In Downton Abbey 1×03, we saw the first inkling of attraction between Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). It’s what the Crawley family had been dreaming of — in the pilot, the heir to the family fortune, Patrick, died on the sinking of the Titanic. He had been newly, secretly engaged to Lady Mary, which would have kept the current residents of Downton Abbey in control of their estate.
But upon Patrick’s death, heirship passed to the nearest male relative, the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville): a distant cousin, whom the family would affectionately call “Cousin” Matthew, a solicitor in another town.
Everyone immediately wanted Mary to marry him, because that would give her and the family security. But Mary has no idea if she is interested in marrying Matthew. They’ve only just met; she knew Patrick her whole life. That was an easier decision. And Mary very quickly learns that Matthew is not “one of them”: He isn’t not a member of the aristocracy; he is painfully middle class.
And so, at the end of the third episode, Matthew asks Mary if she would join him on a horse ride sometime. Mary was taken aback. Matthew had seen her flirting with a houseguest, Mr. Pamuk (a pre-Divergent series Theo James), on a hunt earlier in the day, and apparently felt envious. Mary replies, of course, she would be delighted to go on a ride with. Still, she is flustered; she wasn’t expecting any such question from Matthew. The question clearly made something apparent to her that was in her subconscious already — she wouldn’t have had this reaction if she were not excited and nervous to spend this time alone with Matthew.
It’s an electrifying and subtle moment that plants a flag and says, this romance will be an important part of the show. It had been a question before, a theoretical possibility, but now it was an emotional reality.
In the next episode, we get another crumb of potential. During an argument about the fact that she cannot directly inherit her parents’ money, Mary tells Matthew, “My life angers me, not you.” They share a look in silence, and this brief confidence allows us beyond the walls of artifice. We see that these two people are feeling each other out; Mary is deciding if he is trustworthy, if he is worth loving.
The show’s first season slowly and carefully built their relationship with these nuggets of intimacy and they hit like a brick every time — repression is so exciting!
It’s devastating and enthralling to watch Dockery’s and Stevens’ chemistry light up the scene, and you feel deeply for what these characters have to go through. There are twists in the season about whether Matthew will in fact inherit the family fortune, and Mary has to take stock of the situation. You want so desperately for Mary and Matthew to end up together, for them to accept each other and love each other, but you understand Mary’s hesitation.
It is expected of her to make a decision on marriage with her head, not her heart. And it is gutting when she does so.
Beyond the human drama, the relationship between Mary and Matthew was a microcosm of the show from the jump: a personification of the larger theme of the show about how the aristocracy and the working classes live together. Mary is prejudiced against Matthew. He is middle class and represents modernity; he has a fascination with new technologies and ideas.
Mary, however, represents tradition — she confidently proclaims she doesn’t read the news because she is too busy with sport, the proper pastime for a lady of her wealthy station.
This is what the whole series was about, how to reconcile tradition with the never-ending onslaught of time. Mary and Matthew’s courtship embodied this theme, and no other aspect of the show did it better. This is probably because Matthew is not an employee of the Crawley family, but a member. He is a person Mary loves (or, at first, a person she felt obligated to respect), and this closer relationship forced her to reexamine her values.
A housemaid or a footman would never express distaste with Britain’s aristocratic system, but Matthew is perfectly comfortable doing so, challenging what Mary had taken for granted about the world. She opens her mind to the possibility that the unknown isn’t to be feared, that the way things have always been done aren’t better than any other way.
When the tension of Mary and Matthew’s will-they-or-won’t-they was finally resolved, the stakes of the show ceased to have the urgency of the early seasons. The show would continue to explore the dynamics between the upstairs and downstairs classes, but it would never be quite the same since it would never hit the aristocrats quite so close to home.
The show would become increasingly more openly pro-aristocracy. It always was, but the challenges to it became less and less frequent. The show would take potshots at socialism and monarchism alike, but when balance is restored at the end of an episode or season, it did so with the aristocracy validated and praised.
The metaphor was an important aspect of Mary and Matthew’s relationship, but the human drama always reigned supreme. The apex of their relationship — of the entire series — comes midway through the second season premiere. Matthew has been home from the front lines of World War I in France and he is about to depart. He is engaged now, and not to Mary.
But as he is catching his early morning train to depart, Mary meets him at the station, secretly. They laugh about how she possibly could have woken herself up without without Anna (Joanne Froggatt) drawing the curtains. She gives him a good luck trinket: a small stuffed dog. They share a tender moment when she tells him he will need it more than her now. Matthew tells her he is so glad they are friends. Mary smiles and agrees, putting on a brave face.
The moment carries the pain of their relationship, which by now had gone through many ups and downs. At this point it seemed there was no future marriage between them, so there is also a feeling of resolution, giving the scene a melancholic bent. It put a button on the journey they’ve gone on so far, but kept the door open for what was still to come.