This season, “Downton Abbey” became a certifiable empire. Season three saw soaring worldwide viewership, dozens of nominations and awards and an abundance of merchandise. It seems like everyone’s obsessed with the Crawleys and for good reason. “Downton” is beautifully shot, impeccably acted and deals with themes relevant to modern audiences. However, I must admit I’m afraid for season four as “Downton” might reach an unintentional level of meta: an empire in decline.
Spoiler alert! Since American audiences have now caught up to British viewers (seriously though, the Internet, check it out), we all know about the untimely deaths of Sybil and Matthew Crawley. My gut reaction, as I assume was the case with many of my fellow “Downton”-ers, was to hatch a plan to travel to England, kidnap Julian Fellowes and force him to write an alternative script.
Others may be thinking, “So what? Characters get killed off all the time.” That’s true. But death, just like any other plot device, should be purposeful. And these two deaths, specifically Matthew’s, seem artificial. I mean, really, how many times is a Crawley going to die after viewing their newborn child? The characters, and the fans, deserve better than that.
What’s maddening here is that there’s so much left undone. I wanted to see more about Matthew and Robert’s disagreements on the running of the estate and how Sybil would react to raising her child in between classes. Their deaths seem to take away more intrigue and drama than they provide.
In a sense, killing Matthew and Sybil eliminates the class conflict, a major driving theme throughout the series. Matthew, the middle-class heir thrust into the life of a country lord, and Sybil, the upper-class radical that chooses a life culturally and economically foreign to her, most represent the new generation challenging the old ways. Without them, “Downton” loses that critical conflict and balance between past and present that made the show so relatable to today’s political situation.
But Julian Fellowes isn’t completely to blame. Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil Crawley) wanted out. Writers only have so many options when it comes to getting rid of characters, especially integral ones.
But is death really the only way to deal with losing an actor? “Downton” has always blurred the line between drama and soap opera (like Matthew suddenly regaining use of his legs). Would it have really been a stretch to simply write them out? Maybe Matthew receives a position in a colony. Maybe Sybil couldn’t get safe passage to England and had to remain in Ireland. I’m not saying these are great alternatives, and they’re certainly not situations that could last forever, but at least they could buy some time for more fitting conclusions.
Or, maybe, replace the actors. I didn’t openly weep when Dan Stevens left. I wept because Matthew died. In the end, I care more about the characters than the actors. Of course it would take some getting used to, but whatever original intent Fellowes had for these characters would have been infinitely more satisfying.
Fans have watched these relationships develop for years, with all the ups and downs, from the dining room to the garage. We’re invested in these characters and in these relationships. Mary belongs with Matthew, just like Branson belongs with Sybil. I have no interest in seeing them “move on,” because the past three seasons have shown me they aren’t supposed to.
I have no idea what to expect in season four. Maybe it will be the best yet, but I doubt it. Of course, there are other brilliant characters, but I’m just not sure how long the sassiness of Mrs. Hughes and the Dowager Countess can carry the show. It’s cool Bates and Anna are finally together, but their relationship isn’t all that rousing. And Edith’s situation is interesting enough, but there’s no history to it. Newcomer Rose grew on me, but she’s not truly a part of the “Downton” world. And honestly, if Edna comes back, I will not be held responsible for my actions.