Let’s Talk Downton Abbey and Story — For What Is Story But Conflict?

DowntonAbbey(Spoiler alert) I’ve been thinking about the BBC television show Downton Abbey. As beloved as the show is, it also has a ton of dissatisfied customers. Maybe that’s the price of making it big time — the more people love you, the more they also hate you.

Me, I’m wondering what the fuss is about. Here’s the spoiler: Anna the lady’s maid gets raped.

Me, I’m thinking, Great! Conflict, people, conflict! And if fans were disturbed or distraught or uncomfortable or shocked by this turn of events for a most beloved character, well then, I say this proves rather than disproves some good-ass storytelling. (I was shocked too, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t take it personally for criminy’s sake.) Rape is devastating and all too common. Why shouldn’t the show address the issue?

Seriously. We need conflict. Story doesn’t survive without it. Last season folks griped that the show wasn’t as exciting as it had been. I agreed — even though I still loved the show — and I now theorize that part of the problem was that World War I had ended. In the previous seasons, we had a sweeping wartime backdrop and that larger conflict reflected in the lives of the folks at Downton Abbey.

Having a larger conflictual context in which to set your story is helpful. That’s all I’m saying.

Anyhow, so last year folks griped that the show had turned a tad dull, and now the writers add a huge rape conflict and people gripe about that. Apparently, you can’t win.

Also, some gripers don’t like that Lord Grantham–the family patriarch in case you don’t know–is misogynistic. Misogynistic? Really? You’re going to describe Grantham with a word that wasn’t part of the popular culture back then? Feminism had barely slipped off her bra strap, people. Phooey to that. Lord Grantham is a character of his fictional times. Women didn’t do much and men didn’t think they should. That was the way it was with those upper crust Brits — live with it.

Besides, Lord Grantham’s conservatism causes conflicts with his wife and daughters. Conflict, people, conflict!

Also, I’ve read gripes about Edith’s (Grantham’s second daughter, who is not always likeable and has bad luck in the love department) new choice of man. There’s gotta be something wrong with him. Why is she choosing him? Blah blah blah.

I say, Go for it, Edith! We don’t know what the new love is all about, but he seems like a good guy. That right there — that question of whether he’s a good guy — is suspense in action, my friends.

And, for anyone who knows anything about series stories, you know that you have to be thinking ahead to future seasons or books in the series. This means you have to setup stuff now. Edith’s boyfriend? You watch — in a season or two, I predict his story arc will come to fruition. Right now, he’s planning to become a German citizen so he can legally divorce his wife to marry Edith.

Think about it: We’re between world wars. Hitler is about to start his propagandistic rise to infamy. Being German is going to become a thing. A huge thing. Will the boyfriend become a Nazi sympathizer? A spy for the Brits? How will all this impact Edith?

I’m telling you, I love Edith’s new boyfriend.

I’ve also read complaints that revolve around the slimy characters. Without the slimy characters, we wouldn’t have a show! That new lady’s maid? Bring it on, sister! Let’s see you weasel your way into Tom’s affections! Without the slimy characters, the show would just be a bunch of happy people doing their jobs below stairs and throwing house parties above stairs. BORING.

And never mind the boo’ers who claim that Downton Abbey is nothing but a soap opera. Who the heck cares? By definition, soap operas are serial dramas with lots of characters and story lines. I disagree that Downton Abbey has devolved into total melodrama. No way. Downton Abbey is high-end soap opera.

Let’s return to Anna’s rape, which caused an online uproar. The producers did a brilliant job of it. What you have is repeated cutbacks to an opera singer belting out Puccini at the house party upstairs — a song that she had just dedicated to “love and lovers” — that return to glimpses of Anna downstairs with her rapist. Then no more glimpses of them, just views of the vast, empty, gloomy downstairs corridor with Anna’s screams echoing off the walls.

If you’re cringing as you read that — that’s exactly what I mean! This is what good storytelling does. It doesn’t flinch away from the tough stuff.

And, as a result of Anna’s plot turn, I’m back to being interested in Anna and Bates’s (her husband’s) relationship. Previously, they had zippo going on because they were happy. BORING. Now Anna’s traumatized but has to hide it because that’s what women did back then. Plus, she’d like to protect Bates from doing something (like killing the guy) that will land him in jail (again). Yet, Bates knows something’s going on. Conflict, people, conflict!

I love conflict. Conflict is good. Kudos to the Downton Abbey writers for taking a risk — and now I shall stop griping about the gripers. But, man, did it feel good to get that off my chest!

So, are you watching Downton Abbey? What are your thoughts on all of this?


23 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Downton Abbey and Story — For What Is Story But Conflict?

  1. I agree completely. I couldn’t believe all the people saying they were going to stop watching because of it. It was awful, horrible, the worst, BUT things like that happened. And Anna’s reaction happened. That reaction happens today. But I thought it was done exquisitely. The cuts back and forth, the empty hallway and the screams made it even more horrific than actually showing it. Imagination can be a nasty place. And I can’t wait to see what happens next. (Oh, and I felt so cheated with just an hour episode this time!!) 🙂

    1. Thanks for visiting, Ann! You know, it’s one thing to be upset about something in a t.v. show — and the Anna scene was a shocker — but to stop watching because of it? I’m glad you agree — it was exquisitely done. It brought home the horrific nature of rape.

  2. I think for me the biggest outcry was, as a huge Downton fan and an extreme supporter of Anna and Bates, it was the choice of Anna. Of all the people in the house, Anna was the character no one wanted to see anyway but HAPPY! I do agree every story has conflict but sometimes a little happiness is nice to see. They did do a tremendous job in filming this and doing it tastefully. I think the biggest issue is that the conflict they chose was rape. It is such a scary and realistic thing that we all know as women happened regularly in the past and still happens nearly every 5 minutes in this world. I think because a lot of Downton’s followers are women and Anna is so beloved it was like seeing a sister or a dear friend endure something so degrading and painful that we as a society would want to do anything to protect her from. I think that is what has really started the discussion.

    1. Hi Valeria! I think the fact that the scene started the discussion is a good thing — rape is horrific and the Downton folk’s did a great job of showing that. As a writer, here’s my take on the choice of Anna as the victim. She and Bates are main characters — we really do root for them — but there was nothing going on with them anymore. They had no storyline.

      So, they needed a story line. Did it have to be rape? Well … story-wise it fits because we’d need a conflict that could profoundly impact Bates too — Bates would kill the guy and he would land in jail again so Anna needs to protect him from himself. We’d need something that is devastating yet realistic (unfortunately, it is realistic).

      The fact that she’s the one we most want to see happy is a big reason she’s the perfect choice. From the perspective of pure storytelling at least. Storytelling is cruel at times, that’s for sure!

  3. I agree with everything you said. I was actually more shocked by people who said things like, “We don’t want to see this” because you know what? THAT’S turning our back on reality, that’s turning our back on an experience that too many women (even today) still feel the need to hide because it makes others uncomfortable. We SHOULD have felt horrified and heartbroken watching this happen to a character we love so dearly. People who think the show’s taking too dark a turn, or that it felt like it came out of nowhere…that’s what rape does. Yes, art should entertain, but it should also make us think and discuss. From a purely storytelling POV, they handled it really masterfully: The contrast, the screams echoing through the halls, but drowned out by the opera singer, leaving us to imagine the horror for ourselves and wish that someone would hear her through the music. I agree that this is good writing, and I’m very curious to see how they handle it moving forward.

    1. Well said, Natalia! I love your eloquence. I’m really curious too — now I want to watch the show more than ever. If it were a novel, I’d be staying up late to read it to the end. 🙂

      1. Great post, Lisa, and I completely agree with Natalia. It’s reality. We all have friends like Anna. Rape happens to our friends. It’s completely realistic that Anna would be terrified at what Bates will do if he finds out. It’a all heartbreaking. But it’s real.

  4. Valeria, I, too, was expecting/hoping for Anna and Bates to have an easier time of things for a while, but think about it: The rapist is Lord Gillingham’s valet, and we know Lord G — and hence Green — will be coming back to the Abbey often. And the victim is Mary’s personal maid, and also her close friend and constant support through multiple trials and tribulations. I am very interested to see if Mary becomes aware of Anna’s horrible situation, and if so, how she handles it. The ramifications and plot possibilities are endless, and I very much hope this doesn’t remain a below-stairs story.

  5. Great blog. Im still in season two, but was thinking the same thing. Everytime something bad happens to one of our Downton Abbey protagonists, I think of Liz Crattys writing advice–make bad things happen to your hero, (conflict!) and then think of something even worse. I love it.

  6. I didn’t make the connection between the rapist and Lord G until someone pointed it out to me today; I can’t believe I missed that part. I know that there are ways to watch the rest of the season online, but I’m resisting, so far. I just hope that Mary finds another suitor, quickly!

    1. Hi Bridget, thanks for visiting. I didn’t catch that connection either, but story-wise it works perfectly, doesn’t it? I hope Mary finds a new suitor too … but not too fast. Maybe next season. 🙂

      1. You’re right, she doesn’t need a new suitor quickly, she just needs to run away from this one as soon as possible!

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