Downton Abbey’s Epic Fail, and What We Can Learn From It

** Spoiler alert/Trigger warning: If you’re a Downton Abbey fan who has not yet seen the most recent episode, which aired this past Sunday, January 12, in the US, spoilers are ahead in this blog post. Also, there is no explicit trigger warning for sexual violence on the episode, but there should be.

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’re already well-aware of the show’s appeal factors, but for the rest of you, I’ll give you a brief rundown: It’s a British period drama about English aristocrats and the servants who work for them in the years leading up to, during, and after WWI. Pretty much everyone is white, and among all those white folks, there’s a lot of tea drinking, lavish costumes, light humor, and no small amount of snark. And, of course, there’s drama.

But the appeal of Downton, at least until Sunday’s episode, has always been the incredible restraint with which that drama has been handled. Much of it is entirely inconsequential to anyone who’s not a member of the early 20th century landed gentry — missing cufflinks, dinner served from the wrong side, etc. — and even when there is a genuinely catastrophic event, such as the death of one of the show’s main characters, it is handled with a subtlety and gentility that hits the appropriate emotional notes without leaving the viewer feeling their concern for beloved characters has been taken advantage of and used against them. Or such was the case before Sunday’s episode.

You can read an in-depth recap of Sunday’s episode here, but suffice it to say that all but the last 8 minutes were traditional Downton fare, with potential suitors, dinner guest drama, and a jar of jam breaking in the kitchen (no, for real, that was a whole thing). So when, in the final few minutes, we see Anna, arguably the most morally upright character on the show, downing Alka Seltzer alone in the empty kitchen while the rest of the household are upstairs listening to a performance from a visiting opera singer, my first thought was, “Oh dear, another health crisis storyline.” It wasn’t until Anna turned around to find herself face-to-face with a visiting valet whose previously open, charming face is suddenly glowering with menace (subtle!) that I realized the direction the scene was headed. Even so, this is Downton Abbey, not Law & Order: SVU. Surely someone would burst in at the last minute and stop him, right? Right?! Wrong.

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