On Matthew & Mary: Meta; Introduction
ON MATTHEW & MARY: Meta; Part I
Of First Impressions, Snobbery, and Sea Monsters
Of First Impressions, Snobbery, and Sea Monsters
I feel it pertinent to say that the base of this relationship, for me, is love of their imbalance. If there’s one thing that I think makes this ship the most painful and tragic one I have ever experienced, it’s that these two love each other so much, but always in different variations. Very rarely are these two completely in sync. They are always off-balance and it’s what makes them so painful to watch. The series has really nurtured this aspect of them—so much that we literally begin their introduction as such. Their first meeting in the second episode-- with its first impressions and initial prejudices-- is simply humorous and wonderful. But as well, it layers their characters and exposes them at the same time.
In 1.02, the first trait we witness in Matthew is his middle class pride that I spoke of in the introduction. My absolute favorite aspect of this trait is how it is both a character triumph and a flaw. Matthew comes into this world questioning its snobbery and entitlement. While this is a positive reflection on a deeply flawed class system, what is nuanced about Matthew is that it also blinds him, as we see later with Molesley. It’s not so much that Matthew comes into this world questioning its manners and attitudes, but it’s that his snobbery of it becomes his own source of unmitigated pride. Thus in many ways, he’s not really very different from the Dowager Countess.
I say this necessarily because my favorite aspect of Matthew in the beginning of series one is how little he cares about upper class entitlements when it comes to Mary. His prejudices simply vanish the first time he sees her. It’s Matthew’s completely romantic quality that all thought of his own pride quite literally flies out the window when she’s around. He comes into Downton set against these people and their way of life, and just as he vows to “choose his own wife”, his soulmate walks in the door. All that talk about not allowing himself to get caught up in this “life” vanishes for a few minutes. Matthew is so resistant to everything about being the future Earl of Grantham, but around her, that resistance is completely lost. He allows himself to get swept up. He wants to get swept up. To me, this is why it’s so heartbreaking for him in 1.07, and why it ties so well into his line ‘you’ve shown me I’ve been living in a dream, and now it’s time to return to real life.’ The way I see it, this world was something he was afraid of, apprehensive about. In many ways, it was genuinely something he did not understand, nor want to understand. He grew to love the Crawleys and accept his position, but the position itself never mattered. What made the possibility of having this life excitable for him was that he might be able to share it with her one day. And that mere thought, the idea that she was Downton to him, that she was everything he saw in this world, is heart wrenching. It is so heart wrenching that he literally has to hightail it out of dodge in order to recuperate. As well, this all speaks volumes of why he bounced from the aristocratic haughty elegance of Mary to the middle class demure sweetness of Lavinia Swire. But of course, more on that later.
And even though Mary is resistant to the spark in the beginning, the brilliant aspect of the relationship is that the spark is only emboldened by that tension. It raises the question of why. Why do they care? What is this attraction built on? It is undeniably built on something. We can feel it, it’s just hard to definitively posit. Because I have always read them through a very Austenian perspective, I really do see them as Liz & Darcy in a lot of respects. I feel confident in saying that this perspective isn’t inaccurate. For me, the reasons why Matthew is so instantly attracted to Mary are a couple. First, I think it’s simply because Mary does embody aspects of the Hello Nurse trope. Men are helpless to fall in love with her just because she’s Lady Mary Crawley, and Matthew is no exception to the rule. Secondly, I feel like the attraction is built on that instant communication of intelligence. Matthew, an educated man, would not take on a wife who is merely a trophy. I think he actually requires an amount of conversationality in a partner. In that first meeting and later in the Andromeda/Sea Monster conversation, we the audience pick up on that. These two are intellectual equals. There is a meeting of the minds where we know that this is a match of equal strength on opposing ends. It could ignite something worth having and sharing.
When we consider Mary’s feelings for Matthew in the beginning, we know things are bound to be more complicated. This was always a hard situation for both of them, but despite how “practical” we make Mary out to be, her pragmatism is terribly muddled by her romantic heart. That’s the complexity of her character. She would like to see the world pragmatically, a series of chess moves and experimentation, but it’s not always possible for her. She sees nuance in everything, a lot of this enflamed by the Pamuk incident. I think that Matthew—for all of his romanticism— is actually more practical than her. He’s not necessarily practical in regards to action, but in spirit he certainly is. He sees the world in sets of dichotomies and thinks of morality as a binary entity. For these reasons, it’s why Matthew allows himself to fall so hard for her, because it’s just easy. But for Mary, it takes a lot more time to come to this realization. I think the moment when she was “opened up” to the possibility of Matthew was at the end of episode three when he comes to her to very sincerely express condolences over Pamuk’s death. She gives him this look, a look of simultaneous surprise, knowing, and deep appreciation. Here she has been (somewhat) genuinely horrible to this man since he has arrived, and yet, he still comes to her in complete sincerity. This is where we see that in many ways, they are the same person. Mary regards this for the first time on a subliminal level. She is an embryonic spirit of justice. She does not see class lines as having any true social bounds on who deserves what and who is better than who. She is painfully romantic deep down, someone who sees truth in work. She’s independent, she’s smart. But we know she’s trapped, and it’s caused her to be mean-spirited and snobbish at certain points. It’s caused her arrogance. She’s so encumbered by social manners and expectations that she never had a true outlet to express herself. The only way she can express herself is through trying to go against her parents by “not marrying any man she is told to.” I think Mary would be content to be a social force (thinking obviously of her life with someone like Carlisle) but even moreso, I think Mary just longs to be happy. She longs to love. So even though she initially rejects Matthew out of rebellion and haughtiness, in this moment she comes to understand a man who is kind and just, who is as independent in his thinking as she is. She sees a man who genuinely cares about her feelings—someone who doesn’t expect her to constantly give back to society but instead asks if she needs anything. She feels for the first time that someone might be able to understand her.
I feel this is a reasonable assessment considering her behavior in 1.04, where she is clearly comfortable sharing delicate details of her unhappiness to him. Hence, as series one moves forward, Mary and Matthew are revealed to each other in a number of ways that bring them closer. What I adore about Matthew is that he is one of the only characters that actually honors Mary’s anger regarding the entail situation. He genuinely feels bad, genuinely tries to see if there’s a loophole by which she could have the estate and Cora’s fortune. He does not retaliate to her anger, he does not push and shove, but he says ‘I’m sorry and I wish there was something I could do.’ It’s in episode four where Matthew starts to see Mary as a more complex being, and when we think about it, that’s actually where we began to see their relationship ignite. Matthew is always a bit daft, but I think he understands Mary in a certain way that others never can. He becomes privy to parts of her pain that others aren’t. He hears her bemoan the fact that she wishes she had a real life, perhaps work to go to or meaningful affairs to attend to. Basically, he knows that she feels her life is empty. His naturally loving nature reaches out to that. It’s why I think his proposal in 1.06 was almost partially out of his tendency towards “duty”—yes, he certainly loved her for who she was and wanted to marry her because he genuinely wanted her to be his wife, but I also think he saw himself marrying her because he knew it would be good for everyone involved. I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing, quite the opposite really. I find it kind of sweet, but I do see it somewhat as a hurdle. For their romance to be real and effective and long lasting I think they need to marry each other for each other, and nothing else. It’s why I feel that if they had married in series one, their relationship could have hit desperate rough patches along the way. It’s why in retrospect, the emotional maelstrom of series two was so necessary.
Having discussed the beginnings of their relationship, there are two moments in particular that I would like to reflect on as I wrap this up: Pamuk, and Mary’s allusion to her and Matthew as Andromeda and the Sea Monster. Firstly, the terrible irony in this whole situation is the variable of Pamuk and the factor that he plays into their relationship. He acts as both a catalyst and a dark omen throughout both series. I do firmly believe that if it had not been for the Pamuk incident awakening Mary to how deeply unhappy she is, she never would have reached out to Matthew. I see the Mary of 1.01/1.02 as a woman dealing with oppression through snobbery because she has no other means by which she can express her bitterness. Inside lies a full beating heart, but it’s locked down. If the events of 1.03 accomplished anything, it was the epiphany of how much she truly hated her life. At last, she could see her world from a God’s eye perspective and her own life’s emptiness was made apparent to her. I do believe that if it had not been for this awakening, then her relationship with Matthew would have taken a very different course, or maybe never have ignited at all. Framing it in this manner, it’s interesting to note that while Pamuk helped to push them along, his ghost is also what put such dramatic halts in their journey. It is one of the more complicated aspects of their relationship that I thoroughly enjoy. To my mind, there is nothing static about Mary and Matthew. It is in irony like this that we see what brings them together is also what pulls them apart. What they love about each other is also what separates them. It delves back into the mystery of their relationship and our constant need to question the binding factors of these two individuals. These complications, of course, will only be exacerbated by the end of series one, which I will return to shortly.
Secondly, I think it is fairly obvious why it’s important to touch on the Greek myth Mary shares with the class. The whole scene is vital, namely because it is an entire foreshadowing of their relationship. If I can be honest, it’s probably my favorite aspect of their whole journey. The scene itself is important for establishing the banter and intelligence between Mary and Matthew, but it also reaches for a higher level on their relationship. Reflecting on this scene in regards to how we now see series one and two as a whole, it is how we come to understand first and foremost that their love is a journey. Journeys have unexpected detours; they have off-the-trail beaten paths. Often times, the road is straight forward if we read the map correctly. But sometimes you also get lost in the woods. I always feel like its Fellowes complete troll moment, his way of telling us that it’s going to all work out, it just might not be as we expected. These two will get lost in the woods quite a bit, but they are in their own way each other’s map, always steering one another back towards each other.