Why Lady Mary is the Main Character of Downton Abbey: Part 1

Downton Abbey has become a modern “classic” in the Golden Age of television. It’s variety of characters upstairs and downstairs make for a wide array of juicy story-lines. My main focus of this series of blogs, to bid farewell to our beloved Downton, is to analyze who the real main character of the drama is (and no, it is not the house).

Many modern dramas, whether they be on the big or small screen, have multiple characters that consist within the bigger story-line yet also contain their own individuality throughout the process. Shows like Lost, Once Upon a Time, and Game of Thrones are notorious for this mark of fiction. Films including Dead Poets Society and Love Actually take the same approach. When it comes to this style of story-telling, fans and critics alike usually point to the main focus of the story being a theme or inanimate object such as a building or a sacred artifact (i.e. – The Ring in Lord of the Rings*). This is sometimes accurate and other times it is an idea that begs to be explored.

But why is our knee-jerk reaction when posed with this question about multiple characters in a multiple arc story-line always to choose an inanimate object rather than an actual character? Surely one of our characters must be central to this story yet we constantly say “oh the castle is the real main character” or “the greed living within all the characters is the real protagonist.”

Three great examples we can look to, 2 have already been mentioned in this blog, are — a film, Dead Poets Society, a television show, Once Upon a Time, and another television show, Mr. Selfridge. Let’s begin with Dead Poets Society.* A big question at the end of the movie is, who was our protagonist? Was it Mr. Keating who came into an oppressive boys school and changed the way one class viewed poetry and their lives? Was it Neil who thrived on Mr. Keating’s wisdom but felt bogged down by his father’s rigid view of masculinity? Or was it Todd, the shy and meager student who finally gained the courage to stand up for himself and what is right? All of these characters make a strong case for themselves but if one was to be crowned main character, than it is easily Todd. Todd is the character who has the conflict in the story. Neil and Mr. Keating have conflict too but it is their conflict that ultimately leads to Todd’s climax when he stands on the desk and cries, “Oh Captain, my Captain.” Todd is the character who grows and experiences true change. Mr. Keating and Neil do not change but their circumstances change. Both Neil and Mr. Keating have solid foundations throughout the film while Todd is the one we see reacting to the plot by challenging his original character. He is not the same person at the end of the film.

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Here is another example from the ABC Drama Once Upon a Time. Many will automatically jump to Emma Swan being the main character however, while Emma’s conflict does change her and the narrative, there is another character who takes things a step further. That character is Regina, also known as the Evil Queen. The problem with Emma being the main character is a problem which quells many hero stories in that Emma will always be good. The writers may give us a story-line which uses magic (an easy cop out if there ever was one) to make Emma bad or they will use a plot point to make her appear bad (for example — the current story-line. While we see Emma straying from the good side and doing evil things, these things are motivated because she is now claimed by the evil structure of the Dark One therefore her evil isn’t motivated by her own actions but by the constructs of her new role. There is a big difference. Another example – if Voldemort possessed Harry Potter, it wouldn’t be Harry going to the dark side. But if Harry chose to do something evil of his own motivations, then that makes a big difference. In the end, Emma will surely stop being the Dark One and go back to being good. If not, good one Once Upon a Time).  Should she actually go rogue it will only be temporary because we know she is the hero and will always return to that mold. I would be very surprised, and delighted, if the writer’s made her legitimately evil and stuck with it however this will not happen as the story revolves around a prophecy (another easy cop out) in which Emma is the savior. The show is literally telling us that Emma is our rock. But that doesn’t make her our main character. Why then Regina who seemingly has the same story-line except flipped? Regina is the Evil Queen who caused this story to happen. She put a curse on the characters and she is the one hiding who she is from the world. Right away we have our central conflict in disguise! We have a character who is running from her past and it is catching up with her. We see Regina struggle with her moral character* and see that the plot changes because of it. She drives the story! If we lost Regina, there would be no more story. Now, some may argue that if we lost Regina it would be a happy ending because the good guys won. That is true to a certain extent but it shows a misunderstanding of the show’s canon. Regina is a morally complex character, not the bad guy. She is interesting beyond all of the other characters presented and if we lost her then I would only hope the show would end because it would be the end of her story. I imagine the show’s ending (perhaps want is a better word) will be Regina finally becoming good after her long time struggle. She is the Zuko of the story.

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Finally, let’s talk about a show with a more obvious main character but is very important to this conversation. The show is Mr. Selfridge. Here is a show where we have an ensemble cast but the show’s title literally gives us no room to question the fact that our main character is Mr. Harry Selfridge. So the question becomes, why is he our main character besides the fact that his name is in the title? Mr. Selfridge planted the seeds of the plot and the cast of characters became the branches of his tree. What does the story always come back to? Mr. Selfridge. His presence demands attention and that itself is a claim to being the main protagonist.

Now that you have read my long but necessary intro inside an intro, let’s move on to our main focus of this blog – Lady Mary Crawley. Mary Crawley is the eldest daughter to the Earl of Grantham in the popular period soap, Downton Abbey. It is my belief, as stated in the title of this blog, that Mary is the main protagonist among the Downton cast of characters. For the coming weeks I plan to discuss why Mary is the ultimate main character and in the process I will analyze her character development/how her character is written, Michelle Dockery’s portrayal of the heroine, and the effect her priority has on the show (the good and the bad aspects).

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The proper way to get this series rolling is to give a general recap and summary of the character I am claiming to be Downton’s protagonist, Lady Mary Crawley. In some regards Mary is the obvious central character. However, more often than not it is said that the Abbey itself is the main character and everyone else has equal footing in the narrative. I disagree with this statement. Although I do believe Downton Abbey is itself a character and is central merely for the sake of the show’s title, it comes down to a plot device. It doesn’t propel the narrative. Another point I should bring up before getting into the meat of this blog is that while all of the characters have their own story-lines that play out, not all of them carry a lot of weight. Many story-lines can be taken out of the show and would have no effect on where the show is going or could have gone. Many story-lines are also poorly fleshed out. Take Thomas’s story-line from Series 5 (spoilers – obviously).

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Interviews with the cast, show runners, and head honcho writer himself, Julian Fellowes, claimed that Thomas’s predicament was very moving and profound and showed a great character arc. These claims held no weight next to what the show gave its audience. Thomas, in the miniscule scenes he appears, comes off as vague and mysterious and just doesn’t get the proper attention from the script or screen time. In theory, his story was very tragic and moving but the final product was choppy and disorganized (this does not include the performance of Rob James-Collier who portrays Thomas on the show. He is an excellent actor and his talents are not utilized enough). If these scenes were removed from the show, it would not affect the overall plot what-so-ever. Therefore it is safe to assume that Thomas is not a main character.

Now, to be fair, Mary does have some story-lines that don’t push the plot forward but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Mary, from the very first episode, is the central pawn/player in the game because it is her future that hangs on the balance with the sinking of the Titanic. Sure another conflict deals with who will inherit Downton and the entail that can’t be broken in Mary’s favor but this again is in direct contrast to Mary. It truly is all about Mary. She was to marry cousin Patrick not only to secure her future but to secure Downton and keep it directly in their family. But now Downton will go to an unknown Crawley cousin and Mary’s prospects aren’t looking positive. Thus begins our main conflict – Mary must find a husband. The family can’t control who inherits Downton but they can control Mary finding a husband…or at least they can try to control her. The show also suggests through character interaction and general plot device that Mary could marry cousin Matthew, the Crawley cousin who will one day inherit Downton Abbey. Thus the Ross and Rachel story-line (the will they, won’t they?) ensues. And for the most part it is handled nicely (as was the Ross and Rachel bits in Friend’s early years).

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Julian Fellowes manages to make this last for two whole Series. Everything hangs on the balance of Mary. Even after she marries Matthew she has to convince him to save Downton with his newfound fortune (after Lord Grantham loses all of Cora’s fortune which supported the great house). Without Mary, Downton would have been lost. She will always be tied to Downton Abbey.

After Matthew’s death, Series 4 is dedicated to Mary recuperating. While some may argue Series 4 is Anna’s time in the spotlight because of the rape plotline, I have to disagree once again but will save all of that for another blog. Series 5 in many ways harks back to Series 1 Mary yet at the same time a Mary we have never seen before, battling with none other than herself. How much this pushes the show forward is led to be discovered. Series 6 finishes us off. Without spoilers, let’s just say that Mary must deal with her own insecurities. The prospect of this sounds very good, but does the show actually follow through and deliver? We shall once again cross that bridge in another blog.

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Another big point, that I know I will go over time and time again throughout this series, is that Mary claims the screen. Mary’s life is literally discussed by most of the characters around her. In fact, this is one key reason as to why I feel the downstairs characters are not dealt the best hands because the show clearly gears toward the upstairs characters and in this case, Lady Mary. Such is the drawbacks of having an ensemble cast. Who is the most important? How do you juggle all of the story-lines and depict realistic characters without short changing them? My advice, don’t come to Downton Abbey for help in that area.

Michelle Dockery, who has played Mary for the entirety of the show, has an on-screen presence that can’t be matched (okay, except for Maggie Smith. Duh). Whenever Michelle is in a scene it is hard not look directly at her. She demands attention and I don’t doubt this played a role in her being cast. There is a certain charismatic element to her acting that seems effortless. Not only is her character a force to be reckoned with but so is she. This proves that while writing is central, other factors can also play into a character’s advantages or disadvantages.

I am not a Downton purist. In many regards I think Downton Abbey is a terrible show. Then there are times I watch and can’t get over how well done a scene is written or acted, etc. My point here is that I don’t come to this with any bias. I will do my best to look at the show from an objective standpoint but leave it open to interpretation. What I hope to accomplish in the next few weeks is to have properly analyzed Mary’s character from a close standpoint and hopefully I will come to my predestined conclusion that she is the main character of Downton Abbey. I invite your feedback in the comments section. This blog series will be my special way of bidding Downton Abbey farewell from our television screens. Hopefully I can throw a few surprises your way, as I should hate to be predictable.

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* I have not read the entire series so this is probably not accurate…or is it?

* My review article of Dead Poets Society on my old blog, Disney Danielle — http://disneydanielle.blogspot.com/2014/09/dead-poets-society-movie-review.html

* The Redemption of the Evil Queen http://disneydanielle.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-redemption-of-evil-queen.html

**Please note that this blog series will contain spoilers up until Series 5 as Series 6 has not yet finished it’s air time in the United States. A Series 6 blog will be written at which point spoilers will be important to discuss the topic at hand. I think it is safe to assume, though, that these posts are not spoiler free. You have been warned.

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