By Meredith Blake
9:00 AM CST, February 18, 2013
Just wondering, is it possible for a show to make you clinically depressed? And if so, what are the chances I can submit my therapy bills directly to Julian Fellowes for reimbursement?
“Downton Abbey” ends a season already defined by loss, tragedy and upheaval with the biggest bummer yet: Matthew Crawley -- heir to the estate, husband to Mary, brand-new dad and all-around good guy -- is dead.
Even for those of us unable to completely avoid online spoilers, it comes as a shock because Matthew has always seemed like one of the non-negotiables of “Downton Abbey,” second only to the house itself. He is, in a way, the raison d être of the series, the character whose very existence threw the family into disarray back in Season 1, gave them hope in Season 2 and kept them afloat in Season 3. Matthew's the guy who changed the Crawleys' lives without changing their lifestyle one bit.
The question now is what “Downton Abbey” will be like without Matthew. I don’t have the answer, and more to the point, I’m not so sure I want to find out. Between the loss of Sybil and Matthew and Edith’s ongoing romantic humiliations, the series has taken a decidedly dark turn this season. What was once a dishier version of Jane Austen is beginning to feel like a Thomas Hardy novel with slightly nicer outfits.
Confession time: I tried as hard as I could to avoid all spoilers, but I knew going into this episode that Dan Stevens was leaving “Downton Abbey.” I figured there were really only two ways to write him out of the show -- either death or divorce-- and given how completely smitten Matthew remains with Mary, even in her nastier moments, I assumed it would be the former.
So I watched this episode with a paranoid sense of dread, anxiously wondering what exactly was going to happen to Matthew. Maybe he would accidentally be shot in a deer-stalking accident, or murdered in cold blood by Edna the spurned maid? Instead, Matthew goes out in a car crash which, at least by the standards of “Downton Abbey” deaths, is pretty mundane. The timing is what’s dramatic: He’s on his way home from the hospital after the birth of his son on what is surely the happiest day of his life.
Just to underscore the point, the accident is juxtaposed with scenes of almost transcendent joy. Mary delivers a healthy baby boy without any complications, putting to rest everyone’s fears – especially dear Carson’s -- about a repeat of what happened to Sybil. Grantham takes a moment to reflect on the trials and tribulations of the past few years. “Here we are with two healthy heirs, the estate in good order, I wonder what I’ve done to deserve it,” he says, with the kind of unqualified optimism that’s been scarce this season.
“We don’t always get our just deserts,” Violet replies.
Apparently not. Seconds later, we get a grisly extreme close-up of Matthew’s lifeless face, a gooey crimson rivulet of blood pouring out of his ear. It’s an unusually – and, I think, unnecessarily -- lurid image for “Downton Abbey,” adding to the sense that Matthew’s departure is handled with less tact than it should have been.
One of the things that makes TV different from say, film, is that writers have to deal with changing circumstances from episode to episode and from season to season – stars get pregnant, they leave to pursue other opportunities, they grow six inches over the summer hiatus. It’s not always easy, but it's the writer’s job to whip up something palatable with the imperfect ingredients they’ve been given.
With that in mind, we can’t necessarily blame Fellowes for killing Matthew off. It certainly doesn’t sound like it was his decision for Stevens to leave the show, and to write Matthew out in some other way – by running off with another woman or disappearing without a trace into the jungle -- would have been a betrayal of the character and therefore even more problematic.
But what we can fault him for is the decision to keep "Downton Abbey" going without its most essential character. The narrative goal of this show has always been the perpetuation of the Crawley family riches and the preservation of the "Downton way of life." With the estate finances in order and a male heir in place, is there really any point in going on? Fellowes had an easy out, too. Imagine that closing sequence, minus the bit with Matthew lying dead in a ditch on the side of the road. Now that would have been a lovely, eloquent way to bring “Downton Abbey” to a close, wouldn’t it?
Instead, what Fellowes appears to have done is reset the show entirely. Rather conveniently, Matthew dies within hours of producing a male heir. Rose is poised to take on the requisite role of Young Woman In Need of a Husband, and Branson the Down-to-Earth Outsider Turned Son-in-Law. Even below stairs, things are changing. O’Brien seems to be finagling her way into a new job, Alfred wants to become a cook, and Thomas seems to have finally found a friend in Jimmy. (The only thing that’s entirely unaltered is Edith’s disastrous luck with men).
I am skeptical that these changes are enough to justify the show’s continuation, unless Grantham manages to squander another fortune or (heaven forbid) Mary and Matthew’s baby dies. It’s also hard to imagine how “Downton Abbey” can go back to being the fun, frothy (if occasionally melodramatic) show it once was after so much misery. If Mary had the ability to be a bit of a bitch before, just imagine how she's going to be now.
It’s too bad the season had to end on such a decidedly down note, because, save for the last 90 seconds or so, the episode is pretty delightful. The family and a few servants head off for a 10-day holiday to Duneagle Castle in the Scottish Highlands -- a place that makes Downton Abbey look positively pokey by comparison. This episode is peppered with lots of fun little details about the way things are done up north, like 8 a.m. bagpipe wake-up calls, oh-so-casual venison picnics, halls lined with fearsome looking weapons and day-long deer-stalking expeditions. Oh, and there’s a guy named Shrimpy.
It all feels a little like that episode of “Seinfeld” where the gang discovers “bizarro” versions of themselves. Susan is a more miserable version of Cora, right down to the copycat hairdo. The butler at Duneagle is even more of a stickler than Carson, and then there’s Wilkins, the dour lady’s maid who manages to be more spiteful and petty than O’Brien.
Back at Downton, there are two subplots involving late-in-life romance. A pot-bellied food vendor called Mr. Tufton takes a shine to Mrs. Patmore – or rather, to her cooking. It’s been a long time since she had a storyline of her own, so it’s nice to see good ol’ Mrs. P. get a bit more airtime, and, as much as it disgusts Thomas, refreshing to be reminded that she is a flesh-and-blood woman. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Tufton is a serious player, a guy who helps himself to the ladies of the village as if they were his own personal pot of vichyssoise. Mrs. Hughes once again demonstrates why she’s the most underrated character on “Downton Abbey,” acting as Mrs. Patmore’s confidante/wardrobe stylist throughout the brief courtship.
More of a blip is Dr. Clarkson’s quasi-proposal of marriage to Isobel. She kindly rebuffs the offer, and I understand why, but still it seems too bad. Dr. Clarkson is a bit of a silver fox, isn’t he? Besides, given all the death and unhappiness this season, some unexpected romance might have been a relief.
The subplot involving Edna, the pretty new maid who doesn’t know her place, mostly feels like Ethel v. 2.0 – and god knows one Ethel v. 1.0 was more than enough. It does at least demonstrate what a strange social limbo Branson is trapped in these days. He’s neither a member of the family nor one of the staff. Credit where it’s due: His character has also evolved nicely this season, from the revolutionary pull-string doll he was at the outset into someone whose rough edges have been softened by tragedy and who knows which fights are worth picking.
It should be interesting to see how Branson fares next season without Matthew, his closest ally. Perhaps he’ll turn to Mary, someone who knows the pain of losing a beloved spouse.
--Carson was in top form this week. I loved seeing him get all flustered about Mary going into labor, and how he opted out of the fair so the servants would be able to enjoy themselves.
--In what I doubt is a coincidence, Matthew’s death scene is reminiscent of the opening of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
--Violet: “No one can accuse me of being modern.” “That is the thing about nature, there’s so much of it.”
-- Michael is even worse at stalking than Edith. He comes to Scotland claiming to be on a “sketching and fishing holiday.”