DOWNTON ABBEY Season 3: When A Writer’s Hand Is Forced


downton_abbey_key_art_season_3_a_pI won’t go too in-depth about the third season of DOWNTON ABBEY as I actually found most of it to be very entertaining and satisfying. But this third season introduced a few moments that could be seen as the ever-feared missteps a series can take when it overstays its welcome or when popularity seeps in as a guiding force in how the story unfolds.

DOWNTON has quickly become a household name since I first watched what seemed to be just another BBC mini-series that the vast majority of Americans had not only never heard of, but were quite likely NEVER to hear of, like so many fantastic British shows to come before it and live in relative obscurity here in the States. But DOWNTON ABBEY hit a nerve and its popularity has since soared on this side of the pond. And while I’m happy for the show’s success, that kind of popularity always fills me with a little dread as well. I won’t lie. Sometimes I like good shows to remain a bit of a well-kept secret. Selfish, I know. But then I can also continue complaining about how the best shows never find an audience and how stupid American viewers are over all. But then a show like DOWNTON gains a measure of real success and either A) I have to stop complaining about the dullness of Americans or B) the show has to lower its standards to keep its new audience entertained.

When I read that Shirley MacLaine was gonna be on the show, I thought my fears had been realized. Now don’t misunderstand, I love Shirley MacLaine. But her presence suggested the possibility of this fine BBC drama placating its newfound American audience with a more “familiar” face (Elizabeth McGovern, though American, has not been a familiar face on these shores for a number of years, while Ms. MacLaine has managed to embed herself in our continued social consciousness). Thankfully and allaying my fears, MacLaine’s role on DOWNTON was short and sweet. She didn’t try and eat the scenery or overwhelm with her presence. No, in fact, she fit right in and was most welcome both in her arrival and departure. I thought it was all just right and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Then there was the big mid-season surprise. The sudden death of Sybil. I admired this choice. Though she was my favorite of the sisters (and the one I had the biggest mini-series crush on), I always like when a main character is killed off. It often forces a show and its viewers to deal with a particular set of experiences that they have not had to deal with before. That gives it resonance. Something to talk about, something to remember, both emotionally and structurally. But there was a lazy bone to be found in the storyline surrounding Sybil’s death. The much-decorated doctor who insists that Sybil’s symptoms are nothing more than those naturally found in pregnancy is such a pompous, unlikeable fool of a man that I would guess 99% of the audience knew that our dear country doctor was indeed correct and that Sybil’s life was in danger. Why choose to paint these two in such black and white terms? Why not offer a bit more credibility to the doctor responsible for Sybil’s death? Why not allow us, the audience, to share in the difficulty of the life and death decisions being made? Perhaps Mr. Fellowes believed he was doing just that. Or, perhaps, he didn’t want to. I don’t have the answer. All I know is that I was thrilled Sybil died (from a story perspective, that is), but disappointed that the events surrounding it hadn’t been painted in grayer strokes so that her death may have been even more of a surprise and may have engaged me by allowing me to partake in some measure of responsibility. As it stands, the writing allowed me to get ahead of the characters in what was to unfold. But all in all, this was a mildly disappointing and fleeting moment surrounded by so many wonderful moments that I was able to push it aside with relative ease and not have it negatively impact my feelings about this extraordinarily engaging show.

Julian Fellowes

Then the Season 3 finale arrived. Now let me just start by saying that I’m okay with Matthew’s death. Conceptually. Remember, I like when main characters die. Particularly beloved ones. But this particular death felt incredibly inorganic to me. And it’s not simply because actor Dan Stevens chose to leave the show and forced scribe and creator Julian Fellowes into a story corner. Certainly that plays a role (and I think will actually breed some ill-will toward Mr. Stevens though, for myself, I hope his personal choice leads him to a successful career), but it’s in the handling of Matthew’s death that I take issue with here.

Viewers across the globe have complained that there was simply too much similarity between Matthew’s death and Sybil’s. Both died following the birth of their child. Both were in loving relationships that were damn near perfect for those characters, making the loss that much greater. It worked wonderfully for Sybil’s death. But for Matthew’s… I could feel the writer struggling. For me, giving Matthew and Mary their final moment together to once again profess their love for one another and for Matthew to bask in the glow of his newborn son before driving off to his inevitable demise was just too much for me. It felt manufactured. Insincere.

Now I have a friend who believes I’m in the minority in feeling dissatisfaction with allowing Matthew’s relationship to end with such happy/tragic perfection. He feels that most people wanted to see/needed to see some measure of resolution before such a tragic event. But in reading comments online and talking with other friends, I’m thinking that my sense of dissatisfaction might be the overriding sensation being felt in living rooms across the globe. Death is a dirty business and Matthew wasn’t just another character in DOWNTON ABBEY. He was our guide through the world of DOWNTON ABBEY. The upstairs of Downton, that is, just as Bates is our guide downstairs.

Julian Fellowes had set up the near perfect end for himself, then chose not to take it: Matthew wants to leave with Mary. She tells him “No, I’ll be fine” and returns home without him. For me, that decision ending with them never seeing one another again and Matthew never seeing his son would have had the gravitas and tragedy earned by Matthew’s character. As it stands, I feel as if I were gently lead into Matthew’s death, as if Mr. Fellowes were afraid of the forced-decision to prematurely rid the show of Matthew and therefore second-guessed the audience’s reaction. Matthew’s endless profession of love for Mary seemed overwrought and inorganic; it was hinting too strongly at something else, setting up the scenes to come with an uncharacteristically heavy hand. Perhaps Mr. Fellowes was hyper-aware that this episode was going to air on Christmas Day and felt some measure of guilt in having to kill off Matthew (and possibly spoil Christmas a la Scrooge or the Grinch) and so chose to balance this fated tragedy with an extra helping of gaiety and joy.

For me, Matthew’s death should have been devastating, not just surprising. Unfortunately, I felt less devastation and more confusion. For a moment, it felt like I was watching a different show. Try as I might to feel better about it, I just couldn’t. Some other friends commented that they too had felt it a bit awkward and inorganic, but felt better about it once they’d learned that Mr. Fellowes had been forced into killing off Mathhew’s character. For me, sadly, that realization only highlighted just how inorganic Matthew’s death actually was.

There may have been no way to make Matthew’s death intrinsic to Season 3 as it clearly wasn’t Fellowes’ wish to end that character’s journey here. He had much more in store for Matthew. And perhaps that is why Fellowes exhibited what I consider an uncharacteristically unsteady hand in fashioning Matthew’s demise.

One thing is certain: writing is difficult. Incredibly so, as anyone who has attempted to do so knows. And Mr. Fellowes has certainly more than earned his right to stumble slightly, though he may not personally see it as such. But for me, Matthew’s death could have been a strong and defining moment in the DOWNTON ABBEY universe. Instead, for me, its a slight blemish on an otherwise incredibly engaging show.

DOWNTON ABBEY Season 3: When A Writer’s Hand Is Forced

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