When did 'Downton Abbey' become such a downer? A Season 3 post-mortem
[SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses key plot developments from tonight’s season finale of “Downton Abbey.” If you don’t want to know what happened, stop reading now.]
Really, “Downton Abbey”? We have half a mind to fly over to England and smack the quill pen right out of series creator Julian Fellowes’ hand. (Oh c’mon, you know he writes with one.) Here we are, still reeling from the shocking death of youngest Crawley daughter Sybil just three weeks ago. And now, tonight’s Season 3 finale dealt fans an even bigger blow when Downton heir Matthew Crawley, one half of “Downton’s” primary romance, was killed in an auto accident as he rushed home to share news of his and Mary’s newborn son.
The real culprit in all this carnage? Showbiz contracts. “Downton’s” cast all signed three-season deals when the series began, but Dan Stevens (Matthew) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil) opted not to extend theirs and return for Season 4, forcing Fellowes to write them out. Fellowes told the Telegraph he wished he could keep both actors, but in light of their contract situation, he “didn’t really have an option.” That didn’t stop furious U.K. viewers from flooding social media with complaints after the finale -- an outpouring of grief we expect we’ll see on this side of the pond as well, given the abrupt way Matthew's death was tacked on at the very end of the episode. (Get ready to receive a lot of angry emails, PBS.)
But sadly, Matthew’s sudden demise seems to be par for the course this season on “Downton,” which has been filled with so much tragedy and hard luck that we’re tempted to rename the series “Downer-ton Abbey.” In just seven episodes, we’ve suffered through not only those two devastating deaths in the family, but also Edith being jilted at the altar, a financial catastrophe for Lord Grantham, a health scare for Mrs. Hughes, housemaid-turned-prostitute Ethel giving up custody of her son… the stream of bad news has just been unrelenting.
Of course, previous seasons of “Downton” had their share of misfortune as well -- Cora’s Season 1 miscarriage, Matthew’s Season 2 paralysis -- but those darker plot twists were either miraculously reversed (Matthew can walk again!) or at least balanced out by happier stories. No such luck in Season 3. The closest thing to a cheerful storyline this season has been Anna’s successful quest to free her beloved Mr. Bates from prison, and it was great to see them enjoy a blissfully simple picnic tonight. But even their story involved plenty of heartache as Anna fought to prove his innocence… not to mention subjected us to lots of grim prison scenes that didn’t add up to much, plot-wise.
The loss of Sybil cuts especially deep, since we barely got to know her before she was taken from us, and it didn’t seem at all necessary to kill her off. Why not just have Sybil stay in Ireland with Branson and their child? That would make sense, since the conflict between her and Lord Grantham over her marrying the chauffeur was already well established. Maybe the producers could have even talked Brown Findlay into making an appearance in future seasons. Why shut that door and put “Downton” viewers through the emotional wringer not once but twice in a single season?