It's Complex: 3 Reasons Lady Mary is the Best Downton Sister

By Friday, April 10, 2015 , ,

She’s beautiful, regal, and cold. Her hair is always perfect, her eyebrows always precisely arched, and you wonder if her skin is literally porcelain. She’s frank with her opinion, refuses to be weak, has suitors at her beck and call, and fights fiercely for those she loves. Beneath scathing looks lies a lesser-known, pensive vulnerability. Even she admits that she’d “hate to be predictable” and that she wishes she could figure herself out.

Yes, it’s the unconquerable Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey of whom I speak. Portrayed by lovely Michelle Dockery, the intricate web of a personality that is Lady Mary has intrigued me since Downton’s first episode. Like her or not, let’s be honest – she’s been running the show since day one, and she certainly is now. I won’t argue that she’s perfect. She’s made stupid decisions and has a razor tongue. Yet, fans love her and she’s still the show’s heart, which speaks to the brilliance of Julian Fellowes in creating her. Faults and all, this icy leading lady has always been my favorite Downton character. Edith fans: I will fight you on this one! Here are the biggest reasons that Lady Mary Josephine Crawley, eldest daughter of the house, is the greatest of them all.

*Spoiler Alert: Spoilers from all five seasons of Downton Abbey are contained in the following text. Read no further if you still plan to ever watch any season*

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley
{Photo Source: The TV Geek. Text edit mine.}
1) Mary is complex and she changes dramatically 
Complex is an understatement, in fact. Sometimes I just can’t get my head around Mary and what makes her tick. But that’s largely why she’s so fascinating. It’s engaging to watch a character of many sides who has to learn a lot to bring them all to light. This is Mary through and through. For the first few minutes of the show’s opening episode, many people think they have her bagged – an arrogant, insensitive brat, evident in how remarkably unmoved she is when her father tells her about the sudden deaths of James Crawley, his cousin and heir, and of Patrick Crawley, James’ son and Mary’s fiancĂ©. It was an arranged marriage, but still, would “I’m sorry” be so difficult? The only emotion she shows is relief at not being required to formally mourn Patrick as a fiancĂ©. Really? But soon, it’s clear that there’s more to Mary than meets the eye. A few scenes later, she sits thoughtfully at her dressing table, and Sybil, the youngest sister, approaches her and insists feelingly,  

“I know you’re sad about Patrick. Whatever you say, I know it.”

Mary’s response here is an early hint of another layer beneath her outward bravado:

“You’re a darling. But, you see, I’m not as sad as I should be. And that’s what makes me sad.”

This is just the beginning of Mary’s development, which soon reveals that her cold, put-together exterior hides a vulnerable side which very few are privileged enough to access. In the ensuing episodes of Season 1, it becomes plain that she’s extremely insecure, immature, and breaking under family and societal pressure. And through the extreme twists of her storyline, the inexperienced, rigid teenager she is in Season 1 becomes a confident, determined woman with a gentle side, even if it is rarely seen. Matthew, her bane of existence-turned-husband, is of course the one to bring it out the most, and it’s his influence that develops compassion in her that certainly didn’t exist at the show’s start. Perhaps most notably, her loyal support of her chauffeur-turned-brother-in-law, Tom Branson, in Seasons 3-5 is a direct result of Matthew’s gentleness and readiness to scold her when she’s being mean or stupid.

That magical moment when Mary and Matthew are finally engaged!
{Photo Source: Deviant Art}
Speaking of which, because she has so many layers and changes so significantly, Mary has several less-than-finer moments, as I’ve already commented. Trust me, I do not condone many of her choices or harsh words, but they are instrumental in her development. The fling with Mr. Pamuk, the will-I-won’t-I moments where Matthew is concerned, and her so-called “sketching trip” in Season 5 are just a few of the times that you want to shake her. However, many of these bad decisions have later repercussions that develop her positively. What’s more, she keeps you guessing, which is absorbing even if it’s frustrating. That’s the next area in which Mary scores big.

2) Mary keeps you interested because she is unpredictable
The few words we see Mary and Matthew exchange at the wedding altar sum up their relationship rather well:

Matthew: “You came. To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure you would.”
Mary: “I’m glad to hear it. I should hate to be predictable.”

You can’t completely figure out Mary. By this time, a keen observer can guess what she’d do, but you never can be totally sure. The Mary of Season 5 certainly would never have been foreseen in Season 1. Matthew’s softening influence unearths gentleness in her, which also leads to greater flexibility and openness to change. As already mentioned, she’s one of the first to accept and value the former chauffeur, Tom Branson, after he marries Sybil, and after Sybil’s death, they develop a pretty great brother-sister friendship.

But also, there are two scenes in Season 4 that poignantly show how far Mary’s come. The first is when she assists Charles Blake in watering the estate’s new pigs to save them from dehydration. Soon, Mary is not only up to her eyelids in mud, but also voluntarily scrambles eggs to commemorate the occasion with Charles. I always smile at that scene – it’s comical to compare that laughing, dirty, and cooking Mary with the stiff, snooty girl of Season 1. And later in Season 4 is her conversation with black band singer, Jack Ross. Mary’s flighty cousin, Lady Rose MacClare, has just announced that she’s going to marry him, primarily because she wants to horrify her mother. Mary confronts Jack about it in a manner that does her credit. She addresses him honestly and respectfully and even expresses confidence in him as a person. It’s an enjoyable scene, as it brings together two characters most unlikely to interact, and it’s striking to realize the difference between this Mary and the Season 1 Mary, who snubs Matthew's middle-class profession in law and his father's in medicine. When Sybil gently argues that everyone needs doctors, Mary retorts,

“We all need crossing sweepers and drainmen too. It doesn’t mean we have to dine with them.”

Charles Blake: "To farm an estate is hard work, and never more than now." Well, Mary certainly got hands-on experience with that one, Mr. Blake. And of course it helped that a mud fight ensued.
{Photo Source: Downton Abbey Online. Color and lighting edits mine.}
And she's having tea with a jazz singer in Season 4. Quite a transformation. That’s the thing about Mary – you really couldn’t have foreseen how much she changes over the five seasons so far. This is the major difference between her and Sybil, the angelic youngest child. Don’t get me wrong, my dear Sybil fans – I love her too. She’s sweet and empathetic and isn’t afraid to dream. But admit it – she’s pretty easy to categorize. Early on, it’s obvious that she’ll always be wholly good and ever the peacemaker between Mary and Edith. Of course she’s the one to help the restless housemaid find a secretary job, and of course she becomes a nurse during the war. And marrying the chauffeur fits her to a T. She’s the independent, unconventional one who has the adventure that we modern viewers need to see. Again, it’s all very good. I loved watching Sybil fight for women’s suffrage, and she and Tom Branson are one of TV’s cutest couples, no question about it. But still, their storyline is fairly easy to guess. Let’s be honest – one talk on politics during an early car ride, and it was true love. Mary and Matthew have many more ups and downs. While it can be draining to watch, you feel far more invested in them and it makes for great drama ;)

3) Mary is strong and moves forward after mistakes and difficulties
This is a large reason why Mary runs the show. She stays strong in the face of change and difficulty, and she’s extremely clever and resourceful. Despite her stoic nature and sharp tongue, she’s also one of the characters that you want on your side most. Anyone Mary backs up automatically has a good chance of holding their own, and it’s because she’s quick, reads people easily, and can often steer a conversation exactly as she wants. Ever notice how Tom, Sybil, Rose, and Robert frequently ask her to help them “do battle”?

And sometimes to a fault, Mary is stubborn in her strength, as she refuses pity and hates to appear weak. But with this tendency comes admirable resilience. She chooses many times to move on after hardship or a bad decision. Her regrets over her dalliance with Mr. Pamuk and over her initial rejection of Matthew are evident, and the consequences of those choices are far-reaching and painful, but she works hard to live with them and move on. And when she hits difficulty, she shows spirit and determination. Here are a few strong Mary-isms for you:

“Aren’t all of us stuck with the choices we make?”

“The world moves on and we must move with it.”

"I’ve decided to live in the present and not spend my life regretting the past or dreading the future."

Mary sees the repercussions of her choices and of life’s misfortunes and she learns many times to make the best of what she’s dealt. That manifests most after Matthew’s death. When she inherits his part of the estate, she pours her energy into running Downton. But even during her intense mourning period, she does not ask for pity; instead, she mostly wants to be left to herself. I think this is a big difference between her and Edith, the perpetually unlucky middle child. Honestly, I don’t understand why so many people like Edith now. Most disliked her in the early seasons – she was shamelessly spiteful and even snarled at Sybil occasionally. But she grew on me in Seasons 3 and 4 because she handled her bad luck well – after being jilted, she found an outlet as a journalist, and when she unintentionally got pregnant in Season 4, she bravely refused abortion. But in Season 5, I really got sick of her. Can we talk about how she threw common sense to the wind every chance she had? For starters, you don’t bring your child to Downton and expect it to stay secret. Plus, she took seriously unfair advantage of Mr. and Mrs. Drewe, and has rarely thought of what’s best for little Marigold. She’s now selfishly taken Marigold from a loving family twice because she’s so wrapped up in her own emotions. Yes, she’s had pretty tough luck, but she whines and sulks and expects everyone’s concern when most of them don’t even know her difficulties, and it’s plain annoying. Mary’s claws certainly came out in Season 5, and I don’t at all condone her harshness, but Edith can’t really expect her to sympathize much. Mary didn’t know how much she had loved Michael Gregson, let alone that she’d had his child, so why bite Mary’s head off for getting a trendy haircut? Honestly though.

Team Mary all the way, even with her rashness and sharp tongue. You don’t have to love her like I do, but just know that “She’s so mean to Edith!” is not a sufficient comeback, because I won’t contradict you. What else you got for me? ;) I’d never argue that she’s perfect or a wonderfully nice person. I don’t even know if I’d like her if I knew her personally. But barring something dramatic, I’ll always be rooting for her, even when I want to shake sense into her. Hopefully we’ll see even more layers of her unearthed in the upcoming Season 6. And I’m definitely hoping that this Henry Talbot guy will change the tides for her ;) Only 268 days. Stay strong, my friends.

{Photo Sources: Downton Abbey Wikia, Zap2It, Media Cache}

*I do not own the rights to the photos in this post. All photos used were obtained from credited Internet sources*

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