The Mary Sue Syndrome of Downton Abbey

This is now my family crest


As Downton Abbey brings to close its sophomore season, I think it’s going to become a target for parody and criticism. It’s the unfortunate burden of mega success. There’s a threshold of forgiveness in the nano-second attention span of the general public and I believe if a series makes the cover of TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, it’s a given that it’s going to get lambasted by those who knew it in obscurity, by experts, critics, fashionistas and ahem bloggers.
Let me make my case before I go further: I’m Just Sayin’ There Are Anachronisms In ‘Downton’
Mark your calendars everyone! It’s open season on Downton Abbey!
There’s no way I can launch into this without acting like a totally insufferable tool. Yes, I’m hooked on this glorified soap opera. I arrange my Sunday night around it and usually watch the encore on Tuesday nights. But I’m very much like every other demanding, ungrateful, gormless, butt-grooving couch dweller who falls head-over-heels in unbridled love in Season One only to turn into the Nasty Critic for Season Two.
Grab your big-boy diapers Mr. Julian Fellowes, here’s my bellyache about your oeuvre: What’s with all the Mary Sue‘s?

Mr. Bates, Valet to Lord of Grantham

Mr. John Bates hobbled in on his cane with his unprepossessing manner as the new Valet to the Lord of the Manor. Granted, as we learn that the position doesn’t call for much more than brushing dandruff off his Lord’s two jackets, it’s clear from the household’s staff reaction that a lame Valet will never do. Yet Bates prevails through trials of tripping through the first three episode, discovery of a nasty past which included prison time for theft. He’s got a vile wife who turned up here and there to show how noble a man Bates really is and he quit the job just to have Lord Grantham beg for his return. Not only that, Bates bagged the cutest Maid in the household. Don’t be surprised that he wrote a soon-to-be released manual on SUCCESS! HOW TO MAKE IT BIG WHEN YOU REALLY ARE A PERPETUAL LOSER

Future Heir and Lord

Cousin Matthew Crawley. He’s a milquetoast personified! I’m not sure if it’s his goofy face when he’s supposed to be looking steely. Or if it’s his goofy face when he’s just received bad news. Or if it’s his goofy face when he realizes he’s in love with Mary…or Lavinia… The sad fact is he’s got a goofy face at the times we need to see his strength, potential and passion. The good news is nothing can kill Matthew, he will be the goofy-faced Heir to the Manor–he’s survived getting lost in enemy territory, a severed spine and a few little chats with Dowager Lady Grantham.

The Ladies Grantham-Sybil, Mary and poor Edith

To the Manor born, life for the young Ladies Grantham is strangely stagnant. None of the characters have evolved as much as those who dwell beneath the grandeur. Sybil, the youngest, entered a rebellious stage of independence in Season One and has kept it going in a most boring way by ending betrothed to the Chauffeur. Mary, a real hell-cat and one of the most interesting characters in Season One has settled to pining for Matthew while remaining perpetually engaged to an evil newspaper baron. They keep setting their wedding dates for two months in the future but the happy occasion has yet to happen as we watch Mary sigh after goofy-faced Matthew all through WWI. And poor, poor Edith. She’s destined to be an Old Maid after her potential engagement was scuttled by her mean sister. She takes every opportunity she can to fling herself at farm hands and burn victims. It’s only the inner nobility of the objects of her desire (and sharp eye of a watchful wife) that keeps her pure.

Housemaid Ethel Who Cares?

Why, why, why are we spending so much time on this story line? Housemaid Ethel has big dreams, sleeps with a cad of an Officer, gets caught, gets sacked, gets pregnant, gets the entire staff and Lady Crawley to get her baby acknowledged by the now-dead cad Officer’s parents…wait, what? Is this really going anywhere? Who is this one again? What happend to the one who wanted to be a secretary? The most remarkable thing about this story line is they found the world’s BIGGEST baby to play the role of the cad Officer’s bastard son. Either Ethel is a tiny actress or that’s really Andre the Giant’s bastard son.

Thomas the Evil Butler

Now don’t get me wrong, villains make a soap opera, and Thomas the Butler is a devilishly good villain but Mr. Fellowes has written him out of the story about 5 times and he just won’t go! He should have been thrown out for stealing, dragged out of town for buggery, blown apart in the enemy trenches, arrested for black marketing and marched off the premises for trespassing…yet Thomas prevails. No one but the evil O’Brien likes him (and no one likes O’Brien) so how does he manage to hang around, loafing and blowing smoke at the hard working help for three months after he was supposed to clear out? I will definitely buy his book: SUCCESS! HOW TO LIVE RENT-FREE IN A LUXURIOUS CASTLE WHILE BEING AN ASS-HAT TO EVERYONE

Lady Cora Crawley

Ahh, Lady Grantham. Lovely, proper, gentle. Appears fragile but has an iron core and a deviousness that makes her fascinating. Unfortunately, Mr. Fellowes has made something of the segue character for Downton’s transitions by not once, but twice throwing her at Death’s Door. She nearly dies of miscarriage at the end of Season One. She nearly perishes of Spanish Flu near the close of Season Two. Cora’s perilous brushes with death are the nice little stages to gather the Help and the Family around her bed or chaise, show us their Most Concerned Faces and re-prioritize all the errant ways of the Downton inhabitants. It’s also to show us how lovely Lady Grantham looks when she’s sweaty and has a bloody nose. The jealous side of me knows I don’t look that good on my best day. Hmph.

The Dowager Lady Grantham

The Dowager Lady Grantham, Maggie Smith can pull the Mary Sue card in anything she does on this show as far as I’m concerned. She commands the scene whenever she appears. Her carriage, dress and demeanor forgive all the inconsistencies and weak story lines in Season Two. Honestly, I don’t think I’d have a problem if she showed up as Bat Man, jet-packed around the castle then ordered Carson to fetch the Batmobile after dinner. I absolutely adore her.

Perhaps this tirade is a bit of my own acting out; there is only one episode left to Season Two and I’m looking at a yawning span of mediocrity while I console myself with the reruns on Netflicks. I can hear myself saying “Well this isn’t ‘Downton’ at all, is is?” in my best Maggie Smith voice when I’m forced to watch some other lame series. It’s simply the best way I can manage a Downton drought until Season Three.

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About EF Sweetman

bees, baseball, beverly, ma, culture, manners, society, writing
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13 Responses to The Mary Sue Syndrome of Downton Abbey

  1. Steven Strauss says:

    Is this just a show about how awful people can be, and how society allows it? And how devastatingly lovely affluence is? Because we just did that, with Mad Men.

    • EF Sweetman says:

      It’s not quite as biting or edgy as Mad Men and it’s of a different era. It has a much more noble side than Mad Men–the characters strive to to the right thing. But it’s strongest lure is the “devastatingly lovely affluence” of the time–very well done.

  2. Monica Foulkes says:

    Gentle cough … hate to point this out, really, but it’s in your very first sentence … “it’s sophomore season” … should be “its”. And Maggie might ask, with a wry twist of the mouth, if you really MUST use “sophomore”.

    • EF Sweetman says:

      Well! My goodness! Haven’t you made yourself quite USEFUL for pointing that out. Thank you for that. (as I turn away and look at a non-existant thing on the ceiling and wait for Carson to deliver tea)

  3. “it’s sophomore season” should be its.

  4. Love this and love Downton. Also, I care about housemaid Ethel. I fantasize that she will start a business on her own and they will all work for her someday. Unrealistic? Maybe, but why on earth does Mary like Matthew? That’s less likely, if you ask me.

    • EF Sweetman says:

      Thank you! So nice to see you again! I guess that’s the obvious lure of a good soap opera–there are many story lines with some who like one, others who like something else. I agree with the Mary/Matthew, it’s really played out. Now as for Ethel–she could join a travelling circus and sell 5 cent tickets to see her giant baby.

  5. mary wissmann says:

    Oh Liz, your blog captures the essence of Downton in every manner, the Dowager Lady Grantham would day – it’s perfect, its perfect, itz perfect, ’tis perfect…, the pictures…Downtown kicks bum in every manor! From your faithful sister, Mary

    • EF Sweetman says:

      Thank you, thank you Dear Sister! I was in great peril without you! Imagine! Two pointed comments on my mistake without a formal introduction. What are we coming to? (fainting away now, make a Very Concerned Face…)

      • Monica Foulkes says:

        Oh dear. The first pointed comment was mine, and I do apologize. So crass of me. Dame Maggie would chastise me … “Don’t be pedantic, dear, it’s so middle class”.

        I should instead have said that I agree with you that this 2nd series is so poorly scripted compared to the 1st that it invites some snarky criticism (not that you said “snarky”, my dear, that’s me being crass again). Bit rushed, the poor writers, I think.

        Matthew, for instance, waffles about — first it’s Mary, then Lavinia, then Mary again — and when last seen he was made up like a zombie at Ginger Lavinia’s grave site, spouting lines to Mary such as “We are cursed, you and I.” “We must accept that this is the end.” Whereupon I was expecting him to topple into the grave (that would have been suitably gothic, don’t you think, sort of Charlotte Bronte?) But he didn’t topple and he somehow managed to spout those lines without cracking up (he’s good).

        But Michelle Dockery as Mary is the best actor. Just her eyebrows can steal a scene. And she steals some lines that I’m sure were meant for Dame Maggie … Sir Richard (the cad): “I hear you’ve lost your chauffeur; maybe I can drive.” Mary: “Preferably over the chauffeur.” I like her better when she’s playing the ice queen.

        Sir Richard (the cad, the bounder) seems inordinately patient for a cad – how long has he been waiting, a year, two? He’s growing on me, compared with Matthew.)

        Thomas … the actor, whose name I forget, is very good, given the confusing lines he’s fed (is he gay? is he evil? why is he evil – the writers seem to have forgotten) and the number of cigarettes he’s given to smoke, lurking around corners. Waste of a good actor. Give Thomas a better part! He can do it … remember the match in the trenches scene?

        Well, tomorrow is the last episode. My folks in England tell me this was shown there as a Christmas special and they say it was a return to the tighter, better-written scripts of the first episode, so I’m looking forward to it. Plus — my folks grumbled like heck about the number of commercials they had to put up with because this was a commercial TV production over there, and I can gloat to them that I am watching it on peerless Public TV here in the States and PBS has no commercials (well, once it starts)! Yay for PBS! (oh, so sorry Dame Maggie. I’m being crass again.)

      • EF Sweetman says:

        My dear, such jolly good and spot-on observations! We must be friends as we pine for a decidedly sharper third season. I really hate to complain as I’ve arranged my life around it–I watched the finale in our Montreal hotel room! I’m so glad to know it’s going on. Now, you must keep me posted as you have an inside line! Thank you for writing.

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