Over the course of the series, Mary emerges as probably the central-most character and not just because she ends up sharing the running of Downton Abbey with her father, Robert. Mary has probably come the furthest of any character in term of her personal development, and though she holds fiercely to tradition, she also embraces--partly through necessity and partly through personal ambition--the independence of thought and leadership forced upon her. One can definitely see her as a Violet-in-training (as Violet says at the end of the first movie), but it took Mary a long road to get there.
In Episode 3.09, Mary gives birth to George, the long-awaited heir to the Grantham dynasty. She has fulfilled her duty and happily so. But, in her final words to Matthew, she says she likes his version of her and not Edith's version of her, and she wants to be more the former than the latter. It's a telling comment. At this point her life, she has defined herself in terms of how other people see her--her father, suitors such as Pamuk and Sir Richard Carlisle, her sister, Edith, and Matthew. She has fulfilled various roles even though those roles sometimes bring out the nasty side of her (e.g., her sibling rivalry with Edith). Her final words to Matthew suggest she would be content to go on being what he expects her to be--his version of her.
But it was not to be.
Matthew's sudden death completely unbalances everything in the world of the Crawley's, and Mary, of course, takes the worst of it. She's lost her husband and one true love only a year after losing her youngest sister, Sybil. She's weathered the storm of potential scandal and the loss of what she believes should be her right to inherit her father's estate (a right to which she was not legally entitled), and now this. A lesser person would have folded. But not Mary.
Mary Crawley Talbot is a study in contrasts. She has deep reserves of inner strength that are made evident from the beginning of the series, but she is also fully aware of the world in which she lives and the expectations thrust upon her as the eldest daughter of an earl. The Pamuk incident remains a potential scandal hanging over her head for years until Matthew asserts that it doesn't make a difference to him. It's only when she finds validation from a man that she is able to let go of her lingering feelings of guilt. A modern woman would be encouraged to find her own inner validation, but Mary is not a modern woman--at least not wholly. The approval of her husband--and of her father--mean very much to her.
Ironically, Matthew's death enables Mary to get what she originally wanted. She becomes "co-captain" of Downton Abbey with her father and finally develops her inner reserves of strength. With Tom Branson as estate manager, she guides Downton Abbey into a world of new ideas that would have been unthinkable to earlier generations. Her decision to open the great house to a film crew receives staunch opposition from Robert and Carson, but Mary recognizes the necessity of it. Money for roof repairs have to come from somewhere.
Eventually, Mary finds love again--sort of. Henry Talbot seems almost an afterthought, a nonentity who fulfills a need in Mary's life--and he doesn't even show up for the second movie. I know the actor was busy elsewhere, but it's interesting how the filmmakers chose to write him out. He doesn't die, like Matthew. He's just off pursuing his own love of cars. But Mary is clearly disappointed. The intense, loving relationship she had with Matthew hasn't emerged in her second marriage. Once again, she is left captaining her own ship alone. But that's where she finds her greatest strength.
What are your thoughts about Mary?