Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley (Giles Keyte/Carnival Film…)
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.
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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.
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“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?