Downton Abbey S1E3: Something About Mary

Posted on December 30, 2011

As the title of this post indicates, this episode presented a defining moment for the character of Lady Mary, one that was pretty shocking to the viewer the first time they saw it. We knew Mary was intelligent and bold; we knew that she chafed under the rigid social mores of the time, but we really didn’t think she had it in her to flout such deeply held conventions and violate the moral code she was raised under. When she accepted Mr. Pamuk into her bed, it was the series’ first real shocking moment. It was then followed up immediately by the series’ second really shocking moment (and probably among the most shocking developments the show’s ever depicted): the revelation that he died in bed with her. This was the first time we looked at Mary and understood that there were depths to her we hadn’t even realized and that under her bluster and bitchery, she is, like any young woman of her time and station would be, keenly aware of what happens to women who don’t do as they’re told and deathly afraid of winding up in that state. “I’m not the rebel you and my parents think I am,” she protests to Mr. Pamuk as he makes his move, and it’s the first really insightful thing Mary’s had to say about herself; a moment of self-truth blurted out in an effort to keep her pursuer – and herself – in check.

Before we get accused of pearl-clutching and moral scolding here, we should say our gay 21st Century selves were initially cheering Mary on, even if we were a bit shocked. “Girl, you go and get yourself some of that delicious pouty-lipped man!” we shouted at the TV. But the truth of the matter is, she was doing something outrageously dangerous that could have life-long consequences for her. In short: a young woman of her station who sleeps with a man outside of marriage could expect to have the decisions of where to live, with whom to socialize and who to marry (if she even gets the opportunity at all) completely taken away from her, leaving her at the whim of kindly family members or shipped off to the continent to marry someone willing to take on such damaged goods. And those are the best case scenarios.

Prior to her “fall from grace” (so to speak), Mary was presented as something of a one-dimensional character. Put bluntly, she was a cold, sharp-tongued bitch right from her first scenes; barely willing to acknowledge her cousin and fiance’s death and commenting rather coldly on it to family members who were in true mourning, and subjecting her younger sister Edith (and occasionally her mother) to some pretty vicious comments. She’s not really shown to be nasty at all toward the servants, her father, or her sister Sibyl. It’s her mother and Edith that receive the brunt of her tongue-lashings and there are, of course, good and obvious reasons for that: they are the two people in the family who most meddle in and comment on her romantic prospects. Yes, her grandmother has a lot of opinions on the matter, but, true to her class, she almost never voices them in front of Mary. Edith and Cora, on the other hand, pretty much keep up a running commentary on every young man who sets foot on the estate and whether or not Mary can snag him as a husband. Worse, she’s got Edith running around right behind her trying desperately to pick up her discarded scraps. To Mary, her mother and younger sister are the human faces on all the pressure she’s felt in her life since Day One; pressure she’s just now pushing against, albeit in the worst manner possible. Of course she would reserve her bitchiest comments for the two of them.

But it’s all mostly show, as she herself admitted. She was certainly no temptress here; no wanton woman deliciously throwing caution to the wind. She was a scared and inexperienced girl who somewhat foolishly threw herself at a very good-looking man (in the sense that her attraction to him was obvious to anyone in the room) and then let her hormones get the better of her (helped, in great part, by his “seduction” technique, which seemed to stop just short of forcing himself on her). No, for all Mary’s intelligence and boldness, she was, for all intents and purposes, a young girl in way over her head. There’s a telling moment in the dining scene when Pamuk gently chides the English for being so caught up in other people’s lives. Right after that, while making small talk about (of all things) dentistry, Mary eagerly offered to him, “You know how the English are…” which is something a 14-year-old girl would do while clumsily trying to flirt with a boy; she’d say to him what she thinks he wants to hear from her. When it comes to the question of men, Mary is both distrustful (after a lifetime of having her romantic prospects be the center of the family’s attention) and very inexperienced. Witness her pleas to her mother to help her out of her mess; they are the cries of a very scared young girl who can’t even explain what she did or why she did it. This, for us, is the moment when Mary became fascinating. It will play out over the course of the series, but this was the episode that set her character in stone and revealed that she is both inexperienced with romance and already just a little damaged by the ways she’s been treated like a chess piece by her family. She’s very smart and very naive at the same time, which puts her in a somewhat frightening spot, given the time and place. Cora could marry a man she knew didn’t love her and Edith would be eager to do the same thing, but poor Mary is cursed with the persistent idea that she is her own person and that whatever decisions she makes should be for her own benefit and no one else’s. It’s simply not a school of thought that most women would indulge in at that time. It’s quite literally dangerous for her.

It also tends to blind her to the quality men around her. Of course, only someone far more experienced than she could understand what a cad Pamuk really was, but it was still a bit frustrating to watch her not only ignore Matthew and Mr. Napier, but to be downright rude to them at times. Still, she is, as we said, just an inexperienced girl when it comes to romance, so it’s to be expected that she’d make more than her share of bad choices. It’s the fact that she insists on making choices at all that get her into trouble. And it’s not a coincidence that she ditched the two most appropriate choices for a romantic partner for the one man in the room she’d never be allowed to have. Maybe she’s a bit more of a rebel than she thinks.

Meanwhile, downstairs, O’Brien got a hilariously revealing line when she showed Gwen’s typewriter to Carson: “They were hiding it, so I knew it must be wrong.” You couldn’t ask for a better way to define her narrow-minded bitchery. Funny how, after complaining about her right to express herself downstairs, she doesn’t seem to think the rest of the staff should have any expectation of privacy or personal space.

Gwen’s story is another way for the writers to define the family as benevolent aristocrats. Not only do they find the attempts of a housemaid to better herself to make for wonderful dinner conversation, but Sibyl goes out of her way to help her get a job. We don’t object to any of this, nor do we find it to be inaccurate historically, but as we said in previous posts, there’s a definite stacking of the deck here to make the family look as un-aristocratic in attitude as possible in order to make them more palatable to a modern audience.

Speaking of accuracy, does anyone else find Sibyl’s affect to be too modern? She talks and carries herself like a girl her age in 2011 would. We don’t think we’re imagining it because the Red Nose Day spoof went out of its way to make that exact same joke. She’s a decent actress and a beautiful young woman, but every time she opens her mouth we find ourselves wishing she’d gotten just a little training to mimic the way her character should most likely speak.

Mr. Bates is dealing with his own pain and making his own stupid mistakes, much like Lady Mary. This storyline, while minor and pretty much settled by episode’s end, gave us more insight into Bates, his infuriating reticence and secret-keeping, as well as the intense drive to overcome that which is pretty much impossible to overcome. It also gave Mrs. Hughes a lovely moment or two. She’ll get her time to shine soon, but for now, it was nice to see her defined a little bit more, especially in light of how well defined Carson is at this point. She’s fussy, stern, and straight-laced, but very kind and considers the servants her responsibility in every way; a combination of mother and Mother Superior.

Bates could course-correct from his self-loathing and learn to accept his fate, but it’s not that easy for Mary. She can’t just cast off her social shackles and toss them into the pond like Bates’ brace. As we’ll see, her actions here ripple outward in ways she can’t predict, helped in no small part by (once again) O’Brien and Thomas. Interesting how often the evil gay footman keeps inserting himself into Mary’s romantic life and then screwing it up for her.

Poor Mary. She needs a good gay in her life.

Watch Downton Abbey, Season 1: Ep. 3 on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

[Screencaps: tomandlorenzo.com – Video Credit: pbs.org]

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