Lady Mary is known for her icy glares and scandal-prone love life. Michelle Dockery talks about her six years playing one of Downton Abbey’s most memorable and complex characters.
Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.
Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through April 2, 2018.
The exhibition is presented by Viking, the leader in river and small ship ocean cruising, also known for its national corporate sponsorship of MASTERPIECE on PBS.
Rita: I’m going now, but I’ll be back.
Mary: Don’t bother. You’re not the first person who’s tried to blackmail me.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Downton Abbey is back, and Lady Mary finds herself in a familiar spot, face-to-face with a blackmailer.
But things are different this time, and so is she.
Michelle Dockery: She’s been through so much in her life, you know, and she’s matured as a person, and yeah…I feel she’s really grown up.
Jace: I’ll sit down with Michelle Dockery for a look back at Lady Mary’s journey– from Mr. Pamuk to Matthew’s death, and from a young socialite to the widowed protector of Downton’s future.
I’ll also chat with Downton Abbey’s historical advisor, Alastair Bruce, about the rising costs of living large in 1925.
But first, we’ll dive into the season premiere with our Talking Downton roundtable:
On today’s episode, Lord Grantham helped Lady Mary out of a brewing scandal, Mrs. Hughes had a very particular case of pre-wedding jitters, and the Crawleys considered how much longer their extravagant way of life can go on.
I’m joined this week by two of our Talking Downton commentators:
Kate Hess, an actress and writer known for her hilarious MASTERPIECE parody “Murder Abbey,” and Christina Dowling, a writer and unabashed Anglophile who’s reported for E! Online.
So this week, lots happened, so I just want to jump in and find out what you thought…Christina?
Christina Dowling (Christina): Well, any show that starts with horses and hounds and fox hunting gets me. Like, thank you. I don’t… have we seen any hunting since the Mr. Pamuk days?
Jace: I don’t think so.
Kate Hess (Kate): I don’t think so either. Yeah.
Christina: So, exciting?
Kate: Yeah, yeah. They’re back to basics.
Kate: I thought there was a lot of criminal activity happening in this episode.
Jace: It’s nefarious.
Kate: Yeah, I thought I was watching MASTERPIECE Mystery! for a second.
Jace: I actually loved Robert this week for giving the check and getting out of paying the thousand quid, but actually just getting rid of her for 50 quid, which I thought was fantastic. And then getting her to sign a confession, it was very clever for Robert, I thought.
Mary: I’m impressed. My darling Papa transformed into Machiavelli at a touch.
Christina: It was probably the best form he’s ever been in. And I think it kind of all changed… they used to have him left out of everything. He was the last to know anything. And I think last season, when he found out about Marigold and he’s not the last one to know, he like suddenly is capable.
Jace: I want to talk about the Carson-Hughes kiss, which was just so wonderful, and the, you know, “‘If you want me, you can have me,’ to quote Oliver Cromwell, ‘warts and all.'”
Kate: Aw, yeah, that was very sweet.
Jace: Tears, tears, did anyone have tears?
Christina: It was really sweet at the end, but all along, I’ve been like, “They’re getting married? That’s kind of weird.” But yes, it was very sweet that he wants the real marriage with her.
Kate: Well, of course he does. I mean, when they’re talking about them being, like, non-sexual life partners, well, that’s what they are now. You know what I mean? They don’t need to get married to do that.
Jace: About that conversation, though, I mean, I loved the fact that Mrs. Patmore has to be a go-between between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes to talk about whether or not they’re actually going to have sex after they’re married, and it seems very fitting for 1925 that they maybe wouldn’t be able to have this conversation.
Kate: Yeah, for sure, it was hilarious, and you know, Mrs. Patmore deserves a friendship medal for doing that.
Jace: I mean, to me, she’s one of the MVPs for this episode, by far.
Christina: Oh, absolutely. She was amazing, to just navigate that awkward conversation. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die, talking to Mr. Carson about sex. But like, oh god…
Kate: Their performances too were just so spot-on, yeah, it was hilarious.
Jace: Biggest surprise from this episode?
Kate: I was surprised and relieved that the Mr. Green thing was over. I wanted some Veuve Clicquot of my own to celebrate the closing of that, because I just… I really want Anna and Bates to be happy this season. I think they’ve suffered enough.
Jace: They are sort of the most doomed couple of all time. Nothing good can ever happen for Anna and Bates.
Kate: It’s so sad.
Jace: You know, it’s like he’s under suspicion of murder, she’s under suspicion of murder, he’s in prison, she’s in prison. They’re never just like, “Let’s have dinner tonight.”
Christina: I know.
Jace: There’s just no…no middle ground.
Kate: No time off. There’s no date night.
Jace: There’s no date night for Anna and Bates.
Christina: Their date is walking back from work.
Jace: Predictions for next week?
Christina: Someone else has to be murdered, right?
Jace: Someone will be murdered.
Kate: I’d like to see maybe Sergeant Willis and Mrs. Patmore…
Kate: …Do some more spinning.
Christina: They had a nice little dance there.
Christina: There was something.
Kate: That was cute.
Jace: So we think there’s love, love ahead.
Kate: Yeah, maybe another wedding.
Jace: Sergeant Willis and Mrs. Patmore. Final thoughts?
Kate: I hope Rita Bevan does not end up murdered somewhere, because then Anna is definitely going to hang, or Bates, or both.
Christina: Maybe it’s time for Mary to go to jail.
Kate: Yes, exactly!
Christina: She’d probably run the place.
Jace: Michelle Dockery had roles on stage, television, and film in the UK before her 2010 breakout as Lady Mary Crawley. She’s been nominated for three Emmys and a Golden Globe for the role. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to Lady Mary’s perfectly arched eyebrows.
Michelle Dockery (Michelle): Hi.
Jace: So what should fans be most excited about for season six?
Michelle: I guess there’s lots of romance this year. It’s all about the love.
Jace: The love. Season six is about the love?
Jace: I like that.
Michelle: I think it’s such a lovely end to the six years. And of course, there’s twists and turns and ups and downs and…But it certainly goes out with a bang.
Jace: So Mary and Edith don’t kill each other then?
Michelle: No, they don’t. No, no. But I think eventually maybe they will kill each other. Me and Laura Carmichael think there should be some kind of spin off like years on– Edith and Mary are the last two left at Downton and they basically try to kill each other.
Jace: I love that. Now, in episode one, Mary is surprised by how Robert handles blackmailer Rita Bevan, giving her 50 quid to just go away under the threat of prosecution, and his reaction isn’t actually one of anger, but pride in Mary.
Mary: You’re still out of pocket 50 quid. I must repay it.
Robert: No need. It was money well spent.
Robert: To learn that my eldest child is a child no more and quite tough enough to run this estate. Indeed, she could clearly run the kingdom should she be called upon to do so.
Jace: Does this mark the beginning of a real shift in their dynamic?
Michelle: Definitely. And I wasn’t surprised when I read that because I thought this is something that in some ways was quite similar with the Pamuk scandal, and that was a slightly different revelation, you know, when he found out and he was at first very angry towards Mary. And then it was more about her being vulnerable and, you know, she was still very young then, whereas this time, it’s different. And as you say, he’s very proud of her and the way she’s running things and how she’s grown. And I guess he has in some sense an understanding of her actions. You know, Mary’s been through a lot in her life and at quite a young age, and I think that he, deep down, he knows that she’s just trying to figure it out and, I think, discover who she is. I think a lot of Mary’s journey has been searching for who she is. She doesn’t really know who she is half the time and what she’s saying, and I think… She doesn’t like herself very much. You know, she’s quite hard on herself. And this series particularly is about… it’s not just about her finding the next love, you know, it’s about learning to love herself.
Jace: Wow. It’s like a psychoanalytic season of Downton.
Michelle: …learning to love myself. Yeah, yeah.
Jace: Now I wanna, I wanna talk very briefly about the evolution of Mary Crawley. In the script for the first episode, she’s simply just described as, quote, “the family’s great beauty.” She changes significantly over the course of six seasons. What do you make of her transformation?
Michelle: She’s very much a brat in the first series, or at least those first few episodes. And it goes so much deeper than that. She’s been through so much in her life, you know, and she’s matured as a person, and yeah, I feel she’s really grown up. And at the same time, I’ve done the same. I’ve matured at the same time.
Jace: She’s one of the few characters that can toss off a line like “You’re not the first person to blackmail me” with such ice that your blood sort of runs cold, but she’s also an incredibly vulnerable person. How do you play a character that can be so icy and cruel but also likeable?
Michelle: That’s the brilliance of Julian’s writing and, you know, having a character, a female character that is so complex was just so rewarding to play. There’s such complexity in the character. You know, one minute, Mary is vulnerable and sweet, and then she, you know, in a second, she can turn cold and icy. She’s strong, she can be a coward, but complicated. I love that. Her vulnerability I think comes from her just not always knowing who she is or what to do or…
And seeing those moments with Anna have always been… they’ve often been my favorite scenes to play because it’s Mary when she’s at her most honest, because with Anna, she feels very safe. She can actually be, you know, quite… not vicious with Anna, but she can kind of have a strop and then apologize. But she knows she’s forgiven, all is forgiven with Anna. And I love that relationship, that Anna really understands her and she won’t have anyone say a bad word about her. And it works both ways with the two of them.
Jace: There’s an honesty there between the two of them that I love.
Michelle: Yeah, and like with no other character, really. I mean, Anna knows more about her than her family does on a much deeper level. And again, that’s the show, isn’t it? It’s those relationships between the two worlds.
Jace: Ladies and their lady’s maids.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors.
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Jace: The Mary/Matthew romance was so central for so many seasons, and it could have been problematic had Julian just thrown Mary together with another guy. I mean, do you think it was wise to sort of delay this inevitable romance?
Michelle: I think so. Well, I think so because the world was mourning the loss of Matthew Crawley and Dan Stevens, so I think there had to be a bit of time. And with that story, I mean sometimes people say, “What would it have been like if Dan had decided to stay on the show?” In many ways, it actually did the show a lot of good, I think. As much as he was a loss to the show, you know, I’m not sure where it would have gone. I mean, they would have gone on to be happily married and have more children, but there would never have been the storylines that I had had he not have gone. I mean, I… It was great for me, you know, to play all of those, you know, that emotion and something that I really wasn’t expecting.
Jace: I had read that you considered leaving the show after season three as well.
Michelle: I did, and I really did. I was not gonna do it. I just thought, “No, three and I’m done, and that’s what I signed up for.” And it was a very personal decision. I didn’t really talk to anyone about it too much. I thought hard about it, and then actually, I had a conversation with one of our producers. And I walked away and I thought, “I’m not sure I could sit and watch the show, know it’s still going on and not be part of it.” And God, it’s the best decision I ever made. I just don’t… you know, for to not experience the last three years… I mean, I’m not a person… I never have any regrets. I don’t really believe in regrets…
Jace: But at the same time, the last three seasons have been incredibly strong for your character.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Jace: You’ve had a lot to do.
Jace: Were you surprised at all by how close Mary and Tom Branson became considering where they started off?
Michelle: Yeah because she at first of course she’s trying to…You know, she’s such a snob towards him in those early days. But she was always, I mean she was always very fond of him. But yeah, they’ve grown so close. And I think, you know, again that’s another relationship that having the character of Matthew dying… Then those relationships change. It wouldn’t have been the same between Tom and Mary. And we find it, me and Allen find it, very funny that the fans, some fans out there, they want Brary to happen.
Jace: Brary. They want Mary and Tom to end up together?
Michelle: They do.
Jace: Which it seems a little incestuous. But…
Michelle: It’s a bit weird. I think.
Jace: They could be good together though.
Michelle: Yeah. They could. I think so.
Jace: When they say, “That’s a wrap for Michelle Dockery,” what goes through your head?
Michelle: I felt sick, physically sick. It was weird, and I didn’t expect to feel that way. I thought I’d feel emotional, and I was. I was feeling all these things. But I just couldn’t quite believe it, that it was all coming to an end. But it’s a long goodbye. It’s never… I don’t think it will ever be over.
Jace: Do you have a favorite Mary moment, and do you have a favorite behind-the-scenes moment?
Michelle: One of my favorite Mary moments is the train station scene in series two with Dan.
Matthew: Mary, if I don’t come back…
Matthew: No, if I don’t. Then do remember how very glad I am that we made up when we had the chance. I mean it. You send me off to war a happy man.
Michelle: I loved playing it and I also loved watching it. I thought it was a lovely scene.
Behind-the-scenes moment, God, there’s so many. Me and (laughs). Me and Laura, sometimes they would like…There would be mistakes inbookings, hotel bookings, and they would overbook, and so me and Laura would sometimes share a room. This…You’re like, “Where’s this going?”
There was this one night where we were all… we used to sit in this kind of private room, but sometimes, you know, people would walk through, and occasionally they’d recognize us. And there was this party of, like, you know, 15 guys who were staying in the hotel. They were obviously on some sort of conference or something, I don’t know. And they walked through and they recognized us.
And then that night, me and Laura were trying to sleep. We were up early, filming at 6:00 or whatever. And we started hearing this like… This party going on underneath us. And I was like, “I just can’t,” and I hate being woken up — bear with a sore head. And I said, “Right, I’m going down there.” And Laura was like, “No, don’t, don’t. You know, it’ll make it worse. We’ll just put earplugs in and try to go to sleep.” I said, “No, I’m gonna do it.” I went down and I knocked on the door, and he opened the door, and it was like I switched into Mary mode. I said, “My friend and I are above you and we can hear every word you’re saying. Can you please keep it down?” That’s how Laura said it sounded. I came back up and she said, “Michelle, that’s hilarious.” She said, “You turned into Mary.” And of course, they slammed the door and were much quieter. And then she looked at me and she went, “Oh, my God, look at the state of you.” Of course I’d been asleep. My hair was all standing on end and I had this Pink Floyd t-shirt on and just a pair of knickers.
So can you imagine what… he must’ve just gone, “I’ve just seen Lady Mary in a rock t-shirt and pants.”
So yeah, that’s one of my favorites. I mean, but there’ve been so many, just such joyous times we’ve all had as a cast.
Jace: How do you cope with being a global phenomenon?
Michelle: I found it quite overwhelming at first. It was pretty quick. It was…I mean even after the first episode aired the following week, I walked into a new agence where I lived at the time, you know just to get a pint of milk in the morning. And in three newspapers us girl, the three sisters, were on the cover of each newspaper on the front page and, you know, I took a picture of the three papers. Like I couldn’t believe it. I’m not only going to get a pint of milk.
So that was you know exciting and amazing. But then of course, you know, you begin to get recognized and often it’s people you don’t expect like cab drivers, you know, like, “Oh, hello Mary.” You get in the cab and they’re like, “Me and my wife love that show. God you’re awful to your sister.” You know these big grown burly men who are getting emotional about the show. Sometimes it’s the people you don’t expect to love it.
Jace: What will you miss most about playing Lady Mary? I just miss her. I do, I love her as a character, and I, um…I guess she’ll be part of me really forever, and I know that of course, that’s the character that, you know, essentially, it started my career and yeah. I think it’s something that should always stay with me.
John: This life is over for us. It won’t come back.
Edith: I admire you. Too many people just hang on and hang on instead of facing things as they really are.
John: But we did hang on. I’m afraid we hung on for far too long. And now there’s nothing left. Learn from us.
Jace: This final season of Downton begins in 1925, and the extravagant post-war era is drawing to a close. Staff layoffs loom large…
Robert: Who has an under butler these days?
Jace: …while the Crawleys’ neighbors have had to auction off their possessions. We asked Downton Abbey‘s historical advisor Alastair Bruce for some context.
Alastair Bruce (Alastair): Workers’ rights and opportunities were increasing, and they were being paid more. And when this was looked at from the point of view of one of the great houses– of which there were plenty left at the time we show Downton Abbey, and in fact there continued to be a large number of them right up until quite recently– the difficulty was that they were being squeezed at both ends. So taxation was increasing, and the cost of labor was going up, and so inevitably, people like Lord Grantham faced an ever-larger burden paying for the labor that was being generated to run the lifestyle that he had been brought up with.
And of course, the labor bill was not merely being paid on the staff within the house, but all across the estate. And Downton Abbey owned an incredible amount of land. There it was, the great manor house at the center of it, rather like a capital city in the middle of a country. But at the same time, it had a huge responsibility, which sat on Lord Grantham’s shoulders, to pay for all this.
And the realities of a new world were striking hard, and that’s what you get a sense of at the end of this episode.
Jace: To purchase Downton Abbey DVDs and Blu-rays, or Downton Abbey merchandise, visit shopPBS.org or other retailers. And for more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content, check out the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast at pbs.org/masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking and The MASTERPIECE Trust.
Jace: I had to tell Michelle about this, like, five years ago. I was sitting down with her and I said, “Michelle, do you know there’s a Twitter account dedicated to your eyebrows?” And she was like, “This is why I stay off of Twitter.”
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is open in New York City, now through April 2, 2018. See downtonexhibition.com for tickets and more details.
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