Web Only / Features » January 26, 2014
Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 4: Stuck in Bates’ Feelings-Swamp
In the game of Downton Abbey, nobody wins as long as Bates is around.
I kind of love that Anna, despite her constant talk of Bates’ pure and untarnished heroism, also implicitly accepts that “occasional relationship-furthering murder” is a known part of his modus operandi.
Here is a startling fact: This week, I discovered that you, the loyal Downton Abbey viewer and/or recap-reader, can have a merry game night with your friends by purchasing “Downton Abbey: The Board Game.” Mind you, it does not exactly sound like a good board game: According to the Daily Mail, the game “starts in the servants' hall where each player is dealt 'destination cards’” and thereafter gets the exciting task of navigating around the Abbey in a timely fashion so as to button up Lady Cora’s dress, or what-have-you. Though it’s basically a game that relies on the questionably entertaining experience of running around doing mundane favors for entitled adults, it also brings to mind the issue of potential penalties and setbacks. In Monopoly, you can get thrown in jail; in Chutes and Ladders, you can slide all the way back to the starting square. And in Candyland, there’s the Molasses Swamp, a hideous and unwished-for destination that prevents real gameplay and causes nothing but frustration. If “Downton Abbey: The Board Game” had such a place, I imagine it would be a big, black square marked “Listen To Bates Talk About His Feelings.”
Yes, in an episode that featured Mrs. Patmore healing her troubled relationship with a sewing machine, Molesley getting cocky about his career trajectory, the Dowager Countess trash-talking innocent young gardeners over potentially stealing her treasured desk accessories, and Lord Grantham doing boring Lord Grantham things—Robert, when unaccompanied by the other characters, is basically the TV equivalent of a screensaver—somehow, nothing managed to be quite so irritating as Bates and his feelings. And there were a lot of them on display.
Anna has moved out of the cottage she shares with Bates and is refusing to speak to him. She is doing this because, should Bates learn about her rape, he will surely murder her rapist. (I kind of love that Anna, despite her constant talk of Bates’ pure and untarnished heroism, also implicitly accepts that “occasional relationship-furthering murder” is a known part of his modus operandi.) Bates decides to resolve this in the way he resolves most problems in life: being as creepy as he can possibly manage. He follows Anna around against her express wishes—uttering Stalker Classics like “I wish to be the first to greet you every morning … and I will keep it up!” and “It’s strange, standing next to you in silence … because I love you!” the entire time—and corners her whenever she is alone to lay guilt-trips on her. When that strategy fails to net him a restraining order, he lurks in darkened corners like the villain of a slasher movie to eavesdrop on her personal conversations. This, at least, pays off, for he hears Anna speaking to Mrs. Hughes about a dark but unspecified secret.
Meanwhile, upstairs: The mail has arrived! Who’s going to get a letter? One for Mary! Two for Lord Grantham! Four for Glen Coco; you go, Glen Coco! AND NONE FOR EDITH, BYE. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for Edith’s post-coital romance: She has received not a word from her recently departed-for-Germany beau. In her ensuing despair, Edith has abandoned her streak of sparkly headbands and halter gowns, and has gone back to dressing like a 1970s office couch, donning a variety of very fancy bags with arm and neck holes cut in them, in colors like “shag carpet rust” and “kitchen stove green.” Mary, too, is depressed, in this case because Lord Gillingham—whom she told to marry another woman last week—has, indeed, gotten engaged to another woman. And Branson is depressed because he’s beginning to doubt his integrity as a socialist, which is a fact he explains while standing in a mansion, wearing a tuxedo and unwinding from a busy day of evicting peasants for getting behind on their rent. Oh, Branson. Such a pillar of rectitude, that guy.
Meanwhile, back downstairs, the Bobbsey Twins of Sex—Daisy, Not-Daisy, Tall Blonde Manservant, and Short Blonde Manservant—are making alarming progress in developing individual personalities, such that I believe, at this point, I may actually be able to remember their names.
Daisy is Daisy; her distinguishing characteristics are being tiny and geeking out in the cutest possible manner this week when she gets to use the new sewing machine. Short Blonde Manservant is James; he shall hereafter be referred to as Fun James, because he affirms that he “only cares about having fun” about eight times per episode and seems kind of drunk all the time. Nothing definite, mind you: Just lots of squinting and slurring and disheveled hair, such that the logical interpretation of most of his scenes is “Uh-oh, James is drunk.” This is either a hilarious choice on the actor’s part—like, maybe Fun James is actually having a little TOO much fun at work, and nobody has noticed yet because he sticks to vodka—or else the actor is actually drunk at work, due to his despair over the fact that even his mother isn’t totally sure which guy he plays on Downton Abbey. Not-Daisy continues to Not Be Daisy.
And, making such bold strides in non-interchangeability that he even has his own plot line, we have Tall Blonde Manservant, whose name is Alfred. He has decided to be a chef and is being trained to cook by Daisy, so that he may enter culinary school. She teaches him to make “tarts with an egg and cheese filling,” which I believe may be an adorable old-fashioned English term for “Hot Pockets.” Alas, they are not hot enough for the Ritz, where Alfred’s examination is conducted by a tiny, extremely French elf who just asks everyone the appropriate French names for food—poches chaudes, Alfred! Poches chaudes!—and sneers at Alfred’s footman background. Alfred is therefore kicked back to the Abbey. “I can’t see much fun in a life chained to a stove,” affirms Fun James, before wandering off, presumably to vomit in Carson’s shoes.
Well. That’s enough diversions for today. We’ve thrown the dice, the roll was bad, and it’s time to go back to the accursed Molasses Swamp of Bates and His Feelings. Rather than creepily intimidating his wife to get what he wants, Bates comes up with an innovative strategy of creepily intimidating an entirely different woman. He corners Mrs. Hughes and deploys guilt-trips and emotional blackmail—he’ll quit his job and leave the Abbey forever unless she tells him everything, right now—to get what he wants.
Which he does get, for the most part. Hughes tells Bates about the assault. She also makes up a lie about the assailant being an unknown villager who broke into the Abbey and explicitly warns Bates that she could not divulge any more “if you threatened me with a knife,” because Hughes, too, is strangely accepting of the fact that Bates tends to kill people when he’s upset with them. Bates cries alone in a dark hallway before he and Anna are reconciled. Cue tears, smiling, pain, declarations of love, etcetera.
Aside from the feminist issues with this plot line—note that Anna, the actual victim in this scenario, is defined by her need to protect her husband and her rapist from harm; once again, she is not the most important person in the story of her own rape—I honestly cannot find it within myself to care about the resolution to one more “Anna and Bates are separated due to horrible circumstances” plot line. Bates and Anna are always being separated. The circumstances are always horrible. And this is because the show knows, just as we do, that Bates and Anna are not actually very interesting. If the two of them ever wound up in a functional marriage for more than three seconds—no sexual assault, no imprisonment, no blackmail, no curses laid upon them by an evil sorcerer—they’d probably run out of things to say to each other. Instead, their scenes would be comprised of the two actors just sort of staring grimly into the middle distance until the camera cut back to Thomas.
But we need not fear. For, shortly before the camera cuts to black and the credits roll, Bates creeps up on Mrs. Hughes and more or less openly avows his intention to murder the ever-living crap out of Anna’s rapist. And so, we come to the true point of Anna’s harrowing ordeal: It provides yet another excuse for Bates’ criminal inclinations. This isn’t sensitive or interesting, and it’s certainly not new. As long as Bates is a player in the grand game of Downton Abbey, viewers will always lose.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times staff writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady