Mary and Sybil’s interactions in this week’s Downton Abbey (season 3 episode 2) b-plot were a particularly well-done bit of writing, complex and real and satisfying, partly because the place where it lands us is for now relatively without consequence in a show that often limits its gratuities to s*** the Dowager Countess says.
In Act I, Mary comes upon Sybil and Branson the chauffeur and realizes their attraction.
It’s a natural encounter in the course of daily household life, and in addition to starting up the episode’s b-plot it sets up Mary’s line confronting Sybil while they’re dressing for dinner:
That is why one talks to chauffeurs, isn’t it? To plan journeys by road.
A sharp insight into tart character. Mary just can’t help herself—she’s smart enough to be snide and so she is, even when she has Sybil’s best interests at heart, albeit presumptuously. Sybil rejoins citing both her own independence and the wartime blurring of class boundaries—the high ground, with its attendant potential for naivete and priggishness and disregard for consequences, as Mary reminds her.
But in Act II, when the Dowager Countess broadly hints at suspicions regarding Sybil, Mary keeps her sister’s confidence. From the Countess’s phrasing, however (“Mary and I were talking about you the other day,” referring to the Dowager’s questioning Mary), Sybil infers a conspiracy of her elders. A confrontation with Mary is inevitable.
In Act III, when Mary and Sybil hash things out, it’s in the halls of the Abbey, as Sybil goes about her duties as a nurse. The staging adds a wonderful fluidity, the casual interest of passing rooms, and the suspense of wondering who will overhear what (someone always overhears something in the halls at Downton Abbey). It gives us a chance to hear doubts that Sybil hasn’t told Branson, and to see a practical side of her. This time her talk is all personal, no high principles, rather, “I’m not even sure sure I like him.” Mary’s “What did you think, you’d marry the chauffeur and we’d all come to tea?” lands after that as still pithy, but considered, concerned, more than a bit genuinely, while Sybil seems caught up in and flustered by a dalliance. Mary gives Sybil a frustrated ultimatum: she’ll keep Sybil’s secret as long as Sybil promises “not to do anything stupid.” Sybil agrees, irked, and her needing to go to be about her wartime duties naturally closes the scene.
At the end of the act, Sybil tells Branson that Mary knows about them—and that Mary knows because Sybil told her, not because Mary figured it out or suspected.
He falls back on superior resentment:
So that’s me finished, then; without a reference?
But Sybil doesn’t let him toss off stereotypes:
No; she’s not like that. You don’t know her. She wouldn’t give us away.
What a wonderfully complex line, in context. Sybil asserts her independence from his cynicism, and her affinity with the sister she’s been more or less continuously sparring with and rebelling against. It’s the kind of place you want to get to as a storyteller, to a character saying more than he or she realizes in describing another character, with the history behind it to make the statement knot you up inside hearing it, because you know what she’s choosing to tell (or not). Affirmation of their—Sybil and Branson’s—safety frees him to take pleasure in her other sentence; it’s the first time she’s said “us.” Even that turn is not allowed to be unturned, and the exchange spirals into the kind of argument, a real couple’s argument, that they need to have. They both pull back into who they are with others, all of which they’ll need to negotiate if their relationship is to blossom outside the circumstances in which it began.