For a TV show to throw a bucket of cold water in its audience’s face from time to time is good and necessary. Life can’t be all strolls through the daisies and neither can TV shows if they are not to become predictable, bland, and unrealistic.
But it is very rare indeed for a show not only to slap its viewers’ faces, but then to give them a kick to the solar plexus and follow it up with a two-by-four bashed over its skull. And that is essentially what Downton Abbey decided to do with its gruesome final sequence this week.
(WARNING: If you have not yet watched, stop reading at once.)
There are many circumstances one can imagine in which the slaying of Matthew Crawley would have been digestable, even welcome. His relationship with Mary has provided the show’s dramatic axis, but the fussy, self-righteous cousin-turned-heir has never been the life of the party. It is not for him we grieve.
What outrages about the final episode is how callously the show treated feelings of its own characters. Showing how they deal with grief is one thing; burying them under an emotional holocaust is another. To place this in context, the finale episode of Season 3 opened with the family still shrouded in grief from the shocking death of Lady Sybil a few episodes before. If viewers have any feeling at all for the Crawleys, the entire emotional landscape of the night was guided by watching Mary’s pregnancy through the prism of Sybil’s catastrophic one, and praying that she would see it through safely, as her sister did not.
So it came as some sort of ghoulish punch line when in the very last five minutes of the season it was revealed that yes, Mary did make it through; she would be just fine. But her husband got his head smashed in and died in a ditch.
There is sympathy to be had for Downton creator Julian Fellowes, who was forced to deal with the departure of two of his lead actors in short succession for other opportunities. British actors are notoriously blasé about their TV work and quick to cash in and move on once a series takes off. In particular, the news that Dan Stevens would not be coming back came just after Thanksgiving, leaving the show scrambling to write off one of its leads just as they were wrapping the third season. Hence, most likely, the tacked-on feeling to Matthew’s death.
That tragedy loomed was telegraphed 30 minutes out by some of the most heavy-handed writing television has seen since Nixon’s Checkers speech, when suddenly, apropos of not very much, Lord Grantham’s opinions about his son-in-law turned on a tuppence and he started declaring how the estate could not survive without him. This was followed by Matthew’s declaration at the birth of his son that he was so happy, he felt as if he “ate a box of fireworks.”
Clearly, no one can be that happy on a TV show and live.
But the fact was, his smugness didn’t just come from having discovered a new means to increase the financial efficiency of the estate’s tenant farmers, or having found a decoder ring in his breakfast cereal. Matthew was jubilant over the birth of his son, after a scary labor that came on the heels of his sister-in-law’s death of the same. It is the sort of happiness the typical viewer might think deserves not to be punished and might actually share. Downton is, after all, not a 1920s Berlin Theater of Cruelty experiment, but a prime time soap opera in period garb.
Fellowes responded to outrage about the disaster by explaining that it was for the best that actor Dan Stevens — who played Matthew — had decided to leave the show, the decision that prompted the show’s ending. He explained that “nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness. When two people are happy, that’s it.”
That may be so, but there are ways of dealing with that problem that don’t involve the violent slaying one of your central characters while his family is still grieving over the violent slaying of one of their other children. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one central character may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
Which brings us to the central problem of Downton Abbey, Season 3, and the reason why this demented finale is so galling. At the end of Season 2, the world’s finer-evening-drama-viewing public rose with one voice and cried, “Julian Fellowes, get a hold of yourself!” After nine episodes packed with more soap opera twists (mysterious burn victims, unsolved murders, miraculous restorations to manhood) than the entire run of Falcon Crest, there was a unanimous consensus that the show had gone seriously off the rails.
Lord Fellowes clearly heard the outcry. Not only was Season 3 largely free of soap opera hijinx, but he brushed most of the objectionable plotlines right under the carpet. He went further, however, and overcompensated. Other than not doing anything crazy, Season 3 seemed to have no purpose or destination, and the show’s much heralded stately pacing seemed often to be standing still. At the season’s open, the estate was thrown into grave financial danger, but by episode 3, that had been dealt with and shrugged off, pending some details about reordering the tenant farmers’ contracts. With the exceptions of Branson and Barrow, both of whom were given some genuinely complex drama, most of the characters actually became less interesting, more predictable cutouts in Season 3 than they had been previously.
Most of the season was dominated by poor Lord Grantham (and Carson) being pummelled headlong by the march of modernity, as though his Lordship were sitting in a dunking booth just waiting for all the 20th century’s monsters to step up and take their swings.
And so the suspicion strikes that with no particular dramatic destination, and the only order of business at hand being to write off two actors who had given their notices, Fellowes decided to milk as much excitement as he could out of their departures, exiting them by the cruelest means imaginable. And nobody could tell him, apparently, when to stop.
All drama relies on emotional manipulation. But in every drama there is a line where the twists and turns no longer serve to increase an audience’s interest but instead becomes shamelessly manipulative and openly disregarding of its characters, to horrify and repel. Fellowes, in inflicting the sort of cruelty on the Granthams from which no family could ever begin to recover, has badly misjudged where that line is.
It is a testament to his creation that it can withstand all this. The wonderful thing about television is that if a show can interest an audience in its characters, the viewers will stay with those characters for a very long time, come what may. In the past two seasons, Downton Abbey has hurled everything short of drone warfare at its characters, daring the audience to stay with them. The family has had no greater foe than its own creator. But the inhabitants of Downton were carved out so beautifully and so perfectly cast that we have stayed with them through it all. This day too shall pass, but it is a hard one.