To my surprise the indomitable Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) has become my favorite character on “Downton Abbey.” Last season her scheming and self preservation ruined her honor, crushed poor Matthew (Dan Stevens), and kept her (maybe deserving) sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) from a good marriage. Now we see Mary dutifully helping Matthew recover from his wounds, keeping quiet about Sybil and Branson, and singing with Edith, in public. On every score Lady Mary Crawley has changed and in this transformation lies the greatness of the entire show.
In the first season everyone upstairs and downstairs had a set opinion of Lady Mary: arrogant, uptight, conniving, and cold. Even her parents came to accept their intractable eldest daughter and resigned themselves to her ignoring their advice. Her only advocate was Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Carson could always be counted upon to defend Mary’s honor downstairs and pay her a reasoned compliment upstairs. Like Mrs. Hughes, I wondered what normally astute Carson saw in pompous Lady Mary.
It wasn’t until the Garden Party - a social occasion of much emotional turmoil- that I realized whatever Carson saw in Lady Mary must be the entire reason for this show. Those two, the heiress and the butler, standing in the final shot of the series encapsulates ’Downton.” The people who know the rich best are the people that watch and serve them everyday. Only in their company do the masks fall away and the true self can breathe, cry, and laugh. Carson and Anna know Mary better than anyone because they are the only people with which she can be honest. This season has grown on that theme, deepening the relationships between Cora and O’Brien, Matthew and William, and Sybil and Branson. The development of Lady Mary is the best part because her change reverberates through the entire series.
In each episode Lady Mary surprises her relatives with her patience, caring, and selflessness. The best example of this was episode 4 when Lord Grantham simply stared at Mary as she insisted Lavinia stay at Downton while waiting for Matthew to recover. In that moment Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who thought he knew everything about his eldest daughter, saw as if for the first time. In his eyes I could see surprise, but also a fulfillment of some long held wish that Mary would grow to be a generous and loving person. Even beyond Matthew, Mary’s goodness is consistent. She defends her romantic rival to the Dowager Countess, holds back confessing her feelings to Matthew to keep from hurting Lavinia, and volunteers to help Anna find Bates. Lord and Lady Grantham, Anna, Edith, Isobel, and even Lady Violet now see glimpses of the Mary that Mr. Carson always knew and trusted.
Now if only Matthew Crawley would wise up, we’d have something to celebrate.