Downton Abbey, Season 3
Lady Edith suffers culture’s cruelest act.
Photo by Joss Barratt/Courtesy Carnival Film & Television.
In the first part of this week’s TV Club discussion, Seth Stevenson pointed out that Downton Abbey has a habit of cheating viewers out of wedding receptions. We didn’t get to see Matthew and Mary’s big bash, Sibyl and Tom’s nuptials happened off in Ireland, and two other weddings—Edith and Sir Anthony Strallan’s and Matthew and Lavinia Swire’s—didn’t come to pass. (Thanks to Virginia Paisley for reminding me about the last one via Twitter.)
In some ways, this is too bad—I would’ve loved to hear Tom Branson’s best-man toast at Mathary’s nuptials, and oh to see the dowager countess cutting a rug with Dr. Clarkson—but I must also give Downton’s creators credit for knowing where the true dramatic tension lies: in the wedding ceremony itself.
Weddings are, essentially, a live performance the celebrants pay to star in. Live theater is so exciting because at any moment things can easily go spectacularly wrong (and occasionally transcendently right), and weddings are thrilling because there’s always a chance that someone will interrupt the ceremony to declare his love for the bride-to-be, or that the groom will screw up the bride’s name, or that the bride will run away with a guy on skates.
The church scene was beautifully done. Edith looked lovely, so radiant and happy. (I agree with commenter LexiLuthor that her wedding dress looked better than Mary’s.) Her “Good afternoon” to Sir Anthony was warm and loving, his “Good afternoon, my sweet one,” similarly touching. And then, out of the blue, he pulled the plug.
Perhaps it was precisely because she seemed so sweet and open—we know she isn’t always so kind—that he decided he had to break her heart. His insistence that she would be happy “only if you don’t waste yourself on me,” seemed heartfelt, and he did seem to be wiping away tears as he fled the church. But why did he have to humiliate her so?
Jilting one’s betrothed is culture’s cruelest act. It’s relatively common in prime-time British soaps—I remember seeing similar scenes in Coronation Street and EastEnders—but in America, leaving someone at the altar is mostly the province of sitcoms. On How I Met Your Mother (a show that, like Downton Abbey, is locked into its premise by its title), Ted Mosby was dumped at his own wedding by Stella and later drove Victoria to leave Klaus at the altar to run away with him. Perhaps it’s not so humiliating over here: Back in 2011, President Barack Obama announced that the Republican leadership had “left me at the altar a couple of times.”
Edith, however, seemed truly mortified. Now she knows that her family members were plotting against her, poisoning Strallan by repeatedly telling him he should call off the wedding. Even her grandmother thought she should wish him well and let him go. If Edith really wants the “different life” she asked Anna for, she should high-tail it to America, where her family will find it far more difficult to meddle in her affairs.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.