I’m always very fascinated by this moment. Downton is a show that is really about Slytherin and Ravenclaw women, with the men as their softer, Hufflepuff complements. Especially through the prism of Mary, Downton has always exemplified that women themselves wore their own soldier’s uniform. The motif of Mary looking into mirrors has always been important in this regard— every day, this is a woman who gets up and puts on her own uniform to go to battle, that is, the battle of the drawing room, the battle of social small talk, the battle of courtship, the battle of marriage. I’m enthralled by the armor women wear, the way they fasten their masks on, the turmoil that belies a cool and engaging exterior.
At this point in 2x04, Mary is feeling at her lowest. She’s not just sad or heart stricken, but she’s living with emotions that are all the more terrible because of the way they psychologically stretch time: the emotions of fear and dread that the worst has happened. Mary acclimates to the battle of the aristocracy because she knows she’s good at it; she slowly comes to regard it as an arbitrary set of rules and standards, but it’s a set of rules and standards that she was brought up in and knows very well. She is—and always will be— completely about the conscious construction of identity. She roleplays. And in this moment, in a moment of despair, a moment when any softer person would probably curl up into a ball on their bed and just weep, you can see her visibly putting on that armor, letting the role of “Lady Mary” wash over the scared girl who is just Mary. In a way, it’s very similar to the Mary we see at the end of 4x01, a grief stricken widow who knows she has a part to play, so instead of waking up and putting on the black dress, she decides that today, she will dress the part of a business woman coming out of mourning, a woman ready to tackle estate issues. For me, I’ve always felt that this is where Fellowes is telling his audience that Mary is first and foremost a sympathetic heroine, a rolemodel even. She never settles for just being less than what she is, which is someone who she knows can wield power over people. So every day she dresses the part. She doesn’t just fake it till she makes it, but she fakes it till she truly embodies it with style and flare. She is the opposite of Sartre’s waiter who, in bad faith, is consciously deceiving himself and is inauthentic. Mary, rather, embodies her choice, creates herself, and acts completely in accordance with it. And what’s so telling about this specific moment is that you can see all of that wash over her in about three seconds.