TV review

Edith Vs. Mary: The Big ‘Downton Abbey’ Smackdown: Season 6, Episode 8

The Daily Beast

February 22, 2016

As Lady Edith so rightly said, it was “the row we all knew was coming. I’m not sorry. I’m just sorry we didn’t have it years ago.”

When the confrontation between Lady Mary and Lady Edith came, it was all of six years of sisterly sniping, plotting and backstabbing in the making, and provoked by Mary trying once more to torpedo Edith’s happiness, by informing the sweet and perplexed-looking Bertie Pelham that Edith had a biological daughter, little silent Marigold.

This, Mary did, knowing that Edith had not–and because she was sad about everything in her life, as Edith later identified. But also–well, a mystery. (Another mystery: why Fellowes is following the path of least interest by seeming to want the sisters coupled up and married off by series’ end.)

The sisters themselves don’t know why they are so set at odds. The animus between them is a tantalizing dark constant to the whole show–sometimes played for bitchy fun and sometimes played dead-serious as tonight’s episode showed.

At the start of this bananas-fast penultimate episode, Mary had dumped Talbot, and Bertie Pelham, following the death of his cousin in Tangiers, was suddenly a Marquess, meaning Edith suddenly was the most landed member of the family.

“Golly gumdrops, what a turn up!” exclaimed Lord G.–yes, this is a very antiquated British turn of phrase signaling surprise, and this British viewer smiled, knowing Hugh Bonneville must have burst out laughing having to even say it.

Edith’s father also noted what wonderful news this was for “poor old Edith, who couldn’t even make her dolls do what she wanted.”

Ouch. This was, for a few minutes, the best line of the episode.

Branson wondered why Mary had dumped Talbot. There has been much talk about him coming from a different class to Mary, but Mary had married Matthew, a lawyer; Talbot sounds pretty posh at least; and he’s not–as Branson noted—an orangutan.

Mary couldn’t believe the newly titled Pelham would still look at the very plain Edith, regardless of Marigold. Edith noted that Mary couldn’t bear that she, Edith, was doing better than her. Even Cora noted that Mary was jealous.

After vicious Mary dropped her Marigold bombshell, Pelham excused himself, and later he and Edith sadly ended their relationship–not because of her secret child, but because she had kept it a secret from him.

Branson told Mary that she acted vindictively towards Edith to smother her own misery over all that has flowed from Matthew’s death, and her upset over dumping Talbot following last week’s car crash; also, that she was a bully, and like most bullies she was a coward.

And then, Edith too finally told her sister what she thought of her. Mary, for about half an hour, was a very beautiful punching-bag in a flapper dress.

Mary said she hadn’t realized Edith hadn’t told Pelham, which was untrue.

“I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch,” Edith told her. Mary began to call her pathetic, but meek and plain Edith was having none of it. “You’re a bitch,” she added, then told her not to demean herself “by trying to justify your venom.”

Talbot was right for her, Edith told Mary, though Mary was too stupid and stuck-up to see it. At least he got away from her, Edith added.

Of course, if you are true Downton fan you have already rewound this scene five times–or maybe not, because Sunday night’s episode yanked you this way and that at a rate of knots.

Indeed you may still be crying, because writer/creator Julian Fellowes was also going all out for direct hits on tear ducts.

The episode’s comedy value was supplied by weird servant Spratt being revealed as problem page columnist Cassandra Jones, and Mrs. Patmore’s new bed and breakfast becoming involved in a putative scandal involving an adulterous assignation taking place there.

The threat was now that her new business becoming known as a house of ill-repute.

Media shame was averted when the posh Crawleys went to tea there, and were photographed leaving.

Molesley became a school-teacher too, and while the children misbehaved terribly when he arrived, when he ‘fessed up about being a servant and the values of a good education, and everyone being able to make something of their lives, they all settled back to learn about–neat joke, Mr. Fellowes–the divine right of kings.

Mr. Bates said it was Mr. Molesley’s kindness that was being repaid in the sunny uplands of his new profession–again, very Fellowes this, that the good are rewarded for their goodness.

The strange little saga of nasty Amelia Cruikshank wanting Isobel to take Lord Merton off her hands continued, with Isobel insisting she hear from Merton’s vile son, Larry (Amelia’s intended) before she agree to anything. Nicely played: make the evil ones sweat.

After weeks of Mr. Carson’s meanness (and this continues–Carson is making a determined late-run to be remembered as a total asshole), and the rest of the house ignoring him and feeling generally unwanted, Barrow did what many gay characters in historical TV do, and tried to commit suicide.

It was, we were told, a half-hearted attempt at wrist-cutting, but still, this made Carson feel sympathetic. He told Lord Grantham maybe they shouldn’t liquidate Barrow’s position after all, and Lord Grantham agreed.

We knew it was serious because Cora insisted they, not the servants, should serve their own tea.

“I thought he was a man without a heart and I was wrong,” Carson conceded, as we all felt the earth tilt on its axis. (Mrs. Carson later reassured him he was her “curmudgeon” and gave him a hug.)

“I ruin Lady Edith’s life and Mr. Barrow tries to end his,” Mary noted later, before taking her son to see Barrow. This was a lovely scene, bringing two flawed, feeling characters face to face from their different worlds for a moment of truth.

Was he lonely, Mary asked.

Barrow: “If I am I have only myself to blame. I’ve done and said things I don’t know why…I can’t stop myself. Now I’m paying the price.”

Mary, smiling in wry self-recognition: “Strange, I could say the same.”

This was all very Fellowes too: the strict moral code in the narrative is that the good end well and the bad seem to repent or be punished, or maybe both.

However, Barrow hasn’t been that bad for ages, so what’s he being punished for? His storyline has been by far the weirdest and weirdly written this season: Fellowes genuinely seems to be punishing him for being gay, because he won’t allow him even a dash of happiness in that regard.

Instead, his badness of old is recycled as a reason for him nearly killing himself, and nobody really asking and helping him come to terms with being gay and lonely.

Mrs. Carson has tried to talk to him, but Fellowes gets into storyline spirals–like the village hospital–which go nowhere, but remain solidly taking up screen space, and one is consistently refusing Barrow to have any kind of break or relief. There’s an odd sadism to it.

You could argue that the strange way Barrow’s sexuality has been written is down to the era that the show is set in, but Fellowes tackles gender equality and feminism pretty openly and fully. Barrow’s homosexuality is still treated with a kind of unmanageable toxicity–perhaps the final episode will offer some kind of resolution.

“I hope things improve for you,” Mary told Barrow.

“I’d say the same m’lady, if it wasn’t impertinent,” he replied.

If that didn’t tug at a loose heart-string, then the glorious Dame Maggie Smith returned as the Dowager Countess to talk some sense into a regretful Mary.

Mary thought, as we all might, her granny would want her to marry a man of good social standing.

In fact, in another beautiful scene, she said that Talbot was a rare example of a man who was strong and clever enough for her (I don’t concur, but still…).

Mary said she couldn’t bear being “a crash widow,” waiting for an automobile disaster to kill him, as one had killed Matthew.

The Dowager Countess told her that an element of love was vital for a rich and fulfilling life, before telling her to make peace with her sister, then herself. Then she hugged her, and then every Downton fan gave into the pool of tears massing in their living rooms.

Mary agreed to marry Talbot suddenly, and Isobel gave Mary her blessing to marry Talbot, as they stood near Matthew’s headstone. Then Edith returned.

Mary apologized to her, to which Edith replied: “You were unhappy, so you wanted me to be unhappy too. Now that you’re happy you’ll be nicer for a while.”

Mary asked why she was there.

“Because in the end you’re my sister,” Edith told her, and one day only they would share the memories of their loved ones, which would mean more than their mutual dislike. Matthew loved her, and he would be happy she was happy, Edith added.

“You look nice by the way,” she said, as a final line, and it was beautiful–both in writing and delivery. It was genuine, its few words encapsulating more than Edith wanted to openly express.

For this viewer, however (and I may be alone), it felt as if Mary was a bad match for Talbot even without the automobile PTSD he elicited within her, and also regardless of him being from a different class (although he really didn’t seem to be).

They just seem a bad match, or a dreary, convenient one. He doesn’t seem strong enough for Mary at all. Or clever enough. Yet again, in Downton–as in Victorian novels and Sex and The City–we are entering the last-pages panic of pairing and/or marrying the single females off, single women who are powerful enough to be on their own, and more interesting if they were left on their own.

The best thing Fellowes could have done would have been to have left Mary and Edith not unhappy, just single, pursuing their professional lives and romantic lives as they wished. Marriage is the laziest convenience to confer upon Mary and Edith, and completely out of character for the women they have become of late.

However, at the end of this penultimate episode wedding bells rang for Mary and Talbot, with Lord G. saying that Edith had been the most surprising sister, and that more surprises would no doubt be on their way–and so we expect they shall, in the final episode which is in two weeks time.

Hopefully, this sappy Downton fan will have stopped crying by then, ready for Thomas to have the best gay kiss he’s ever had; Edith to tell Pelham to leave her alone to build her newspaper empire; a totally bored Mr. and Mrs. Bates to go to the police station themselves to insist on themselves committing a crime they have not committed; the Dowager Countess and Isobel to move in together; and Mrs. Carson to give Mr. Carson an emphatic knee to the groin.

A man can dream.