The long-building civil war between Mary and Edith comes to a head in the series' penultimate episode.
Downton AbbeyAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery
Subtitle: Season 6, Episode 8
Air Date: 2016-02-21
One of the more interesting conflicts that have existed seemingly before Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Isis made their first appearance in the series inaugural opening credit sequence is the civil -- sometimes not -- war between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and "poor old" Edith (Laura Carmichael). Though they have never caused each other any real damage, the two have been dead-set on remaining enemies, whose quips back and forth reveal a mutual and deep-seeded hatred that surely goes back to their earliest days. In this week's penultimate episode, Mary finally fully enters the ring, gloves on, ready to land the knockout punch she has been training for all these years, and boy does she land it, without any regard for her opponent's health and well-being.
Episode seven ended with a marriage proposal, and for seemingly the first time in the show's history, this proposal is to Edith rather than the ever-popular Mary. But just like anything in Edith's cursed life, this proposal comes with a catch; to accept Bertie Pelham's (Harry Hadden-Paton) request, she must tell him the truth about Marigold (Sharon Small). This is especially true after Pelham learns about the death of his cousin and friend, a death that surprisingly makes Bertie the new heir to a powerful position and a substantial fortune. That's right, if Edith accepts Pelham's proposal she will, as Robert puts it, "outrank us all…golly gumdrops".
As you can guess this revelation doesn't exactly thrill Edith’s jealousy-prone sister, especially considering the fact that she is still in the midst of a messy courtship with Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), one that she’s determined to thwart. Tom's (Allen Leech) not making her job easy, though, as he invites Talbot to come by the house without asking Mary. This leads to a heated argument in which Talbot calls Mary out for dismissing him for purely superficial reasons (rank, wealth, etc.) Although Mary has been happy to use this very reason to justify her decision to herself and those around her, she’s nonetheless disgusted by Henry's assertion that she's nothing but a "grubby little gold digger".
This confrontation, along with Branson's slip of the tongue that leads to Mary finally finding out the truth about Marigold, mean trouble for Edith. Although Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Rosamund (Samantha Bond), and even Violet (Maggie Smith) admit that Edith must, especially now, tell Pelham the truth, they understand that it’s Edith's truth to tell and are content to let her tell it, even as she drags her feet. Mary, on the other hand, is in no mood to let bygones be bygones, and as soon as she sits down to breakfast you can sense a bomb ready to blow.
Mary sits there with her scowl and her disdain and before long the truth is out, Pelham's aghast, Edith's hope for happiness is crushed, and Mary's ever-so-pleased with herself. She insists she simply didn’t know the juicy news was a secret, but Tom knows far better, immediately admonishing her for her cruelty and going as far as to call her a coward and a bully. It has to be satisfying for even the most ardent of Mary fans to see her get taken down a peg and downright cathartic for those of us who have been tired of her whining and her constant arrogance for some time.
Although Pelham is a reasonable man, and actually not all that upset that Edith is a mother, he's upset at her deception and leaves Downton after declaring that he simply cannot be with someone who he doesn't trust. Edith cannot argue with his logic, but is broken all the same and ready to escape to London; however, not before she has it out with her conniving older sister. Despite all their differences, Edith appears to know Mary better than almost anyone, immediately diagnosing her newfound bitchiness as a direct result of her unhappiness in regard to Henry. Mary can’t stand to see others flourish as she loses her way, but there is no way she will let Edith be the golden, happy child while she grows into an old widow.
The abundant sadness upstairs is mitigated, at least a little, by the success of some of our favorite downstairs inhabitants. Molesley's (Kevin Doyle) first day as a schoolteacher isn't exactly what he pictured, as the students are not all that interested in what he has to say, and his extreme timidity does little to demand their attention. The second day, however, is more successful due to his ability to inspire students with his tale of service to academia, giving them a real-life example of the kind of upward movement available to them through education. This same kind of movement that seems to be in the cards for Daisy (Sophie McShera), whom we learn has passed all her exams.
Patmore (Lesley Nicol), on the other hand, is attempting to orchestrate a different kind of escape from service by opening her very own bed and breakfast. This effort hits a substantial snafu when she learns that her first customers were, in fact, fugitives from justice, thus making her establishment a place of low repute. Patmore is beside herself as more and reservations are cancelled, and her efforts to branch out on her own appear to have been in vain. That is until the family generously decides to aid in her effort by taking tea at the bed and breakfast in an attempt to quell rumors and add some respectability to the place. It’s a cute moment in the midst of all the sadness going on in episode eight.
While Mary and Edith are far from alright, the most upsetting of these moments comes for Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), who’s found bleeding from his wrists in the bathtub. Although it wasn't entirely impossible to see this coming, the revelation still hits home, especially for Robert, who can’t help but blame himself. Thankfully Thomas is saved but this doesn't stop Mary from taking yet another cheap shot, questioning Robert's decision to fire Thomas only moments after hearing the news. Mary does redeem herself a little by bringing young Master George (Oliver Zac Barker) down to see Thomas. The two even share a moment of mutual recognition about their propensity to say and do mean things with little regard for how they affect others.
In another example of Fellowes and team attempting to get to the core of Mary's psyche, she finally reveals, to an unusually understanding Dowager, the real reason for her reluctance towards Henry. This scene, which has Violet admitting she believes in true love, and Mary confessing she doesn’t want to be crash widow once again, is one of the corniest and most melodramatic the series has ever had. The parallels between Matthew’s death and Henry’s love of cars is so literal and obvious that having her tearfully acknowledge them is gratuitous. So too is her eventual visit to Matthew's grave, in which she asks permission to accept Henry as her new husband, a moment that feels more like an attempt to once again bring up the show’s former leading man than anything else.
She eventually does accept, leading to a hasty and equally corny wedding that's thankfully taken care of before the show’s final episode. Tom's the best man, again, and the two ride off into the sunset as the townspeople cheer. Things, once again, end happily-ever-after for Mary, even in an episode where we see her go full villain. Good for you, Mary.
So here we are, one more episode, and only a couple more hours with the Downton residents. There will surely be at least one or two more twists (*cough* Bertie forgives *cough*) and endings will be tied off nice and neatly. Episode eight almost perfectly encapsulated this immensely popular historical drama. There are rich characters, with rich lives, developing interestingly and surprisingly, but it’s also ultimately a glorified soap opera, one that will have its fair share of melodrama. I wouldn't have it any other way.