Primetime pro-life: ‘Downton Abbey’ affirms single mother’s capabilities


With the beginning of every season of Downton Abbey, socially media explodes with excitement. Women (and men) all over the world anticipated what season four would bring. (The cast has observed, too, that American viewers take on a “hysteria” about the show that is unknown among British fans, even though the show was created in England.) The principle question among fans, going into season four, was how the death of a lead character, Matthew, would be followed up. Season three ended with the joyous birth of Matthew’s first-born child, and his sudden death in a car crash just hours later as he traveled to share the news with family. Leaving behind a grieving wife, a fatherless child, and a massive estate, what would writer Juilan Fellowes do with Matthew’s memory and all that he left behind?

Season five takes place several months after Matthew’s death/his son’s birth. Mary (played by Michelle Dockery), his widow, has not been able to pull herself out of grief. She is despondent and uninterested in the baby, who is cared for by a nanny almost constantly. Mary’s excessive grieving is fostered by her father, Lord Grantham, who urges the rest of the family to leave her alone until she becomes better in her own time. But Mary’s grandmother, played by Maggie Smith, sees the heart of the problem at its core: someone needs to love Mary, and straightforwardly tell the young mother that her period of mourning must be definitively ended at some point; otherwise, she will spend her life living in the land of the dead and her child will grow up without her.

The Dowager (Mary’s grandmother) takes this duty upon herself, and the scene begins as the she enters Mary’s bedroom, and Mary acknowledges that her behavior at dinner (she was set off by comments about duties left behind at Matthew’s death) was probably inappropriate.

Dowager: My dear, I’m not really very interested in whether you behaved badly or well.

Mary: No?

Dowager: No, I’m not your governess. I’m your grandmother.

Mary: And the difference is?

Dowager: The difference is, I love you.

Mary: Of course you do. I’m sorry.

Dowager: Mary, you’ve gone through a hideous time. But now you must remember your son. He needs you very much.

Mary: I know. The truth is, I don’t think I’m going to be a very good mother.

Dowager: Why not?

Mary: Because somehow, with Matthew’s death, all the softness that he found in me seems to have dried up and drained away. Maybe it was only over there in his imagination.

Dowager: My dear, there’s more than one type of good mother. The fact is, you have a straightforward choice before you: You must choose either death, or life.

Mary: And you think I should choose life?

The answer is obvious, and from this point forward Mary makes a concerted effort to re-enter the “land of the living” and to be present as a mother for her young son.

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