You know what I do not care for in period dramas? Smarmy, charming, good-looking men who take advantage of unassuming and curious young women. If every girl in the house is swooning over a young man and he is completely aware of it… run away, fast as you can, and look sharp while doing it. That said, the third episode of Downton Abbey is one of my favorites from the first season, since it is the one in which we see more of Mary’s true nature than she commonly reveals. Many of my friends have dismissed Mary as a word that rhymes with “witch,” but to me she has always been much more complicated than that and the subtle revelations in this episode show us just how much she lives under a facade.
In the hope of attracting a husband in the form of a young man named Evelyn Napier, Mary invites him to visit and stay for the hunt. Accompanying him is the son of a Turkish diplomat, whose charms swiftly win over everyone in the household — including Mary, who is quite smitten with him but a tad bit appalled at his forward nature. So smitten in fact that when he enters her room that evening, she doesn’t throw him out so much as beg him to leave and then, somewhat uncomfortably, succumbs to his charms, only to have him die in the midst of them — which leads to a very morbidly funny dilemma as Anna and Mary’s mother are enlisted to tote the dead man down the hall and back to his room. Meanwhile, Bates has chosen to buckle on a leg brace in an attempt to correct his limp, and Gwen reveals to a disapproving staff her intentions of becoming a secretary. Thomas stumbles into the midst of a scandal when he is too forward with Pamuk, and O’Brien catches on that more might have transpired surrounding the man’s death than any of them first imagined. Matthew also makes his own bid for Mary’s heart, but much like Napier, is largely ignored.
Between the touching scenes of friendship and comforting assurances and the angst and dark humor that run rampant here, I’m not even certain where to start. I really love Bates in this episode. His insecurities about his limp and how it causes others to perceive him are revealed when he agrees to wear an extremely painful apparatus to try and correct it. Yet in spite of his own discomfort and pain, he is not too busy to comfort Gwen when she breaks down in tears with a confession that she fears the future she has imagined for herself may never come to pass. He is just terribly sweet in that scene and I like the dynamic he has with Mrs. Hughes when she finally has enough of his evasions and shuts herself in a room with him until he confides in her. (How scandalous!) The following event when she accompanies him down to the lake to drown the blasted thing says much about her character and his acceptance of his place in the house, subservient to a woman who has his best interest in mind. Mrs. Hughes was never as against him as some of the others were at the start, but she has come to like him, and even though he falls under the jurisdiction of Mr. Carson, she is aware enough of what transpires in her household to take control when needed, and save him the humiliation of this becoming common knowledge. Her opinions of Mary may be harsh (not that I can blame her) but she has a good heart.
I love that the situation with Gwen touches on the amount of snobbery that accompanies the under as much as the upper classes — there is a certain pride in the profession, one that resents anyone’s attempts to “rise about their station.” It reflects the attitudes above stairs — Violet sneers at the idea, wondering why anyone would want to become a secretary when they could be a maid to a dignified English household. O’Brien is downright insulted that Gwen would even want to aspire to anything else, and Anna is the only one who defends her dreams, along with Bates. (And we wonder what drew them together?) In an unusual turn, Sybil is shown to be Gwen’s secret champion, in foreshadowing that she, unlike her sisters, longs to be free of her role in society and aspire to greater things. It is what later will lead her into an unlikely romance with Branson, but here is just in the beginnings.
And then there is Mary, completely undone by Pamuk from the start — she loses her characteristic restraint and control the moment she sets eyes on him; she becomes giddy and stupid, and downright rude to the rest of the young men trying so desperately to win her approval. Mary has always been rather defiant, but I think her pursuit of Pamuk was about more than not wanting to wind up with the man her family was rooting for; Pamuk represented something much more elegant and evasive… unfortunately, he was also a total creep. But here, we see a different side of Mary, a more passionate side of her nature, but also her deeper fears, pains, and insecurities. Mary pretends to be much more modern than she actually is; she is more old fashioned than she would care to admit, and Pamuk’s forwardness with her catches her completely off guard. I think she gives in as much because she doesn’t know what to do to stop him as anything, because when caught unawares she becomes helpless. Mary is in control only when she commands a situation — take that authority away from her and she succumbs to any stronger will. Arguments have raged over whether or not he merely took advantage of her or if his actions could be described as rape. There is a fine line between them that in this instance is mightily blurred; but his manner of gaining access to her room is nothing short of dreadful, and his reasons for staying were nothing short of blackmail. And herein is where Mary was a complete idiot, showing just how off guard she actually was — his argument is that a scream will tarnish her reputation. In what manner? Who is her father more likely to believe, his beloved eldest daughter or a complete stranger? I say call his bluff and see what happens — the likely outcome is Pamuk being tossed out on his ear by her father and Mr. Carson. Ahh, I would have loved to have seen that… but instead, Mary was a ninny and did something whose consequences are going to haunt her — and everyone else involved — for years to come.
Even so, I have to admit that the entire situation of explaining what has happened to her mother and dealing with the body is… well, it’s funny, in a really horrible black comedy sort of way, particularly when she cannot get his eyes to shut. Maybe it is wrong to laugh or maybe it is natural human nature, but once we overcome our shock, the humor of it sets in. I also love that she went to Anna for help — she could not bear confessing it to anyone else, and her confession to her mother is full of restrained emotion. But I think my favorite scene of all is when Carson and she speak in Pamuk’s room later on; throughout everything in the first and second season, Carson has always defended her, out of “favoritism” and affection for her. Carson thinks the best of her, at times blinded by love as to her true nature and actions, and Mary very much takes him for granted. She shouldn’t.