Downton Abbey's Own Year of Mercy (Spoiler Alert)
Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest child of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, has been at war with her sister, Lady Edith, since childhood. And though most viewers expected Mary would call a truce by now, the satisfaction she derives from wounding her unequal rival has yet to abate.
Indeed, when commended for being uncharacteristically nice to Edith, in a recent episode during the 6th Season of Downton Abbey, Mary replies with her trademark drawl: “A monkey will type out the Bible if you leave it long enough.”
Now, Mary's sharp ears have picked up a delicious tidbit that could destroy Edith's reputation. Overhearing a fragment of a conversation between her parents, Mary turns with laser-like attention to Marigold, the child that has become her sister's ward. Can we doubt Mary will discover that Marigold is the unwed Edith's biological daughter—a secret that has been closely guarded by a handful of family members and retainers?
But Mary could surprise us. During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Downton Abbey has offered a series of plot twists that affirm the restorative power of acts of kindness, especially when they are least expected. From Joseph Molesley to Phyllis Baxter to Thomas Barrow, we learn that mercy changes lives, and that it "blesseth him that gives and him that takes," as Shakespeare observes in The Merchant of Venice.
Mercy transforms the once clownish Mr. Molesley, who earned ridicule for accidentally turning his hair blue, and for his ham-handed efforts to secure a more senior position in the household.
Then Baxter arrives. After the lady's maid is forced to reveal her prior conviction for theft, her plight stirs Molesley's sympathy. By Season Six, Molesley is Baxter's most trusted confidant and would-be suitor. In the process, he has gained real gravitas. Nobody is laughing now.
Thomas Barrow is a much darker figure, and the softening of his bitterness is punctuated by plenty of backtracking.
In the first couple of seasons, the audience learns to dislike this poisonous character, who seems to resent everyone in the world. Only later is it revealed that Barrow's deep sense of alienation arises, in part, from his solitary effort to hide and suppress his homosexual impulses.
Baxter is the first to discover the truth, and she never uses it as a weapon against him. Her compassion is striking, as she was once victimized by Barrow. She consciously chooses to end the cycle of retribution. He, in turn, is puzzled and then disarmed.
Still, like most of us, Thomas is a slow learner. tn a recent episode, he is asked to fill in for Carson, the butler, and sees the opportunity as a chance to impress Lord Grantham—only to see his efforts backfire.
Barrow's problems begin after he discovers that the Crawleys have unknowingly invited a former housemaid—now a prominent social reformer—to lunch. Believing that he can score points with Lord Grantham, Barrow tells the guests of the woman's lowly origins. Much to his surprise, however, his employer rewards him with a lecture on the importance of kindness.
Thus Barrow slowly learns that mercy is valued by both the powerful and the weak. Soon after, when Barrow discovers that a young footman can't read, he doesn't inform the staff. Instead, he offers to help him learn his letters. The footman, who had rebuffed Barrow's previous efforts to be friends, apologizes for his behavior and accepts the help.
So will Lady Mary learn from the merciful actions of others and spare everyone a scandal?
Mary receives the first hint of Edith's dangerous secret on the very night that she assumes her father's position, following his physical collapse. And once she discovers the truth about Marigold, her response will set the tone for the next genertaion of the Crawley family.
“The quality of mercy becomes the throned monarch better than his crown,” says Shakespeare. Mary has received her father's crown, but does she see that his merciful attitude has secured more respect for his leadership—and tolerance for his limitations—than his actual station in life?
“Long live our own Queen Mary,” says Tom Branson after his sister-in-law confirms that she will be taking the lead. There is surely reason to hope that Edith and the rest of the Crawley clan will have reason to celebrate.