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New roads open for 'Downton Abbey'

Critic's Notebook: The Season 3 finale paves the way for some much-needed conflict and tension next season.

February 18, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Elizabeth McGovern, left, as Lady Grantham, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley, Allen Leech as Tom Branson, Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, and Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes from the TV series "Downton Abbey."
Elizabeth McGovern, left, as Lady Grantham, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham,… (Nick Briggs / PBS )

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the Season 3 finale of the PBS smash hit "Downton Abbey," stop reading now.

Will we all sleep better now, knowing that our beloved Downton is finally safe?

Oh, yes, I realize many fans will be donning crepe and funeral bonnets in wake of the death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) in the season finale of "Downton Abbey"— so young he was, so "heppy," motoring along in the bliss of new fatherhood when — bam! — mowed down by a lorry.

But honestly, didn't we all see it coming?

It was, after all, the most internationally anticipated death since Little Nell's, leaked by loose-lipped Brits and Americans who "somehow" manage to watch the show on the earlier British time frame. But even for those who maintained "Downton" radio silence, didn't it seem obvious that a man who inherited two fortunes would have to die young?

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The British do love their irony, after all. And it was certainly clear from the moment we saw, in the finale's final minutes, Matthew sailing along in his peppy motor car that this was not going to end well.

For one thing, everyone back at the manor house was busy intoning things about the general wonderfulness of life; for another, we had scarcely seen Matthew driving a car before, much less whipping along a sylvan country lane, smiling as only a man with a date with death can smile in a soap operatic period drama.

So now that's over — the show can only improve with his demise.

After all, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her young son now inherit Downton and all the other fortunes Matthew managed to accumulate. (Seriously, it got to the point where it wouldn't have been terribly surprising if, in her investigative attempts to free Bates [Brendan Coyle], Anna [Joanne Froggatt] had unearthed a document proving Matthew was next in line to the throne.)

Now Lady Mary can rest assured that no one will be deciding the future of Downton except her, and that has to be some consolation. If not for her, than for the viewers. I cannot be the only one who had grown slightly bored with creator Julian Fellowes' unabashed recycling of the drama's one real source of tension — Will the Earl of Grantham be able to continue his land-holding, jobs-creating fiefdom? — for three seasons now.

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I also applaud any effort made by the writing staff to restore a little conflict, a little of life's realism to a show that too often seems overly captivated by its own gleaming interiors, gorgeous costumes and fine cast. Although I will miss her more than Matthew — who was always, let's just say it, a bit of a drip — I was grateful for Lady Sybil's death, if only because it served as a necessary reminder that things were not, actually, better for anyone in the early 1920s than they are now. (Four words: antibiotics, universal suffrage, Advil.)

As delicious a confection as "Downton Abbey" is, it remains a mild disappointment to those of us who were hoping for something more of a meal. When it began three years ago, the contrasts between the classes were stark, the dialogue often stung and the various strands of repressive social order seemed poised to tangle with turbulent result.

Instead, somewhere toward the end of Season 1, everyone appeared to get a memo from the 21st century about tolerance. Soon, even the tart-tongued and proudly bigoted Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) was dining with the Irish chauffeur turned son-in-law and agreeing to be served tea by a former prostitute.

So nice is everyone that when Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) discovered, early this season, that her husband had run through her Entire Fortune, she wasn't even a teeny bit mad. And while Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) counseled acceptance of the troublemaking Thomas (Rob James-Collier), it was revealed, to Everyone, that Thomas is gay.

On every series, transformation occurs and, with the blessed exception of "Breaking Bad," that transformation is usually boiled down to: Everyone eventually gets along. But that's supposed to take more than three seasons.

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On "Downton," one feels the writers have fallen as much in love with their characters as their audience has, and that can be dangerous. Although the third season was far better than the soft and treacly second, too much of the narrative path seemed intentionally smoothed so that none upstairs or down stumbled too egregiously. This season they had to import Shirley MacLaine as Cora's mother to put a little bite into the conversation.

But with Matthew dead, things will have to change. Lady Mary, gorgeously, if sporadically, astringent will be a super-wealthy single mother without the mediating force of her irritatingly reasonable husband.

Possibly angry at the world, certainly reluctant to ever trust her heart again, she should be capable of wreaking some havoc on the residents of Downton, particularly, one hopes, her feather-headed flapper of a cousin, who may insist that the action, at least occasionally, be moved to Roaring '20s London.

Which will also be a relief. As spacious and luxurious as it is, after three years, "Downton Abbey" has gotten just a little confining.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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