Downton Abbey: Visitors from the South
Laughing was wrong of us, wasn’t it? We’re going to hell.
But come ON; that was a ludicrous way to handle a main actor’s exit from the cast. In fact, it was so godawful that it smacked of some form of revenge on Dan Stevens by Julian Fellowes; a case of “You’re leaving? Fine. I’m going to make you look ridiculous on your way out.” How else to explain that not only did Matthew become a moral scold, and subsequently a bit of a bore, but his dialogue got progressively worse with each line, until, seconds before his onscreen death, he was exclaiming things like “Can this hot and dusty traveler enter?” and “Oh my darling, I feel like I’ve swallowed fireworks!” Fellowes is too good with a quip to not know how awful and unreadable those lines are.
And how else to explain the manner of his dispatching? Fellowes clearly knows how to write a heart-wrenching death scene, as evidenced by Lady Sybil’s harrowing last moments. And he knows when to pull away from a death scene and have it remarked upon by other characters, but unseen by the audience, as with the death of Patrick Crawley in the series premiere or Mrs. Bates suicide-by-pastry. He even knows how to mount an old school melodrama-style death, with fading light and heartfelt goodbyes, as with the late Lavinia Swire’s shuffle off this mortal coil. But it was kind of hard not to see Matthew as a sap and a rather silly man, in light of his final moments. It was just a bit too on the nose, what with all the “Oh my darling, I’m just so happy TO BE ALIVE!” followed by the “What a marvelous day! Look at that blue sky! Look at these green hills! Look at anything but the road!”
Look at my head, leaking like an overripe fruit on the side of the road. Subtlety has never been Fellowes’ strong suit – or even one of his goals, it seems – but even for him, this was oddly staged. There was something almost vindictive about it.
In a way, we can’t blame him, because Dan Stevens’ stubborn insistence that he not play the same character for the rest of his career has left the story of Downton Abbey without one of its main players and his leaving pretty much negates all the work in the story up to this point. A great deal of the Downton story revolved around Matthew and the succession. This is such a hard left turn in the plot that we almost feel like we wasted our time with all that marriage and entail drama of previous seasons. And where is the story to go from here? Mary will never be the Countess of Grantham, which is a goal that has driven all of her actions since the opening scenes of the first episode. Little Matthew Junior will inherit the title and we find ourselves wishing that, for the next season, Fellowes just skips ahead about 16 years and we settle in to watch the nearly grown Sybil Branson and Matthew Crawley Jr. take over the reins of Downton as World War II bears down on them. The prospect of watching the family shuffle through the rest of the 1920s bores us, especially since the only interesting thing happening to a Crawley right now is Edith’s decision to become a mistress to a married man. Since Fellowes wimped out on showing anyone’s reaction to Matthew’s death, he should just skip through the whole mourning process and the dreary “raising a child on your own” story and just have teenage Matthew Jr. inherit his estate just as war breaks out again. It’s the only potential plotline with any interest to us – and it really says something that we have to jump ahead that far to find anything that might keep our attention.
And if you need further evidence that Fellowes is tapped out on story for the current cast, look no further than Mrs. Patmore, who almost but didn’t have a relationship, or Branson, who almost but didn’t have a scandalous relationship (with YET ANOTHER of Fellowes’ stock “cheeky second housemaid” characters), and Dr. Clarkson and Mrs. Crawley, who almost but didn’t pursue a relationship. He’s run out of ideas for all of these characters. Meanwhile, Anna and Bates finally have no major troubles in their lives and what we all knew deep down to be true has been revealed: they’re as dull as two people can be. Also: Thomas is BEYOND creepy with Jimmy and Jimmy is grateful to him for that. Wait. What? Don’t even get us started on THAT. “I can’t give you what you want, but I’ll happily sit here, alone in your room, by your bedside.” We want to salute Fellowes for trying to take a look at the hard life of the closeted gay in this time period, but not if he’s going to reduce the whole thing to a silly fantasy. It’s ridiculous enough that Thomas even has a job there after having forced himself on another of the male employees, but it’s the height of fantasy to have that same male employee decide to befriend him for it. He’s lost the plot – in more ways than one. Except for Sybil’s death and the fallout from it, this has been the worst-written of the show’s three seasons, by far.
Ah, well. At least there were pretty pictures of tweedy country fairs and Scottish highlands. At this point, we fear that’s all Downton has left going for it as a series: pretty pictures of beautiful places and expensive things.
Season 4: 1938. Think about it, Fellowes. We’ll probably lose the Dowager, but you can just shuffle Maggie over into Rosamund’s role.
EDITED TO ADD: If you want to hear Tom spewing even more Downton opinions in his cartoon voice, you can check out the latest Ryan & Ryan podcast, with Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee, here.