The Downer 'Downton' Goodbye

The Atlantic Wire

Though we'd already been through so much on Downton Abbey this season — death, threat of poverty, wrongful imprisonment, thwarted love, cruel betrayal — the show had one last grim surprise for us last night.  (The season finale aired as a Christmas special in the U.K.) There was no rest for the narratively weary, or something like that. In what felt like the show's cruelest twist yet, another beloved character was sent to the great drawing room in the sky, leaving the Downton world below a pretty chill place. One I'm not quite sure I want to go back to. Spoilers abound ahead, so consider yourselves warned.

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Let's all say it together: Matthewwwwwwwwwwwww!! Yes, last night our dear Mr. Crawley, the unwitting heir to the Downton lordship who once served as our eyes into this ordered and buttoned-up world, was unceremoniously forced off this mortal coil. He was driving triumphantly home after meeting his new son in the hospital, his beloved wife Mary glowing beatifically, when some sort of truck surprised him and, boom, he was run off the road. In case there was any question as to whether or not Matthew might have pulled through, the camera focused in close on his open, lifeless eyes and a trickle of blood running down his cheek. Our Matthew has been cruelly snuffed out, though at least he went happy. It's everyone else who has to be miserable now.

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Why Matthew? Why now, so soon after Sybil? Well, it was simply a matter of actors being actors. Both Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens wanted out, their careers taking off in big ways since Downton's mondo success, and they were only contracted for three seasons. Julian Fellowes has said in interviews that he would have liked to have kept both actors, and even asked them to just do a few episodes next season, but both were resolute. And because they're members of the family, rather than servants, writing them off meant killing them. And so kill them he did, both dying soon after the birth of a child, which is a rather obvious device. Sybil's baby is named Sybil and, one would guess, Matthew's baby will be Matthew. So really we haven't lost anyone! It's all a bit convenient, isn't it?

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It certainly feels something like that. Fellowes killed Matthew in grand and tragically ironic fashion — Robert talking about how wonderful everything was, intercut with shots of Matthew's dead body — which all played a bit manipulatively. I suppose a sudden, accidental death was really the only way to go, timing wise, but this just felt like piling on. Downton is normally, or was at its first season heights, a show about small things, so it feels odd when the big stuff steps in and yells at us. It's probably unfair to chafe at what was a logistical necessity — what else could be done with Matthew? Would he just always be in another room? — but Downton Abbey has gotten a bit grandiosely sad over the last two seasons and this sudden, awful death felt like the depressing cherry on top of the misery sundae. And things had been going so well!

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The rest of the episode felt pleasant enough, didn't it? The family traveled up to Scotland to visit relatives, which was mostly a staid affair. Sure the head of that house, nicknamed Shrimpy, constantly fought with his awful wife, and O'Brien had a weird standoff with one of the maids, but everything else went smoothly enough. The wildin' out cousin from a couple episodes ago, Lady Rose, will come to live with at Downton once her parents move to India, which is an interesting development. Hopefully she will bring a bit of life to the dreary castle. Anna and Bates had a cute little story that had them going on a picnic and Anna learning a Scottish dance, which she performed at a party, much to the awed, in-love delight of Bates. After they had such a downer of a season finale last year, it was nice to see them finally in good stead. Surely one of them will be killed in a barn fire next season or something, as nothing gold can stay on this show, but for now, yes, they're happy. Good for them.

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Back at Downton, the servants who didn't travel up to the moors were enjoying having the family gone. Carson tried to get them to do some busy work, but everyone was too distracted by a fair that had rolled into town. A small part of me was hoping that it would be some sort of mysterious, magical Night Circus-y kind of a fair and that the show would suddenly change directions in a huge way, but of course it was just a regular old fair, with a carousel and game booths and whatnot. Mrs. Patmore of all people had a date to meet at the grounds, a rotund fellow who sold apple cider and flirted with lots of ladies, much to the disapproval of a lonely seeming Mrs. Hughes. It was interesting to see Hughes in that light — jealous of her friend's attention, eager to find fault with the suitor and chase him off. Hughes got her wish when Patmore told her that she wasn't all that interested in the bloke after all, as a life of being tied to him and cooking for him didn't seem terribly attractive to her. A bit ironic, considering her profession, but these folks see a nobility in their work, one that Patmore couldn't find in a life in one man's kitchen. So we go back to the status quo, same old same old. At least the great Lesley Nicol got a bigger storyline to work with for once.

Also at the fair, Jimmy got drunk and almost robbed and beaten up, but Thomas stepped in to save the day, letting Jimmy run off and taking the beating himself. This ultimately brought the two of them closer, though of course not as close as Thomas wanted. In the end Thomas said that he just wanted to be friends with Jimmy, which Jimmy could agree to, and the two lads sat cheerfully in Thomas's room reading the newspaper. I suppose this is as good of an end to this story as we could have hoped for. It didn't seem all that likely that Jimmy would suddenly decide he was butt-crazy in love with this dude — you'll have to turn to fan fiction for a taste of that would be like — but at least now there isn't animosity and misery. It's just Thomas with an unrequited crush, nothing he hasn't dealt with before. Still, here's hoping that maybe, maybe next season he won't be so dreadfully alone. We get it, times were tough. But this is TV! If you can have the girls have a psychic connection to their men at war, you can set Thomas up with some nice chap.

Though, truth be told, I'm not sure how eager I am to watch next season, even if that does happen. Sure it's going to pick up months after Matthew's death, but we'll still be dealing with a grieving Mary, now mourning both sister and husband. Same for Robert and Cora. It all promises to be pretty dire, doesn't it? Maggie Smith might be leaving the show, so I suppose they'll have to kill her off too, and downstairs is due for some real tragedy. Anna and Bates are suspiciously happy, so look for one of them to be involved in a zeppelin accident or be kicked by a mule or something. I suppose we might see Daisy find love next season, but she became so annoying by the end of this season that I'm not sure anyone would really care. All told, the show feels both listless and pulled in the wrong, dark direction. There was some hope that the show would resize itself after last year's too-big WWI season, but it didn't. It just ballooned and stretched in different places. And while two actors' career choices may have played the biggest part in all of this heavy drama, Fellowes' chosen method of solving the actor dilemma shows that he didn't really get the public's notes about last season. We want smaller, less sensationalistic; more small social maneuvers and furtive looks and lovelorn letters, fewer grand and terrible deaths and too-easily solved threats to the very existence of Downton. Why, when Fellowes and company built such a nice world, do they seem so eager to tear it down? It's a strange instinct and I'm not sure I want to see them further succeed next season.

I say that now, but I'm sure I'll feel less resolute when the next season rolls around. The truth is, no matter how grim the show got this season, I was still eager to turn it back on the next Sunday. Downton may not be going in the direction I'd like it to, but there's still an undeniable hook. Maybe the curiosity is simply to see how far off-course they wander, but it's a strong gravitational pull all the same. Meaning that right now I might be down on the show, not wanting to subject myself to another season of terrible twists and elegant mourning. But once the Downton planet is looming in the sky this time next year, I'll probably be dragged right back in. Like Thomas and a handsome houseboy, I sadly can't resist.

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