Family Feud: Which ‘Downton Abbey’ Sister Is the Best?
Lord Grantham’s fretting about money, Lady Mary is waffling over a relationship, the dowager countess is being surly. Yes, Downton Abbey is back, and with its return to U.S. airwaves comes renewed debate about the British costume drama. Do we hate Thomas or love to hate Thomas? What exactly is Lady Cora’s accent? And, most important, which of the Crawley sisters is the best?
Passions are high, as three of The Daily Beast’s biggest Downton devotees make their cases: Lady Abby of Haglage for Team Mary, Lord Kevin of Fallon for Team Edith, and Countess Caitlin of Dickson for Team Sybil. Let the debate begin.
Abby Haglage: Lady Mary Crawley is more than just resilient—she’s ruthless. In 1920s England, where women are virtually treated as second-class citizens, her strength isn't simply for display, it's for survival. Mary's stubbornness is matched only by her sophistication, her boldness by her elegance. She's a fighter, a leader, a one-woman tour de force. Plus, she’s like, really pretty.
It’s no secret who came out of the Crawley gene pool triumphant. Sorry not sorry, sisters. She got the beauty, the brains, the wit—but most importantly, the moxie. Call her arrogant, elitist, mean. But facts are facts. Lady Mary is a bonafide badass.
It's a label that doesn't come easy, badass. Being hater-worthy is step one. Check. But the true-badass-litmus test, the one, absolute must-have attribute, is spunk. Lady Mary's got it in spades, and then some.
Proof of spunk No. 1: a ridiculously attractive man died while having sex with her ... so her sex is, actually, on fire. Proof of spunk No. 2: she can turn the phrase “don’t be ridiculous” into a response to—literally—anything. (Try it, not easy). Proof of spunk No. 3: she told one of the most vulgar newspaper tycoons in England to “back up off,” when he was threatening to expose her dark secret.
Caitlin Dickson: Sure, Lady Mary is stoic and seemingly ladylike, and on the occasion that the camera hits her at the right angle, she can actually look quite pretty. And her rebellious dalliance with doomed Turk Mr. Pamuk was actually one of the few times the uptight eldest let her guard down and stopped thinking about herself and her reputation (though it did backfire). But what you call spunky, I call snobby.
Kevin Fallon: Mary Crawley, the spunkiest 95-pound gold digger in all of the land. Could it have taken her any longer to break up with that hawker of newspaper scandal, Carlisle? And did anyone run a proper autopsy to ensure it wasn’t, in fact, Mary’s bony elbows that killed Pamuk?
Haglage: Pamuk died in the heat of passion and all’s fair in secret late-night rendezvous.
As the eldest daughter of a wealthy English lord, she’s got much bigger problems. Chief among them, the fact that she is ineligible to inherit the Downton Abbey estate. If she doesn’t find a wealthy husband—fast—she’s in danger of being thrust out to the periphery of the British upper class. Mary’s heart-to-heart with Lord Grantham about her predicament is enough to redeem her ruthlessness. “So I'm just to find a husband and get out of the way?" she asks. When her father responds that the only way she could remain at Downton would be to marry her cousin, she reveals the motive behind her ruthless resolve: independence. "I'd never marry any man that I was told to. I'm stubborn. I wish I wasn't, but I am." Mary is cold and calculated, yes, but only because she has to be.
Anyone who doubts Mary’s capacity to love—and be loved in return—need only look at the evolution of her relationship with Matthew Crawley. They go from distant cousins to kissing cousins to best frenemies to lost-and-found cousins (wait, you're alive?) to smitten lovers ("You are my stick") to married cousins (ew ... kind of). What's most important, though, is not their journey but its end. Mary truly loves him, despite his shortcomings, and he's tap-dancing on the line between loving and “whoa, chillax” obsessing over her: "I shall never be happy with anyone else as long as you walk the earth." All jokes aside, Matthew is a good and honest character who genuinely loves her—giving us permission, despite her prickliness, to do the same.
Dickson: Her love story with her distant cousin may have become our reason for watching the show toward the end of Season 2, but let’s not forget that when Matthew arrived at Downton in Season 1, Mary turned up her nose at him and his middle-class law practice. She agreed to marry him only out of desperation, having sullied her chances of attracting a suitable husband outside her own family with that very unladylike sexual encounter. And how many times has it seemed that her relationship with Matthew is nothing more than a self-interested means to protecting her family's fortune?
Haglage: OK fine, at times Lady Mary can be a serious b. But—this just in—so can everyone else. You try keeping your cool after discovering that your younger sister exposed your deepest, darkest secret. Mary's not perfect, but she's not going to hide behind the mistakes she's made either. Anne Hathaway said it best as a desperate Fantine in Les Miz. “Who can swear before God she has nothing to fear? She has nothing to hide?” (Read between the lines: NO ONE).
The biggest arguments against Mary generally fall into two different veins: either frustration that everyone is “obsessed” with her or criticism of her unapologetic nature. An attention-hogging, insult-slewing, charismatic snob? Look in the mirror, America, she’s the young Maggie Smith. Love to hate her or hate to love her, she’s running this show, and you secretly love it.
Fallon: If by “running the show” you mean “running away with every man Edith has ever given her heart to,” then I suppose I can’t argue. Mary constantly wants no man until it’s a man Edith wants, and that somehow makes her a romantic heroine for the ages. But Edith reacts rationally once to incessant sabotage and degradation and she’s suddenly a loathsome character. How did she get there? Let’s recap this exchange:
Robert: “Poor old Edith. We never seem to talk about her.”
Cora: “I’m afraid Edith will be the one taking care of us in our old age.”
Robert: “Oh, what a ghastly prospect!”
This is what Lady Edith Crawley’s parents have to say about their daughter, the persistently scoffed-at afterthought who is neither blessed with the flawlessly pretty looks of her two sisters, nor the evidently irresistible pheromones that have the entire country of England—and even some Turks—lining up, tongues wagging, for a courtship. Sure, Edith has crafted her fair share of devious machinations, but it’s almost forgivable to an extent. It’s kind of like the overweight, unattractive girl in high school who is really unpleasant to talk to: you would be unpleasant to talk to, too, if everyone who spoke to you called you names.
Dickson: Edith may not be the cutest Crawley, but she’s not exactly some sort of troll meant to be hidden downstairs with the servants. I just want to clarify that my distaste for the middle Crawley sister has nothing to do with the fact that she’s not exactly easy on the eyes. Normally, I’d be inclined to take the side of the less-fortunate looking character, but Edith has done relatively little to convince me that her beauty is on the inside.
Fallon: You see, Edith Crawley is 2013’s version of Jan Brady. Or is she 1920’s version of Jan Brady? Either way, poor Edith suffers the most severe case we’ve seen in decades on television of middle-child syndrome. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia? Try Mary, Mary, Mary! Get Mary engaged! Get Mary married! Get Mary her fortune! Get Mary absolved of sex-murder! Quiet, Edith, we’re talking about Mary! Give Edith credit where credit is due. It’s been eight years—eight!—since we were first introduced to the Downton universe, and she has weathered every insult, rejection, and slight with an unwavering optimism and ambition to finally find the happiness she thinks she deserves (even if, apparently, she’s the only one who thinks she deserves it). Edith is the underdog. Edith is the misunderstood hero. Edith is all of us. We are Edith.
Haglage: “Aww, Edith’s the best!”—said no one, ever. The blunt, take-no-prisoners tone Lady Mary employs with Edith isn’t because she’s sadistic, it’s because she’s honest. Looks aside, Edith is awkward. In the tight-lipped, squinty-glared, superficial world of the British upper class she’s fumbling to stay afloat. Well guess what, Edith, life isn’t fair, and old-man what’s-his-face isn't the answer.
Fallon: Exactly! From the beginning, Edith is the cast-away Crawley. She was the one who was hopelessly in love with the Downton heir, Patrick, but it was her much prettier, older sister Mary, who did not care for Patrick at all, who was set up with him and his coming fortune. Then, with Mary running around feigning disgust over the introduction of Matthew Crawley to the family, it was Edith who pursued a relationship with him, before Mary finally decided that she like him, too, and forced poor Edie aside as if her feelings didn’t matter. And within the walls of Downton Abbey, they really don’t!
Dickson: Mary is a bully, yes, but what did Edith accomplish by providing the Turkish Embassy with the dirty details of Mr. Pamuk’s death?
Fallon: Ah, Pamuk’s death. The classic evidence used to justify Edith-hate is the letter that she sends to the Turkish Embassy ratting out that entitled jezebel Mary for having a deadly, sexy time with the dashing Mr. Pamuk, but everyone is so quick to forget that it is Mary who was conniving first. First, Mary insults Edith behind her back—but Edith overhears. Then, after stealing Matthew’s attention from Edith, Mary also goes after one Sir Anthony Strallan, who Edith is taken with. It’s only then that Edith sends the note to the Turkish Embassy, an act of revenge and passion. Not only is Edith justified, it shows that she’s not afraid to stick up for herself and take matters into her own hands. Edith is Katniss Everdeen. Who’s going to make sure Mary pays for her actions? Edith volunteers!
While almost every other character on Downton Abbey continues to get their happily-ever-afters—Sybil runs away with the twerpy chauffeur, Mary and Matthew get married—Edith continues to suffer one mallet swing to the heart after another. She falls in love with a farmer, but he is married and casts her aside. (Affairs are only forgiven on Downton Abbey when they’re carried on by Mary and Lord Grantham.) Her beloved Patrick comes to back to Downton, unrecognizable due to war injuries. They rekindle a romance, and it looks like she’s going to finally have it all—a man, his inheritance, and happiness. But the family doesn’t believe he’s Patrick, driving him away.
Now, Edith is back together with Sir Anthony Strallan, but her father forbids the courtship. At this point, the girl’s only option is a doddering, crippled man old enough to be her grandfather, and she’s seizing the opportunity to romance him. But her family is still trying to push the love out of her life. Can’t a girl catch a break? Edith is just a lady out there looking for love. What’s not to root for?
Dickson: My main problem with rooting for Edith is that she doesn’t root for herself. She is so blindly motivated by bitterness and jealousy toward Mary that she’s constantly seeking attention in the most pathetic ways, such as preying on a married farmer and desperately falling for a disfigured stranger claiming to be her dead cousin/knight in shining armor, even after he basically admits to being an impostor. She even insists on marrying an old man who repeatedly rejects her advances just so she can get married. Yet, if she gained even just an ounce of self-confidence, she might be able to find an age-appropriate man who appreciates her for her. Maybe that’s actually why her family keeps driving the losers away. Of course, she could also—dare I say it—take a hint from Sybil and aspire to be something more than just a wife.
Which brings me to Sybil. I have to be honest: I was a bit shocked to discover that it was possible for a Downton Abbey fan to favor any Crawley sister other than Sybil. Hands down the most independent, interesting, and fulfilled—not to mention charming—ember of the Crawley family, Sybil has had my vote since episode one.
While Mary and Edith are busy backstabbing one another, competing for male attention and agonizing over finding a wealthy husband throughout much of the first season, Sybil is secretly—and selflessly—bucking aristocratic tradition to help one of Downton’s young maids become a secretary. Wisely removing herself from the family’s inheritance drama, the youngest Crawley daughter takes an interest in politics, in particular the fight for women’s suffrage. Unlike the rest of her family, who are so obsessed with their own arbitrary rules that they’d rather go hungry than have the cook’s assistant serve them dinner, Sybil willingly changes with the times. Her choice to shock her family by proudly donning a pair of harem pants rather than another boring dress should be reason alone to love her.
Fallon: The most exciting thing Sybil has done was wear pants once. (Once. Notice she never wore pants again.)
Dickson: Once was enough. Plus, hardly a minute went by during Season 2 in which a character failed to remind us that the world was at war but, save for Lord Grantham’s embarrassing attempt to join the boys on the front, most of the war talk that went on at Downton Abbey was just that: talk. Sybil, however, was so disturbed by the rate at which former suitors were dying that she felt compelled to do something significant and, in spite of her father’s wishes, left home to become a nurse.
Sybil’s passion for politics and thirst for knowledge of the world outside Downton’s manicured grounds leads her to become close with the family’s handsome Irish chauffeur, Tom Branson. Initially hesitant to let their friendship evolve into something more—she is a lady, after all—Sybil eventually gives in to her feelings. It’s not that she doesn’t love her family or appreciate the privileges she’s grown up with, but she realizes that there is more to life than riding horses and sitting around the house in between wardrobe changes and meals. She’s more concerned about losing her family than the threat of being cut off financially, so she marries Branson (becoming the first Crawley sister to get hitched, by the way) with the hope that they’ll learn to forgive her and accept him—which they eventually do.
Haglage: Sybil is a yawn-fest. Seth Meyers could ”Really?” the self-righteous smile right off her do-gooder face. Really, the society girl defying her parents to run away with the Irish revolutionary?! Really, the good-girl going for the bad-guy thing again? Really?!?
Dickson: Sybil is interested and motivated, but she’s not a goody-two-shoes. She is inarguably the most beautiful of the three, but she’s not vain.
Fallon: Anyone who thinks Sybil is the most beautiful has obviously not seen Edith’s bewitching googly eyes.
Dickson: There is no way Sybil is not secretly nauseated by her sisters’ trivial dramas, but she doesn’t let it show. That’s because she takes everyone seriously, from Lady Mary to Mrs. Patmore. Her new working-class life with Branson in Ireland does seem a bit drab and unsophisticated compared with that of her relatives, and she didn’t exactly do her pregnant face any favors by showing up at Downton in the Season 3 premiere with that dreadful haircut. Still, Sybil knows what she wants out of life. She may be living way outside of her plush comfort zone, but she knows how to take care of herself. She has a passion, a husband she loves, and a baby on the way. It will be a long, hard fall back to earth for Mary and Edith when the Crawley family inevitably goes broke. Sybil, on the other hand, will be just fine.
Fallon: Clearly, the chances of us agreeing on this are about as great as closet-gay Thomas finding love in a hopeless place: the basement of Downton Abbey.
Haglage: Fair. Truce! Readers, weigh in in the comments section. Tell us which Crawley sister is your favorite. (Where my Lady Marys at?!). Word is that Laura Linney will announce the winner before next week’s episode.
Dickson: To be clear, that’s unconfirmed.