I have a very specific form of YouTube addiction that sometimes crops up late at night: watching videos of Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery. In real life, Dockery is bubbly and enthusiastic, outgoing and fun. She treats her celebrity handbag line somewhat as a joke (“This is a snap—because it snaps”) and carries a finger puppet (“you never know when you have to entertain your friend’s child”) as part of her normal handbag kit. The addiction is limited, though: there aren’t many videos to choose from. Dockery avoids the limelight, and since her fiancé John Dineen died, she doesn’t seem to have entered into the serial-relationship cycle of normal celebrity drama.
Basically, Michelle Dockery couldn’t be more different from her Downton Abbey persona, Lady Mary Crawley. Lady Mary is always at the center of the drama—and she exacerbates it through her incredible capacity to come up with the perfect insult and by being the uncontested master of the eye roll. Worse than that, she’s petty, she’s vindictive, and she’s devious. Sometimes, I’ll admit it, she’s downright mean. From comparing Matthew to a monster on their first “date” to ruining Edith’s relationships over and over again, Mary never knows when to let it go.
And for some reason, I still love Lady Mary Crawley. Not just the clever remarks, the unbelievable capacity to throw shade, and insults delivered in pristine English—though, I’ll admit that those don’t hurt. As the show went on, I came to care very deeply about her as a person, and even, terrifying as it might be, to see myself in this tortured Edwardian prima donna. As we wait with bated breath for the Downton Abbey movie to hit theaters, I started to ask myself what it was about Mary. What is there to love about such a clearly unlikeable character?
Maybe it’s because she’s like us. Mary isn’t a sugar-coated heroine: she often does the wrong thing, and when she does do the right thing, it’s through a real struggle. That’s what I value most about Downton’s portrayal of Mary: it’s an honest story about a woman for whom being nice and maintaining good relationships doesn’t come naturally. Instead, she has to fight for every good choice, and when she makes one—and even when she fails—we’re rooting for her in the struggle. Here are the ways I realized Mary reflects my own struggles and the struggles of so many women.
Mary struggles to be kind.
In the second-to-last episode of the series (spoilers ahead!), Lady Mary and Thomas Barrow have a heart-to-heart after his suicide attempt. “I’ve done and said things—I don’t know why—I can’t stop myself,” says Barrow. “Now I’m paying the price.” Mary says, “Strange. I could say the same.” Mary has just ruined Edith’s engagement to Bertie Pelham and has faced the comeuppance of her brother-in-law Tom Branson’s completely justified rage: “You can’t stop ruining things. For Edith, for yourself—you’d pull in the sky if you could! Anything to make you feel less frightened and alone. . . . You’re a coward, Mary. Like all bullies, you’re a coward.”
It’s no wonder that Mary feels the same way Barrow does. Like him, she struggles to overcome her own fears and selfishness that tend to flare up into cruelty toward others. Her visit to Barrow when he is recovering from his attempted suicide is the beginning of Mary’s renewed effort to be a good person, and eventually, she will arrange to bring Edith and Bertie back together. It’s not easy for Mary to be kind—her vindictive and spiteful tendencies tend to win out. But I love that the series does portray her making these good choices, reminding us that no matter how unkind we’ve been or how much we’ve affected someone else’s life for the worse, there’s always time to turn around.
Mary struggles to apologize.
It seems fair to say that no one makes as many mistakes in the series as Mary does. At every turn, she seems to be acting out of her self-interest or fear and hurting other people in her life. But, at the same time, Mary is willing to accept when she’s been wrong and offers heartfelt and difficult apologies with a courage that I wish I had in my own life.
After Matthew’s death, Mary succumbs to a deep depression. Her childhood mentor and lifelong friend, Carson the butler, tries to encourage her to step outside of herself and return to living life. She responds by completely shutting down the conversation, pulling rank, and insulting him for even trying to help her. Later in the same episode, we see Mary descend the stairs, walk into Carson’s pantry, and apologize. The scene ends with her crying on Carson’s shoulder and him saying to her, “When you’re ready, you can get to work. Because you are strong enough.”
Mary’s apology not only opens up a way for her and Carson to repair their relationship, but it also gives her the outlet that she desperately needed for processing her own grief. Her apology was a means to true personal growth, allowing herself to be helped when she needed it. Downton is honest about how difficult apologies can often be, and Mary’s courage in offering them inspires me to be willing to apologize and repair my relationships with others.
Mary struggles to hold her head high, even in difficult circumstances.
In one episode, a former chambermaid comes out of the woodwork to threaten Lady Mary with blackmail. The woman is rude, vindictive, and unkind, and it’s clear to the viewer that Mary is shaken by the encounter. But Mary musters her usual cool tones, turns away from the woman, and says calmly, “You’re not the first person who has tried to blackmail me.” As the situation develops, we see Mary struggling for self-possession and holding her head high even as someone is trying to ruin her life. What I love about Downton’s portrayal of the incident is how we see that this is a struggle for Mary—she is truly afraid of what is going on and doesn’t really know how to handle it, but she rises to the occasion with grace and poise.
I never thought I would tear up at a discussion of crop rotation and livestock, but one of my favorite montages in the whole Downton series takes place when Mary is emerging from her grief after the death of Matthew. She has been reluctant to take an interest in the estate and has also met with significant (and belittling) resistance from her father, who thinks her place is elsewhere. But at the end of the first episode of season four, she waltzes into a room full of men who don’t necessarily think she should have a position of authority and takes the whole conversation in stride: “I’m very sorry to miss your arrival.” She rises to the occasion despite the odds being stacked against her, overcoming both her own grief and her father’s resistance, and takes responsibility for the estate that she loves.
Lady Mary’s courage to go on with her life even after grief has rocked her world is so admirable (and echoed in the life of Michelle Dockery herself). Her grace and poise in overcoming fear remind me that, even if I struggle to be courageous at first, I, too, can rise to the occasion.
Mary struggles to be honest with herself.
Throughout the series, it’s hard to tell what Mary really wants. To be the countess of Grantham and run the estate? To find true love? To find stability in rank or wealth? To have the attention of all the men in the room? And Mary doesn’t really know, herself. At one point, Charles Blake takes Mary out for dinner and says, “I wish I could work you out.” Mary responds, with some exasperation: “I wish I could work me out.”
Like many of us, Mary wants a lot of things, and clarifying her true desires is a real challenge for her. At a pivotal moment in the second-to-last episode, she breaks down when her grandmother encourages her to accept Henry Talbot: “I can’t be a crash widow again. I can’t! I’d live in terror, dreading every race, every practice, every trial. I cannot do it . . . He’d feel he should give it up, but I don’t want that. He’d resent me.” Her breakdown into honesty helps explain her complicated relationship with Henry so far: she does love him, but she feels conflicted about her own love and afraid of what the future might hold. Mary faces her feelings and follows her grandmother’s advice: “First, make peace with your sister. And then make peace with yourself.”
It’s difficult for all of us, at times, to make peace with ourselves. Being honest with yourself is a real challenge, and learning how to do it takes a lifetime. But Mary’s breakdown helps me realize that being truly honest with yourself and with others, even when it’s really difficult, can lead to peace with yourself and others that you truly need.
We’re all clearly unlikeable characters sometimes. We can only hope that we’ll have a story like Mary’s—a story where we learn from our mistakes and come through tragedy as strong women with beautiful souls.