When did 'Downton Abbey' become such a downer? A Season 3 post-mortem

Dave Nemetz
Yahoo! TV
"Downton Abbey's" Matthew and Mary (PBS/Masterpiece)

[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.)

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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?

Even normally happy occasions like weddings turned sour on “Downton” this season. We saw two Crawley daughters walk down the aisle, but neither one exactly ended well. Edith was rejected by her much older suitor Sir Anthony, who inexplicably waited until they were standing in front of a minister to tell her he was too old for her (again). Eldest daughter Mary did get to marry Matthew, but Fellowes made the odd choice to not even show us their wedding ceremony. (We’ve been waiting three seasons to see this!) Then the honeymoon didn’t last very long, with the couple descending into inane marital bickering almost immediately. And now, of course, Mary is left a grieving widow.

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Ironically, the most hard-luck of the Crawleys, middle sister Edith, turned out to be perhaps the season’s lone bright spot. After that nasty business with Sir Anthony at the altar, the Jan Brady of “Downton” (can’t you just see her whining, “Mary! Mary! Mary!”) bounced back nicely to find a new calling as a budding newspaper columnist… and found her own modern, feminist voice in the process. Of course, the way things are going on this show, we shouldn’t be shocked if poor Edith is trampled by horses or killed in an unfortunate printing-press accident in Season 4. But we’re keeping our fingers crossed that her blossoming into womanhood continues. After all, the Crawleys could use something to smile about.

A few more random, lingering thoughts before we officially put Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” to bed:

  • Given all the preseason hype, it seems like they oversold the presence of Shirley MacLaine a bit, didn’t they? MacLaine’s role as Cora’s American mother Martha Levinson amounted to little more than a glorified cameo, sparring all-too-briefly with the Dowager Countess before vanishing without a trace. And does it make any sense that Martha would come to Downton for Mary’s wedding, but skip Edith’s… not to mention Sybil’s funeral?
  • In better news, the free-spirited Rose is a promising addition to the “Downton” ensemble. We love stately dinners and formal balls, too, but we also don’t mind getting a peek at the seedier side of the 1920s (jazz music!) for a change. Maybe her wild ways could even lead her to America and give us that “Downton Abbey”/“Boardwalk Empire” crossover we’ve secretly been hoping for. (Nucky Thompson is in the market for a new mistress…)
  • We’re a little dizzy trying to sort out Downton’s downstairs staff and their ongoing love hexagon. Daisy loves Alfred, Alfred loves Ivy, Ivy loves Jimmy, Thomas loves Jimmy… Mrs. Patmore hit the nail on the head (maybe a little too squarely, Julian) when she complained: “You know the trouble with you lot? You are in love with the wrong people!” Despite our confusion, we’re still pulling for a happy ending for meek kitchen maid Daisy. She deserves it!
  • It’s been a tough season for Lord Grantham: His bad investment nearly led to the loss of Downton, Matthew wrested the family’s finances from him, Edith defied him by accepting that newspaper offer, and Cora even briefly blamed him for Sybil’s death. He is a bit of a dolt, to be honest (he wanted to sink Downton’s fortunes in the original Ponzi scheme!), but we still have a soft spot for the old chap, so here’s hoping a few more things go his way in Season 4. (At least his dog still loves him.)
  • Even in a tragedy-filled season, thank goodness we can still count on Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess to lighten the mood with a well-timed zinger. (Our favorite from Season 3: when she jabbed Robert for daring to wear black-tie to a white-tie dinner by ordering a drink from him, adding, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter.”) We may have our quibbles about “Downton,” but if Julian Fellowes kills off the rest of the cast and just has Dame Maggie tossing off quips to an empty room by Season 8, we’d probably still tune in.