***This post is inspired by a recent broadcast of Downton Abbey in the US, and contains spoilers.***
When it comes to violence in the media, I have a few criteria I like to follow:
(As a note: I’m not a big fan of violence. I don’t condone it. I would love a world without violence, and maybe someday such a world will exist.)
1. Is it gratuitous? My gratuity line is significantly lower than most of Hollywood–thanks to my Walt Disney-colored glasses and parenthood–but I can appreciate that some violence is supposed to be there. For instance, you can’t have Romeo and Juliet without the death of Tybalt, and The Shining or Titanic wouldn’t have made such an impact without characters freezing to death. But did Johnny Depp really need his eyes ripped out in Once Upon a Time in Mexico or did Doc really need to chop off his fingers in Escape from Alcatraz?
2. The obvious intent behind the film. I allow Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock to get away with their violence because they are either presenting dark satire or handle the violence artfully. A movie like Caligula haunts me with its gratuitous sexual violence (it is an art porn, as it were), as do many horror movies. It may be sacrilegious, but I even find the two major acts of violence done to Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back unnecessary. There isn’t significant character transformation by his experiences.
3. Who is the violence against? Who doesn’t cheer when the Evil Queen falls to her death?
(I don’t buy into the argument that violence in media causes violence in real life. Violent people are violent in their nature. Violence in media is a response to something in the culture. Think there is too much violence? Then, please, rethink what media you consume. Through embargo can we get the moguls to give us new themes. But if 100 years of Hollywood is any indicator, we like the catharsis of violence. Victorian repression doesn’t work either. Oh well.)
This is all getting me to Downton Abbey‘s recent episode, Season Four Episode 2. I binge-watched the entire show, since it airs the hour before Sherlock, which returns this weekend with Season 3. It is well-written, such that I imagine that fans cried at the same points, laughed at the same scenes, held their breath at the same time. The characters are fairly black and white. By the end of the first episode in which they appear, we know who to love, who to hate, and who to pity.
Come to think of it, Aristotle would be pleased with this show, if he were writing The Poetics today.
So Anna’s brutal rape is a matter of controversy. Not only is she one of the most loved and selfless characters, but how it was presented recalls the old cinematic trick of careful montage editing. While an opera singer performs for the entire house (upstairs and downstairs), her screams echo through an empty hallway. The performance is full of light, while the hallway is dark. I’m not remembering which silent film dealt with a rape in much the same fashion. This type of distancing effect tugs at our heartstrings: we are connected to the show (if you’re a faithful watcher), but this scene confuses us. Anger for Anna or joy at operatic beauty?
A commentary I read pointed out that the scandal of her situation could ruin her career as a Lady’s Maid and mark her publicly forever. Such is British society. Julian Fellows did her a favor of writing her attacker from her class, even if she can never have justice. Another commentary, or maybe the same one, suggests that how this is handled in coming episodes will make or break the season. And Fellows himself suggests that it had to be Anna.
Even knowing writer’s intent and show purpose, I’m not in favor of this one. If Fellows needed to rape Anna, did we really have to see it? After all, we were spared Matthew’s war and car accidents, Thomas’s coward shot (how on earth did he get away with that?!), Cora’s fall, and do on. So why this?
Yet another commentary suggests that this event is designed to speak to the fate of Downton Abbey in a time when the family itself is losing its grip. Downton Abbey is meant to represent a microcosm. Through the disguise of a period piece, I suspect the primary commentary is about the tension between nostalgia and the ever-changing face of the planet. Through a piece at the time when Britain stopped being an empire and the class divide became less rigid, we can read a commentary about the connectivity of the world and how easy we can go from place to place through the Internet. How much easier it is to be a self-made person with the right resources, or not.
Perhaps Anna represents Britain, or the West, or the Earth. Perhaps the rape of her is the rape of our planet of her resources. I suppose I’ll know more on Sunday.
*Please no spoilers about what happens next if you already know.*