Oh dear, just when things were looking better. . . . If you haven’t watched the game-changing final episode of Downton Abbey, Season 3, you might want to turn back now, because all will be revealed.
Downton Abbey may be a delectable, self-enclosed fictional world, but now and then real life pierces its bubble: as you probably know, Dan Stevens decided not to return for Season 4, and his character departed with him. Really departed. Poor Matthew, on the very day his son was born, was happily driving his car when a truck came around a curve and led to the episode’s next-to-last image: Matthew lying on the ground, trapped under the car, blood trickling from his pretty head. (Any optimists who think he isn’t actually dead: sorry, even creator Julian Fellowes has acknowledged in interviews that he had to kill Matthew off.)
With Matthew’s death, you can see where the season was headed all along. Fellowes was a lot more lethal to Downton than the First World War ever was, killing off Sybil just after her child was born. Because Sybil’s death was totally unexpected – it didn’t come after months of rumors and spoilers – it was that much more wrenching, one of the series’ most heart-breaking episodes. But it sets up the next season beautifully. Her husband, Tom Branson (Allen Leech made him more appealing each week) is now firmly at Downton to replace Matthew as the resident hunk. (Or at least one of them; reportedly the series is casting a new, aristocratic love for Mary in season 4.)
The episode’s final image was of Mary and her baby. Since Matthew left a son and heir - not a day too soon - Downton is conveniently safe from distant relatives. But if Downton Abbey the estate is sure to survive into season 4, there are much tougher challenges for Downton the series.
The season’s blatant theme was old vs. new. In resisting all change, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville perfectly captured his wounded outrage) turned out to be more determinedly traditionalist than his mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith still makes the most ordinary lines sound witheringly good). The Dowager values the past but is also a realist, less reluctant than her son to accept must be done in the present, even if it means accepting the chauffeur into the family and having his child baptized a Catholic.
Around them, some forward-looking stories took on a slew of social issues: Thomas’s homosexuality, Edith’s emancipated desire to work, Mary and Matthew’s consulting a doctor about infertility. But the further Downton moves into the 20th century, and as the social distance between upstairs and downstairs shrinks, the more the series risks losing the Edwardian charm that made it such delicious escapism in the first place.
Change itself hasn’t been great for the show. Much as I love Downton, I have to say that the episodes taking it away from home have been weak. The story of Bates in prison had only one good moment: when he seemed so threatening to another inmate that you wondered if he could kill – that’s not enough to justify all those dreary prison scenes. Cousin Rose’s jaunt to London and a club that reeked of Roaring Twenties cliches – and it’s only 1921-22 at most -- seemed to belong to a completely different, much worse series. Rose herself is such a slight, stereotypical character, hauled in for the purpose – she’s the rebellious Modern woman – that it was disheartening to learn in the finale that she would be coming to live with the Granthams when her parents go to India. Of course we learned that news during the family’s excursion to her parents’ estate, a foray whose dull scenes of hunting and fishing played like a giant red herring before the return to Downton and the final tragedy. As any Grantham might say: How very tiresome.
The servants had their own satisfying dramas this season: Mrs. Hughes’ health scare, Mrs. Patmore’s suitor, Bates’ exoneration. But then the help doesn’t determine the fate of the Granthams, and it’s the preservation of Downton – the estate and the series – that’s at stake from now on.