If Julian Fellowes only had the nerve, Downton Abbey would give us the epic Mary/Tom romance we deserve.
Now that I’ve lit my own bonfire and handed you all your pitchforks, I must urge you to calm down, Downton Abbey purists. I think that if you allow yourself to really search the deepest pits of your darkest soul, you’ll realize that you want Mary Crawley and Tom Branson to get it on, too.
I know, I know. I felt pretty icky about the idea at first, as well. When ITV showed up with its series four promos way back in 2013, I was left distraught, I tell you: DISTRAUGHT. So, Matthew was really dead, then? Were we just expected to move on from the single most devastating moment of our fictional lives? BUT THEY LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH. Matthew changed Mary, irrevocably! They were on and off, then on again; they made it through dead Turkish diplomats, World Wars, Evil Richards, and the Spanish influenza. YOU DON’T JUST MOVE ON FROM THAT.
Hmph, I thought. I would rather Mary die a dried up old widow than see her end up with some second-rate version of not-Matthew. I wanted this to go down Princess Bride style with Mary declaring she’d closed up shop for good before melodramatically plunging a glistening blade through her chest. Mostly dead is still slightly alive!
I had laughed off the rumors of a potential Mary/Tom romance until that point, so I wasn’t sure what to make of Branson’s beautiful batting eyelashes and seemingly-unintentional sexy smirks, at first. It felt so wrong it might be right, and I wondered if I might be turning over to the dark side. Even though Matthew and Sybil were dead, it was cheating to move on, wasn’t it? How could Mary and Tom ever be happy again? They’d already had their epic loves — painful, beautiful loves that they’d pined and suffered for.
And yet, despite their pain, somehow Mary and Tom were able to push through, helping each other heal along the way. When Mary was falling apart in her grief, it was Tom who insisted she take charge of her destiny. When Tom felt out of place in his new upstairs role, it was Mary who made sure he always felt that he belonged to someone. More than friends, they became each other’s confidants —the one person who’s judgment they always trusted. Their belief in each other pushed them to become stronger individuals, while their differences helped them each grow into more accepting, genuinely kinder people. Finally, two and a half seasons later, I’m forced to redact my previous outrage and admit that after everything these two have been through, a Mary and Branson endgame is the only suitable outcome that makes sense.
Matthew and Sybil were important, epic first loves for Mary and Tom. They were kind, good-hearted idealists who saw the glass as half-full despite their spouses pragmatism. And yet, there are elements about their relationships with Mary and Tom that have always made me a little bit uncomfortable. As much as they loved their spouses, as the alphas, Mary and Tom always seemed to hold an inordinate amount of power in their relationship with their partners. Tom and Sybil’s marriage in particular had very peculiar power dynamics with his inability to accept her family and continuous demands for her to reject the Crawley lifestyle, even when they were guests staying at Downton Abbey. He wanted her to give up her way of life to be with him, but while she was alive, he wasn’t willing to hedge a little to try and understand her family’s point of view. As darling as they both are, it didn’t always feel like a relationship of equals.
But their spouses’ deaths changed both Mary and Tom, and in realizing the good-hearted people they’d lost, they both softened up, allowing themselves to be open to change. The original spitfires at Downton, Mary and Branson always respected each other, but their loss allowed them to grow from formidable opponents to essential allies. Mary and Tom’s relationship is, and has always been about seeing each other as equals. They bring out the best in one another because they challenge each other to grow, but also remind one another of their best qualities.
Somehow, despite their mutually fiery personalities, Mary and Tom have found a way to compliment each other and become each other’s rock of stability, each one keeping the other cool and calm in the face of adversity. As confidants, they are able to trust each other because they recognize their own shared strengths in one another other: a scrappy persistence, an understated kindness, and a fierce, unwavering loyalty.
If Downton Abbey would only be brave enough to take the chance, it has a golden opportunity to develop a beautiful, realistic love story. Enough time has finally passed to make Mary and Tom’s relationship feel organic in a way few others have had a chance to be told on the show, because theirs is a relationship built on friendship, not drama. It’s the slow burn of the 20th century, and a different kind of epic — a story about finding a second true love after tragedy.