This week’s episode of Downton Abbey — with its Patmore scandal, a suicide attempt, and the planning/disruption of not one, but two weddings — is unquestionably an instant classic. To quote a Gwen Stefani song while simultaneously borrowing the safe word that Edith and Laura use to confirm the truly shocking identity of their advice columnist (seriously: Spratt?!), this shit was bananas: B-A-N-A-N-A-S. In fact, it was so B-A-N-A-N-A-S that the whole thing made me truly relish Downton Abbey again.
Dammit, Downton Abbey! Why did you make me love you when there’s only one more episode of you left?
A whole bunch of shocking and compelling things happened in this supersized, penultimate installment of the series, but let’s not kid ourselves. We cannot possibly proceed any further without discussing the most important thing: the long-awaited battle royale between Mary and Edith.
In case anyone (me) had been cautiously optimistic that Mary experienced a spiritual awakening, it turns out that’s a hard no. (Look, it seemed possible two or three episodes ago!) When it comes to matters involving Edith — her only living sister and a woman to whom she can never show kindness, even after Edith was left at the altar or when she almost accidentally burned down the house — Mary’s blood always runs ruthless. Finding out that her sister and Bertie are getting married, AND that Bertie is about to become the Marquess of Hexham, meaning that, as Robert notes, “Edith would outrank us all,” AND that Henry seems to have left her side for good is too much for Mary to bear. Which is why, after hearing the good wedding news from Edith and Bertie, and listening to Edith’s ill-advised gloating, Mary drops the bomb that Marigold is Edith’s daughter, effectively destroying their entire relationship because Edith had failed to share that crucial information with Bertie. It’s an awful, awful thing to do and yet, the way Mary immediately nods her head in smug triumph almost makes me want to salute her. Almost.
No one else wants to salute her, though. After years and years of ignoring Edith and fawning over Mary, the Crawley tides have officially turned. Everyone, but especially Tom and Robert, lashes out at the sister who’s always seen as the “winner.” They all side with the underdog. It’s kind of like watching a bunch of Yankees fans start cheering for the Chicago Cubs while spitting on Derek Jeter.
The shame that’s heaped on Mary feels like Julian Fellowes’s attempt to express every ounce of resentment that Downton Abbey fans have ever felt toward her character. He channels that venom most effectively through the vessel of Edith, because man, does Edith let her sister have it.
“I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch,” she shouts during their big confrontation, or as Edith calls it, “the row we all knew was coming,” or as I call it, “The Great White Lady Fight of 1925.” Then Edith says that word again, even LOUDER: “You’re a bitch!” With the exception of the occasional “damn,” people don’t curse on Downton Abbey. In this very same episode, Robert actually uses the phrase “golly gumdrops” without a hint of irony. So to say, “You’re a bitch” to Mary’s face is basically the equivalent of this Buster Bluth rant from Arrested Development, minus all the bleeps. It’s a standing-ovation-worthy reaming of one sister by another sister and it is amazing.
A question, though: Mary’s actions are clearly unconscionable, but isn’t Edith also partly to blame for this mess since she didn’t tell Bertie the truth about Marigold? (That’s not a rhetorical question, because the answer is yes.) More importantly: Couldn’t their relationship be repaired if Edith did a better job of explaining why she kept her secret? Bertie tells Edith he doesn’t mind that she had a child out of wedlock, he merely feels he can’t trust her. But he’s a reasonable man and certainly he should be capable of understanding, if not condoning, her conflicting feelings about when and how to announce her daughter’s existence.
Oh, you mean he had to react that way to create suspense and enable Edith to be hella pissed at Mary? Right, okay. That makes sense.
Earlier in this episode, in another example of a character speaking on behalf of loyal Downton-ites, Robert says of Edith: “Please don’t let things be spoiled for her. That’s all I ask.” Which, of course, is how you know things will be spoiled for her. And, of course, we also know that things will surely right themselves in the final episode. As Robert, now the world’s greatest Edith Crawley superfan, also says, his middle daughter has given him many surprises and “I’m sure we haven’t seen the last one.”
One surprise, perhaps, comes on Mary’s wedding day. Edith, now deprived of her own wedding, is suddenly forced to (yet again) celebrate the big day of the sister who always beats her at everything. If you or I were Edith, we might be so mad that we’d rip the dangling pearls straight out of Mary’s earlobes. But even though Mary’s second apology is as inadequate as her first — seriously, if Mary Crawley had written that Justin Bieber song, it would be called “You Know I’m Sorry” and it would end after ten seconds — Edith has a sense of perspective her sibling lacks. “In the end, you’re my sister,” Edith says. “And one day, only we will remember Sybil, or Mama, or Papa, or Matthew, or Michael, or Granny, or Carson, or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last, our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.” It turns out Edith has beaten her sister at something after all. She evolved first.
I love this scene because it’s so true to who we know these characters to be: They aren’t BFFs and they’re never going to be. The best we can hope for between them is a less-adversarial mutual respect. It’s one of two crucial moments in this episode — the other being the marvelous exchange between the Dowager Countess and Mary — and it demonstrates the degree to which the women in this family, and their connections to each other, are truly its backbone.
Now, about Mary: She has to be responsible for the quickest relationship turnaround in all of television history, right? In the span of 40 minutes, she goes from telling Henry Talbot that she wants nothing to do with him, to deciding to marry him, to deciding to marry him in a few days. For someone who’s afraid of being a crash widow again, this woman accelerates through her decision-making process faster than Charlie Rogers (R.I.P.) sped down the track at Brooklands. I’d be less willing to forgive this if the clock on Downton Abbey weren’t ticking so loudly, and also, if Michelle Dockery weren’t as fantastic as she is throughout this episode. But it is ticking and she is fantastic, especially during that scene with Maggie Smith. Her emotional breakdown when she admits how scared she is of losing another husband is incredibly moving; it doesn’t wipe away her behavior toward Edith, but it shows how many multitudes Mary contains. As for her wordless imitation of Edith, well, that alone is worthy of an Emmy.
Sure, the post-hastiness of her wedding to Henry is absurd, no question. But you know what? It means we get to see Matthew Goode in a tux and top hat, and who in her right-thinking mind would possibly argue with that? (Seeing Patmore and Daisy actually attending the service, given that they had to stay in the kitchen during Mary’s wedding to Matthew, is also a nice touch.)
All the Mary/Edith drama may have provided this episode with its structural core, but the other story lines are nearly as compelling. At this point, we just know these characters so deeply and so well. The idea that Mrs. Patmore could possibly be accused of running a house of ill repute works brilliantly, as does the fact that everyone else seems to find it hilarious. Why? Because we know that Mrs. Patmore is, above all things, not a frolicker. And when Carson tells Molesley he can’t necessarily be a great teacher because, “There are plenty of little boys who want to be famous cricketers. That doesn’t make them champions,” it stings more intensely because we know Molesley’s checkered history with cricket. It also makes us feel that much prouder when he ultimately wins over his students. (Still, after Baxter suggests that he talk to the class about his experiences as a servant, I was a little disappointed that he didn’t give this speech.)
Of course, it’s terribly sad when Thomas tries to kill himself. (It’s also a bit perplexing that he’s still breathing when there’s so much damn blood in that tub.) It seems right that Mary, the most spiteful and perhaps misunderstood Crawley, is the one who comes to visit him, the most spiteful and misunderstood Crawley servant. It’s almost as if she’s anointing him as the next Carson, or at least the butler who will be to George what Carson was to her when she was a child. And just as Mary makes her wedding plans with the speedy efficiency of the Road Runner — “You have a license, Henry Talbot? Meep! Meep!” — Thomas recuperates in record time, and seemingly holds on to his job in the process.
As Carson says of Thomas, “I thought he was a man without a heart. I was wrong.” And I thought my heart couldn’t feel this warmly toward Downton Abbey anymore. I’m pleased to say I was wrong, too.