“Who do you think you’re talking to? Mama? Your maid? I know you. I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch.”
“Now, see here…”
“YOU’RE A BITCH!“
Ahh. That’s the stuff. To quote the (very silly, but quotable) Lord Grantham, “Golly gumdrops, what a turnup!” Or maybe that was “turnip.” Either way, this was one VERY well-earned moment. Say what you will about Julian Fellowes (God knows we have), but the man sure does know how to save up those emotional fireworks and deliver them at just the right time, for maximum audience manipulation. It’s not often that Downton Abbey induces fuck-yeah style fist pumps on our couch, but the joyous site of Edith finally tearing all the way into Mary (instead of just nipping at her, like she usually does) had us bouncing up and down in our seats. While the relationship between the two surviving Crawley sisters has never covered either of them in glory, and Edith will always have the spectre of her ill-advised letter to the Turkish ambassador lingering over her (although Mary pretty much got her back for that one by tanking Anthony Strallan’s proposal), it was clearly time, in the final season and the penultimate episode, for Lady Mary to come face to face with her reckoning. And who better to deliver the killing blow than Edith?
But Fellowes loves Lady Mary; perhaps a bit too much, which means not only did she suffer only mild consequences for deliberately ruining her sister’s life, but she got herself the happy ending she worked to deny Edith. We don’t begrudge Mary her happiness as a character. We love her too. In fact, she’s far and away our favorite character on the show, even surpassing the Dowager. Fellowes knows that when you have an actress as photogenic and charismatic as Michelle Dockery, you’ve got the perfect opportunity to develop possibly the very best, most entertaining character archetype you can have in a period melodrama: the Stubborn, Maddening Romantic Heroine. We’re happy to see her get her “car mechanic” in the end (and enjoy the irony of it, after all those years worrying about titles and entailments), but it does no good to construct an entire episode around the idea of the show’s most imperious character (yes, even outdoing her own grandmother) finally getting some form of comeuppance, only to hurriedly push her straight into the fairy tale happy ending for her. Edith forgave her mere minutes (in screen time) after that cathartic teardown and supported her on her wedding day. We understand the emotional underpinnings of her actions. Her begrudging coda “You look nice, by the way” to Mary after forgiving her was a lovely, subtle way of demonstrating how sisters are with each other; the ways they can’t help support each other even if there isn’t much love between them. We get what Fellowes was going for there, but man, it was hard to clap for Mary’s happy ending only 20 minutes after she ruined Edith’s chances for one.
Of course we’re not stupid. Given Fellowes’ history of writing romantic pairings on this show (virtually every couple who wound up together went through a breakup at some point), and the fact that the final episode is the Christmas special, the likelihood of Edith getting to end the series as the Marchioness of Hexham (and the highest-ranking member of the Crawley family) seems more than likely. Bertie’s far too nice of a chap to let a little thing like a lying fiancee with a scandalous past get in the way of his happiness. Yes, we can say that Edith should have told him earlier, but we don’t blame her for her reticence, given the chance for social ruin, not to mention the sheer embarrassment of it all. Remember: it’s still 1925 and an illegitimate child is not something a woman can be allowed to admit to without facing ruin.
Which reminds us, that was one portion of the story we didn’t buy: that so many people from this social class would pressure a woman in Edith’s situation to tell her future husband the truth. Downton Abbey was never particularly good about portraying the social mores of the day. Witness the across-the-board acceptance of Thomas’ homosexuality (even if it is held against him at times), or the way the family wholeheartedly embraced the Irish Catholic socialist who almost got arrested for treason. But it would have been nice to hear a little more pushback against the seemingly accepted idea that the truth was the only choice Edith had. That’s fine from a 2016 perspective, but it would have been par for the course for a family like the Crawleys in 1925 to find any way of keeping the truth from coming out. To be honest, if this was a more realistic show, we’d have expected Robert and Cora to raise Marigold as their ward just so Edith could become a Marchioness and scandal be avoided all around. The idea that they’d all insist on her telling him the truth just didn’t scan.
In other news, Molesley also gets a long overdue happy ending and Thomas almost got the saddest ending of all. We’re happy for the former but kind of played out on the melodrama of the latter. Thomas has always been one of the more frustrating characters on the show because Fellowes wants the audience to alternately hate him and feel sorry for him, but has never really done anything to bridge those two sentiments in a way that makes for a consistent characterization. Thomas is simply either a mustache-twirling villain or a tragically friendless gay man desperate for love and connection in his life. Of course there’s no reason he can’t be both of these things, but as we said, there’s no bridge, no shading or nuance that would allow both sides of him to make sense. Worse, this whole storyline has only served to further underline one of the least welcome character developments of the season: the increasing dickitude of Mr. Carson, who seems to exist only to wander into a scene, insult a character (including his wife, over and over again) and then wander out. No idea what Fellowes is going for with that decision, but it hasn’t been entertaining to watch; especially since it’s hard not to conclude that Carson played a big part in pushing Thomas to the point where he’d do something like this.
Also: while it was fun watching Tom Branson finally tear into Mary, his character turn this season has been awful. He comes back to his in-laws’ castle after failing to make a go for it in America and his entire storyline is about his bizarre obsession with his sister-in-law’s love life. How weird is that?
Having said all that, Fellowes managed a nice scene near the end there, when Mary came to visit Thomas. There were some fine parallels drawn between both characters, who seemed chastened and beaten down under the weight of their own actions and their shared coldness toward other people. We’d never have figured those two characters could connect that well, but it made for a nice culmination of both their storylines; especially after making a point so many times this season of how much George loves him and how much Mary appreciates that.
It seems to us that half the cast has already gotten their happy endings (Molesley, the Bateses, Lady Mary, the Carsons) and we’re heading into the finale primed for the rest of the cast to get theirs. It’s why we don’t believe for a second that we’ve seen the last of Bertie. After all, we seem to recall a difficult mother-in-law being mentioned…
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[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015]