Here’s a joke for you: A white guy’s entire life changes when a few untimely deaths move him several places up the line of succession. Now he’s a rich white guy, about to inherit a really big house. He gets to do this because he’s a dude, and his duty in life is largely about producing more dudes. But then he has some trouble deciding whom to marry, and then for a while people think his man parts don’t work. After more than 10 years of faffing about he finally knocks a nice lady up. As he drives home, after seeing his son for the first time, here is what he thinks to himself: “La la la, I’m Matthew Crawley! I’m a hamfisted son-in-law, heir, and husband, but I get everything I want pretty much because I make sexytimes with my wife! I’ve finally secured the line of succession, which is my only job in life! Yay! I’m so happy, I can’t look at the road! I’m just going to stare up at the sky while driving this DEADLY MACHINE.”
Look—I can’t even deal with this atrocious, absolutely ludicrous ending. I knew it was likely Matthew Crawley was going to die in this episode (Dan Stevens was rather open about wanting to pursue other options) but I was not expecting something quite so insulting to the show’s fans. Literally, the moment he sees his son and heir, he’s offed in a car accident? How convenient. Next you’ll tell me he helpfully inherited a bunch of money at a crucial moment! Oh wait, he did that, too. I’d like to go entirely in the other direction and pronounce this plot development hilarious—I mean, it is pretty funny. Joke’s on you, Matthew Crawley! I guess all we wanted were your man parts, and even those, for a rather short amount of time! [Insert requisite sex joke here!]
But I’m too upset, to be honest, to get there just yet. If Stevens had to go—and he outright refused to commit to even showing up occasionally in the fourth season—there were surely better ways to dispatch of him than this, given they had the whole season to prepare. A car accident is the most deus-ex-machina-ish of deus ex machinas. A car accident in the last minute that conveniently kills a character, just as he’s become a father, just as the family discusses how strange and peculiar life can be, just as the line of succession is finally secured? Good grief. I’m not able to wave this off as yet another soapy moment in what is already an overstated, fun drama. Because this is just a kind of cheap shot. And positioning this cheap shot where it is—at the very end of the season—puts the responsibility of internalizing and processing such a huge plot development on the viewers, not on the show, which is where it belongs.
To use an imperfect metaphor, to my mind it’s like getting into an argument with a loved one, who says something really, really terrible and then slams the door behind them. It may be a valid feeling—and I do think Matthew’s mortality has always been integral to the central anxieties of Downton Abbey—but it’s irresponsible to dump it on someone and then disappear. What are we supposed to do with this information? Okay, so Matthew’s dead, and nobody knows it yet. So not only has Julian Fellowes entirely pulled out the rug from under us, he’s also denied us any emotional context.
So yes, viewers. Laugh. Cry. I don’t know what else to do. But that happened, and now we have to live with it.
At least this plot device means we’re rid of Dan Stevens. Matthew transformed over the course of three seasons from one of the show’s most interesting characters to one of its worst. Matthew in this episode is superficial and dull to the point that it is painful to watch him. His syrupy response to his newborn son is so hammy it’s thoroughly unbelievable (including the terrible line “panting to see you”), and his plodding, “good guy” subplots are so irritating that his death is something of a relief. Finally, we can get past this listless marriage, in which a dissatisfied actor was shackled to a role he was no longer interested in playing.
The problem is, the rest of the episode isn’t that great, either. If it were just the car-accident finale, that would be one thing, but the narrative leading up to the car accident is so weak that there’s very little of merit happening at all.
You know that Downton Abbey is struggling when it leans heavily on wealth and riches as a means of storytelling. So in this episode, rather than cleave to any individual character and their development, the bulk of the episode is spent fawning nostalgically over country fairs and Scottish shooting parties. The camerawork is always good on Downton Abbey, and it goes to work here focusing with great detail on the quaint hunting gear and the minute details of housework; on the exquisite diamond stars to be fixed in the ladies’ hair and the feathery bait for fly-fishing. In short, on things. Things, indeed: the elegance of things, the way the light falls on them, the different purposes things can be used for, the sheer amount of things in Downton Abbey. Great. Things are cool. We all love things. Downton Abbey is 99 percent elegant consumer fantasy, and I am fine with that.
But objects aren’t a narrative. They have to serve some sort of purpose. And as lovely as looking at everything is—from Doneagle Castle to Edith’s smart little headband—there is precious little narrative driving this 90-minute episode forward. The main plot is that the family is traveling north to Scotland to visit cousin “Shrimpy” and his family, including their daughter Rose Crawley from last week. While the family’s away the servants have a little room to relax, and the two separate vacations culminate two different parties—a county fair with tug-of-war contest and an aristocratic Scottish ball, complete with “reeling,” a dance that confirms every stereotype about white people dancing.
But… it’s boring. Somehow, literally every plotline introduced in this episode falls flat. There are almost no climactic moments, and the ones that do exist seem spun out of thin air. Even Mary’s pregnancy and premature birth seem casually dropped into the episode. Only one plotline forces two characters to come to terms with their previous actions—the continued tension between Thomas and Jimmy. It is not coincidentally the only plotline whose climax feels even marginally significant. Everything else—from the slight dalliance Mrs. Patmore (!) indulges in to the remarkably creepy flirtation between Dr. Clarkson and Isobel Crawley—is purely fluff, so slight in their appeal they barely stand up on their own.
For example: As much as I enjoy Edith’s plotline, doesn’t this dalliance with a much older newspaper editor who has been a) previously married b) considered unsuitable by her family, and c) attempting to break up with her despite his own affection for her seem, I don’t know, incredibly familiar? Gregson is not even the first newspaper editor on the show to try to get into the Crawley family. I have no idea why they’ve resurrected the corpse of Edith’s jilting at the altar, with this new guy we’re not attached to. Like nearly everything else in this episode, it feels rushed, stale, and even incidental. Why spend time on a romance that isn’t going anywhere? Or to be exact—why spend time on four romances that aren’t going anywhere? The only one of these that I found myself enjoying is Mrs. Patmore’s flirtation with the “cheeky devil” from the fair—but I think that’s largely because I like any opportunity Mrs. Patmore has to step in front of the camera.
Downton Abbey is allowed to be a lot of things—over-the-top, hysterical, maudlin, treacly. But it only gets to do that in the service of entertainment. If it’s fun to watch, then I can forgive all manner of ills. But even the car accident isn’t interesting. Nothing is particularly interesting. This has turned into a boring show.
In short, this entire episode looks at conflict, maybe even takes a whiff of it, and then runs—nay, sprints—in the other direction. Nothing happens. The primary scene of action is a county fair. There are no stakes. There is no conflict. There is almost no character development. There is no sense of the context of anyone’s actions in the larger world. We’ve returned to the idea of Downton Abbey as a world in a crystal ball. You can shake it and make the snow fall, but in a few moments, everything will look as it did before.
The strongest subplot—the exception to the above—is the one with Branson continuing to find his place at Downton. Even there, though identity politics tend to be Downton Abbey’s forte, the plotline is muddled by the introduction of a random new character who has a crush on him. He doesn’t do much to encourage her, but once she lets on that she feels a bit familiar with him, Mrs. Hughes fires her at once, which is the second time that a housemaid has been fired because she’s flirted with a man upstairs. To the show’s credit, it’s a continued commentary on class and gender—a housemaid will always be a second-class citizen. But what we’re supposed to see here is how Branson is learning the boundaries of duty and privilege, and throwing him into a flirtation with an implausibly pushy woman we’ve never met before seems to confuse the issue. I much prefer his private conversation with Mrs. Hughes and Isobel (“You have a position now, and you’re entitled to use it”) and his quiet rebellion against Carson so he may sit with the servants at dinner as indications of his changing role at Downton.
Most of the episode feels as if it is spinning its wheels a bit to move everything into position for next season. For example: The whole point of the Doneagle rigamarole is to contrive a reason for Rose to live at Downton (which, honestly, could as easily have been accomplished by having her show up one day, and announcing that she shall live at Downton. I’m fine examining functional marriages and unhappy families, but it’s difficult to care when almost everyone we meet is a new character—and when it’s unclear that anything we’re learning is going to come into play at any later point). I’d be more excited for that upcoming season if I continued to have faith in Downton’s storytelling capabilities. If there were an episode immediately following this one—an episode that could use what has been set up this week into a satisfying resolution—I might have a little more faith. As it is, Fellowes chose to end the season by accomplishing very little.
Because it’s not that I mind where the show is heading—I mind the meandering, wasteful route to getting there. Okay, the show killed off a main character in a freak accident and made almost all the other characters spin their wheels in dead-end plots—so what’s our incentive to tune in next season? In the show’s haste to move on, it seems to have left certain important elements behind, like I don’t know, telling a story. And as easy as it would be to blame Stevens for the floppy resolution, ultimately writers do have the power to make even sudden character departures work.
There’s still a lot of good stuff left on Downton Abbey. Now Mary is a widowed single mother—but clearly still young, and well worth marrying. Without Matthew, tempered by love and bitterness, she is going to be a fun character to watch, an aristocratic Black Widow. Edith has still, theoretically, not gotten laid. There are now two children in the house, and a dysfunctional teenager. And Bates and Anna are likely to start making babies soon, if that adorable picnic led anywhere fun. Branson, clearly, is going to be playing a much bigger role on the estate, especially now that he’s the only young man in the house, and at this point one of the show’s most robust characters. He’s also single, and still progressive, so sparks could fly in any direction. And if you really want to get crack-shippy, Mary and Branson are the most likely couple moving into season four. They both already live in the house, after all! (That would be, however, a kind of awkward wedding night.) In short there is much to work with. It could be lovely to behold.
But this season has been phenomenally inconsistent. There have been a few incredible moments—I specifically am thinking of Edith’s wedding, Sybil’s death, and Thomas’ assault on Jimmy—but those are few and far between, considering that this has been the season of the prison plotline that felt never-ending, the barely verbalized fertility plotline, the still unresolved love quadrangle between the kitchenmaids and the footmen, the forgettable saga of the housemaid/prostitute/cook, that one time that Mrs. Hughes thought she had cancer, and, oh yes, that other time that Matthew wouldn’t accept a pile of money because of this weird idea he had about a dead girl. It’s not coherent in the slightest. I barely remember half of these plots, in part because they don’t scan as strands of a larger narrative arc.
Has Downton given up on being anything beyond an expensive overstated drama—on having vision beyond the next hour or two of production? Last week I felt that in a few plotlines the show had managed to return that kind of narrative. This week, I am beginning to worry that was a leftover anomaly. Or, you know, that the writers got bored. And yet—this could be a great show. It’s been disappointing to watch it fall apart.
For now we must bid goodbye to the charming world of Downton Abbey, at least for a few more months. Filming of the fourth season has apparently already begun, so perhaps by Christmas we’ll have another season to pick apart. Thanks for sticking around! This has been a great show to review, in part because of the enthusiasm of its fans. See you all next year.
Finale grade: D
Season grade: C
- For what it’s worth, the county fair is a much, much stronger plotline than the upstairs’ staff’s trip to Scotland. Unlike the latter, the fair feels like a holiday. While aristocrats are glum and dreary, quarreling and plotting about marriages and fortunes and foreign postings, the fair lets everybody do dumb things outside of their normal context. Oh look—characterization! Jimmy’s an idiot with money, and Daisy’s turning into a cute little farm wife who uses the word “thruppence” unironically. The day culminates in a good old-fashioned country brawl. Fun and games for everyone.
- There is a whole separate piece to be written about how the servants plots’ can share just as much screentime as the upstairs stories but will never be as significant, because they are not the members of their class with power—but I couldn’t fit it into the above. Suffice to say that it’s well-encapsulated in that little scene where Jimmy and Alfred surreptitiously sit on the couches in the parlor. They never sit in sofas, and they live in that house.
- MORE PARENTING ADVICE FROM THE DOWAGER: “It’s bad enough parenting a child when you like each other.”
- The writing is weak in Scotland, but the cinematography is gorgeous. Those skies! Let’s move, everybody. Big expansive skies for everybody.
- As an ex-bagpiper I can confirm that being woken up by bagpipes at 8 a.m. is very, very unpleasant. At least he was in tune. (Do you know how hard it is to tune a goddamn set of bagpipes?!)
- “Mrs. Patmore?” “Why not? She’s a woman, isn’t she?” “Only technically.”
- Cora calling Mary snobbish does seem rather… tautological.
- So how could a tiny little operation just like, fix Mary’s lady parts without any fuss? Because she’s just like “Bam! Pregnant!” with so little explanation that it’s a little confusing. Anyone have an opinion on this?
- “My dear you flatter me, which is just as it should be.” Thanks, Lady Grantham!
- The whole jaunt in Doneagle is almost a carbon-copy of Fellowes’ previous work Gosford Park—shooting party out in the middle of nowhere; dysfunctional marriage with a cranky wife and a selfish husband; rebellious daughter pursuing married men; Maggie Smith being hilarious. It’s even the same time period, at this point (give or take five years). No murder, but to be fair, we already had a murder.
- Not to be too ridiculous but the count for number of times India has been mentioned in the past 13 years of the show’s timeline just tripled in this episode alone. My colonized peoples are pleased with themselves.
- I would watch a show, even a YouTube channel, that consists merely of Carson and Mrs. Hughes cooing over tiny baby Sybil. On repeat. Maybe forever.
- Even odds that Sybil’s baby boy cousin will be named after his dead parent—making two babies with dead people’s names running around? If this show turns into the Haunting Of Downton Abbey I will be…. well, pretty excited, actually. (Oh plus, if you’re into crackships, I’ll one-up Mary/Branson and introduce the idea of Sybil junior and Matthew junior. OH YES. I SAID IT. DOUBLE CRACKSHIP.)
- So, I’m not one to complain about Allen Leech rolling up without a shirt on, but isn’t that the first time that anyone in Downton has been even semi-nude for any amount of time? People stayed rather clothed back then in Britain. I’m surprised the show’s stooped to beefcake… Scratch that. I’m not surprised at all.
- “Say hello to your son and heir.” Mary, as usual, is the tender, informal sort, especially after giving birth. (I think Black Widow Mary is going to be my favorite Mary of them all.)
- In that brief moment where it looks like Mrs. Patmore is crying over her fair-weather suitor who was only after her cooking, I experienced more emotion than I did during the birth and death of the Crawley heirs. Also, that throwaway moment where Cora’s voice cracks when talking about Sybil. Heart: broken.