe has a thing for a man who’s engaged to someone else (this time instead of Matthew when he was betrothed to Lavinia, it’s her old pal, Lord Gillingham). Tom’s still uncomfortable with his new upper-class lifestyle, as illustrated by his awkward small-talk with a duchess and his whiskey-fueled bedroom time with Edna the maid. Lord Grantham and Carson are still hung up on tradition and must be coaxed into surrendering their old ways by Cora and her daughters. (This time they’re convinced to lower themselves and share a meal with the singer they’ve hired to perform at their party. What a changing world, indeed.) After Jimmy injures himself while showing off in front of Ivy, Molesley’s called back to Downton to temporarily help out as second footman. Most of these stories felt like they belonged in seasons past, and none were particularly memorable.

And then something we haven’t seen before on Downton Abbey happened. Last week, I noted that the show’s writers seemed unsure about how to handle a happy Anna and Bates. Well, so much for that; this week, they have a little tiff over Anna being friendly with Lord Gillingham’s valet and the rest of the servants, and she heads downstairs to get something for her resulting headache, she’s confronted and brutally raped by the valet. When Mrs. Hughes finds her, Anna swears her to secrecy, insisting Bates can never know because he’d kill the man responsible and get sent back to prison. It was a powerful performance by Joanna Froggatt, and the juxtaposition of her attack with the opera singer’s performance of “O Mio Babbino Caro” (dedicated “to love and lovers”) made for a strong scene, but even this unexpected twist felt in many ways like a step into the past. These two characters have had nothing but strife throughout most of the series, and this latest obstacle seems especially cruel because it reeks of lazy writing. Worst-case scenario: Bates finds out what happens and kills Lord Gillingham’s valet, sticking us with another “Bates gets tried for murder and goes to jail” plot. Best-case scenario: Anna distances herself from her husband in an attempt to mask and cope with what happened to her, this damages their marriage as Bates assumes she is unhappy with him, and we’re left with a retread of the “Anna and Bates keep secrets from each other at the expense of their marriage” route. Neither option feels like a win for viewers.

We’ll just have to keep watching to find out which direction the show will take this in, but I’m more concerned with whether or not we’ll ever actually see anything new on Downton Abbey this season. The teaser for next week hints that we’ll soon meet the show’s first African-American character; maybe then we’ll finally get a glimpse of this changing world we’ve been promised.

Stray observations:
—”Who’s the glamorous pirate?”
—Is Mary only wearing purple now? Is this some sort of thing where she eases herself out of black one color at a time?
—Of course Michael wins over Lord Grantham by winning his money back for him in a poker game. Of course he does.
—”How wonderful to see an estate still in one piece.”
—”What does one say to a singer?”
—Alfred stepping in for Mrs. Patmore after her panic attack is a thread that shows promise. Here’s hoping we see more of ol’ Alfie trying to cook.
—”Sometimes I don’t know who I’m most in mourning for, Matthew or the person I used to be when I was with him.”

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