When Downton Abbey first premiered in the U.S. in 2011, then-17-year-old Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) was arguably the most disliked member of the Crawley family. The middle child of the Lord (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) had a complex relationship with her older sister Mary (Michelle Dockery), a nasty tone, and came across to viewers as, well, just plain rude.
But Carmichael, who bares few, if any, similarities to the character she's played for five seasons — she's a self-described "shy" girl — has been able to endear audiences to Edith. As the Julian Fellowes-created drama has gone on to span 12 years (thanks to time jumps), Carmichael has imbued Edith with a level of humanity that's allowed viewers to see how some of the character's brutal actions could be justified, which was most important in the Feb. 8 episode.
"She's still snobby and self-important and selfish, but I think you understand why," Carmichael told BuzzFeed News in December, sitting in a restaurant in New York City's crowded Times Square. "[Fellowes has] allowed us into these more private moments with her to see the pain that makes her behave that way. She has grown up." And that was obvious in the sixth episode of Season 5, which saw Edith make the biggest decision of her life, one that's been filled with tragedy after tragedy, and heartbreak after heartbreak.
At the start of the series, Edith was in love with her cousin, whom the family arranged to marry her older sister, Mary, forcing Edith to suppress her feelings. Then he tragically died on the Titanic, leaving Edith to tend to her older sister in mourning. While it seemed Edith later found love with Anthony (Robert Bathurst), he left her at the alter. And it felt like no heartbreak could compare to losing Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), the sister Edith felt closest to, who died during childbirth.
"I always felt, even in her most unsympathetic moments, that I understood why she was doing it. Like the heartbreak of Patrick and the rivalry with Mary — she didn't make great decisions to do these unkind things, but you sort of knew how she got there and I think that's the gift of [Fellowes'] writing," Carmichael said. "I think she would have been the most conventional had the marriage [to Anthony] worked out. But that wasn't her path."
When Edith finally found a suitable man, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), in Season 3, not only could they not marry — because Gregson's wife was institutionalized, preventing him from getting a divorce — but he went missing after traveling to Germany and getting caught up in a Nazi party seize attempt in Munich, around the same time Edith found out she was pregnant with his child.
"I was desperate for Gregson to come back. I was begging. I so wanted that," Carmichael said, admitting she even asked Fellowes if he would write the character's return. "I was hopeful for it to go that way, that he would come over the hill and they would sweep up the baby."
Both Edith and Carmichael's dreams were unfortunately crushed in the most recent episode: Gregson was officially found dead nearly two years later. "I am always going, I wonder if [Fellowes is] going to make her go mad. Because the grief is so much. How much more can one person take?" Carmichael thought aloud.
But even in her state of grief over losing Gregson in the Feb. 8 episode, Edith finally finds the strength to care for someone else: her daughter, Marigold. After considering an abortion, secretly delivering the child in Switzerland, putting the child up for adoption, and then bringing her back to Downton but placing her with the Drewes — tenants on the Crawleys' property — the news of Gregson's death pushes Edith to finally acknowledge that she truly does want to raise the baby, despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Marigold's birth. And in an extremely emotional and pivotal scene, she enters the Drewe home with her daughter's birth certificate in hand, and tells the couple she is taking Marigold. Though Mrs. Drewe (Emma Lowndes) tries to stop her, even ripping the certificate into shreds as tears stream down her face, Edith stands firm.
"She had to be brave in that moment and fierce. She can't mess this up and she knows what she's doing is incredibly painful for Mrs. Drewe, but it's the decision she's come to," Carmichael said. "I really feel like it's Mrs. Drewe's pain there and I think when you know you're hurting someone in that way, what I hoped and tried to play and what I believed, was, by the end of it, she is deeply moved by what they've done and how painful it is."
When Edith picks up Marigold and starts to leave the house, Mrs. Drewe tells her that Edith is her "new mommy now" as she gives her one last embrace. "I don't think it's until [that moment] that she is able to empathize truly with Mrs. Drewe because she wants to get her way. Edith sees how painful it is. I think I did shed a tear," Carmichael recalled, an anomaly for the typically stoic Edith. "In life, there isn't a right or wrong person to side with. You'll see they're both very similar. They both feel like a mother to this child and think they're the person to do it. In years to come, it might be the sort of thing that then they can look at each other and say, 'I'm sorry for the pain.' But I think this was the right decision. I think it was what Edith believed was the only option."
The episode ends with Edith and Marigold checking into a hotel in London, the newly self-appointed mother blissfully happy as she orders champagne and clutches her daughter. And though her actions may have been selfish, as a viewer, it's difficult to feel anything but merriment for Edith in that moment. No, she did not have the best laid plan, but it was satisfying to see a character who has struggled so much finally find some peace. "That's what's great about the scene," Carmichael said. "She's so happy, though it's clearly not perfect."
Edith certainly has flaws, but, as made evident by the Feb. 8 episode, it's clear weakness is not one of them. She has been the most progressive character, male or female, on Downton Abbey — fighting gender stereotypes to gain a job during the war, to learn to drive, and to get a column at a newspaper in London. And she also fought the stigmas of those around her to gain guardianship of her daughter, whom she had out of wedlock and will now raise as a single mother.
"She's not accepting that she's an unlucky person or that she's just going to be a sad person. She fights. She's very courageous and picks herself up and keeps going. I think that's why she's endearing, because she's really quite tough," Carmichael said. "As we've gone on, I think she's had to evolve and change. She's become a modern woman."