Inevitable Thoughts on the End of Downton Abbey, Season 3

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This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the end of the third season of Downton Abbey.  Please don’t continue beyond the jump if you don’t wish to be spoiled.

I initially conceived this post as somewhat of a recap and reaction to last night’s third season finale of Downton Abbey, with an addendum about the circumstances surrounding it at the end.  But it turns out that I have quite a bit to say about these circumstances and what they mean for the show’s future, so I’ve shifted the focus to cover these.

Before delving into those final moments of the season, however, I begin with some brief thoughts on the second half of the season.

Mourning, Cricket, and a Journey to the Highlands

As strange as it is to say, Sybil’s death kicked life back into Downton Abbey.  We saw the characters deal with their anger and grief, and I think that the episode right after Sybil’s death was one of the strongest we had yet seen.  And it finally gave Elizabeth McGovern something to do to make me appreciate her performance as Cora.

The rest of the season had an interesting subplot for Thomas, who, after making a pass at Jimmy, actually gets a promotion instead of being fired.  And as soon as Bates got out of jail and moved into a little cottage with Anna, there were virtually no problems with the storytelling.  The regular season culminated in a wonderful cricket match – and all was well with the characters.

As the Christmas Special, entitled “A Journey to the Highlands,” began, all was still well.  The episode combined two of my favorite things: Downton Abbey and Scotland.  Just the mere sight of bagpipes and reels on Downton made my day.  There were so many wonderful moments: Anna and Bates’s picnic, the ball, Carson and Baby Sybil, Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore having a good laugh, Thomas and Jimmy becoming friends, Mary and Matthew right after their son was born – I could go on.  But it also indulged in some unnecessary sidetracks.  We got to meet the oft-referenced Shrimpie, yes, but all the drama between him and Lady Flintshire wore the episode down.  As for Rose, well, we’ll see if she grows on us in Season Four.

One minor criticism of the season: why wasn’t Sir Richard Carlisle’s threats to expose Mary to scandal at the end of Season Two explored at all?  I know the family doesn’t care anymore, but without acknowledging it, his threats seem hollow at best.

On Dan Stevens’s Exit

So by now, everyone knows that in the final moments of the episode, Matthew Crawley died in a car crash – just moments after seeing his newborn son.  The reasons for this development are varied: Dan Stevens didn’t want to extend his contract beyond the initial three seasons for which the entire cast signed, Julian Fellowes couldn’t break up Mary and Matthew because viewers were so invested in the couple’s story, and there was the possibility of the show continuing.  With all of that, it’s only logical that Matthew had to die.

Of course, the death could’ve been handled better.  Particularly, to interlay images of Matthew driving with Robert’s words seemed too emotionally manipulative.

But Fellowes has stated that he didn’t want Matthew’s death to dominate the episode – so he waited until the final moments to kill him off.  I’ll give him that.  But in the same interview, Fellowes says that the fourth season will begin six months after this episode.  Six months?  Really?  Where will the closure be?  Will we see any of the characters mourn?  If a show is going to kill off such a major character as Matthew, the other characters and the audience need time to process it.  Simply skipping over the messy details isn’t going to do anyone any favors.

Moving Forward

But that is neither here or there, unfortunately.  We can be as frustrated as we want about how the final moments of the episode played out, but what’s done is done.  And now we and the show have to move forward.

There is no point in masking it: Dan Stevens’s exit will have a major impact on how Downton Abbey goes forward.  Basically, we have a case of the clamor for more seasons of the show and an actor’s wishes to pursue other projects determining the storytelling on a very successful program.

Stevens has unfortunately received the brunt of the blame for this.  But can we really blame him?  Just as it’s easy to understand that Fellowes and ITV would want to continue the profit that is Downton, it’s easy to understand that Stevens would want to have the freedom to pursue other projects.  It’s his life, after all, and he has every right to do whatever work he wants to do.  I get that.  I really do.

My only problem is that his wishes combined with the show’s unprecedented success have altered the course of the story.  If Downton hadn’t become the hit that it did, it’s likely that this third season (or perhaps even the first or second) would have been the last – and Matthew would not have had to die.

How the show will go on without Matthew remains to be seen.

Should Downton have finished in three seasons?

In order to avoid Matthew’s death, then, does this mean that Downton should have wrapped up at the end of season three?  Part of me thinks so because it would have allowed Julian Fellowes to tell the story he originally meant to tell.  But I’m not entirely certain.  For one, there’s the consideration of the rest of the cast and especially the crew.  Would it be right to deprive them of more years of work on a successful show?

The case of Dan Stevens is a tricky one.  It might be best to consider other similar situations.  I don’t watch The Office, but from everything I’ve heard, the quality went downhill when Steve Carell decided to leave.  On the flipside, on the BBC’s Robin Hood a few years ago, lead Jonas Armstrong decided to step down after three seasons – and the show promptly ended.

So, would it be better for Downton to soldier on without Matthew (as it will) – or should we all have gotten a happy ending, albeit deprived of a few more years of the show?

I’m not sure that we can really know the answer until we see what Season Four has to offer.  As a Mary/Matthew shipper, I’m saddened that they won’t have a happy ending.  But I love Downton Abbey for other reasons as well.  Am I happy that there will be a fourth season?  Yes.  Am I worried that it won’t be as good as the first three seasons?  Certainly.

All we can do now is hope that Julian Fellowes comes up with some worthy storylines to keep the show going forward.  I would hate for the feeling that the show should have ended in Season Three to be confirmed.

What do you think?

Besides the aforementioned Julian Fellowes interview, you might be interested in a chat that Dan Stevens had with The Telegraph and an Entertainment Weekly interview with Downton Abbey executive producer Gareth Neame.

Before wrapping up, there’s one more thing I have to wonder: what happens to Mary when Robert dies?  I was initially going to ask if she’d automatically become the Dowager Countess of Grantham, but people are saying that her position would be akin to what Isobel’s is now.  Does anyone have any insight?

And finally, what are your thoughts?  Should Downton have ended with three seasons?  Are you worried, excited, or a mixture of both for the fourth season?  And besides the final moments, what were your impressions of the whole season?

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9 thoughts on “Inevitable Thoughts on the End of Downton Abbey, Season 3

  1. I read on twitter that Dan Stevens did not renew his contract, and was just looking throughout the whole second half of the third season to see what Fellowes and Co. would do with that. It took me out of the action and the emotional connection — and was so different for me than experiencing Sybil’s death (which I had no idea about). I think that if I didn’t know about Stevens leaving I would have been… better about how the end was done. Fellowes did a good job considering the confines that he had to work within, in my opinion.

    I think there is still lots to be said, and am glad there are going to be more episodes. I want to see what Daisy might do as times change, and what happens with Edith, and I think Lady Violet has so many more zingers in her, and and and and and!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It was nigh impossible to avoid spoilers about Stevens’s exit – and I apologize if it was me who spoiled it for you on Twitter (I know I tweeted that he was leaving, but at the time, I wasn’t yet aware that Matthew would actually die). I can’t even imagine what watching that completely unspoiled would have been. But with the foreknowledge, you could definitely see it coming with all those talks between Mary and Matthew about not taking the future for granted. I agree that there’s still lots of ideas for Fellowes to explore in Season 4. I too am curious about Daisy – will she take Mr. Mason’s farm, after all?

      • I cant remember exactly, but I think it might have been Dan Steven’s twitter where I found out. I was just talking with my boss and she, her husband, and her friend had no idea about the contract end and they all felt hit by a ton of bricks.

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this episode and what it means for Downton’s future. You know, I wondered the same thing about Mary’s future role–how exactly is that going to work? Her son is the heir, but what does that make her? Good question!

    Another good point you raised that I had completely forgotten about–what the heck happened to Richard Carlisle and the Pamuk scandal threat? I thought there’d at least be one reference to it, but we got nothing, thus making that entire plot line pointless.

    I’m concerned about season 4, and really think it could go either way. It could turn out to be disastrous, or perhaps the departure of Matthew and Sybil will stir up some new creative energy that will drive the series in some new, pleasantly unexpected directions. Guess we will just have to tune in and find out!

    • Yeah, the thing about Carlisle occurred to me a few weeks ago while watching the show. Really, now that whole part of S2 seems even more unnecessary.

      I am cautiously optimistic about the fourth season. I think you’re right that it really could go either way. What will be interesting is that we literally have no idea in which direction Fellowes will take us. I’m glad the producers have said that Mary will remain the general focus, and maybe her new arc will give Michelle Dockery the right material to actually win the Emmy that year.

      Something actually just occurred to me. ITV commissioned the fourth season a month before the Christmas Special aired. As contrived as it sounds, do you suppose that Matthew’s death seems sort of tacked-on because they would have only aired it if the fourth season were ordered? If the show had been canceled, perhaps it would have just ended with Mary, Matthew, and the baby and then Robert and everyone talking about how marvelous it is. I doubt anyone would have wanted to end the whole show on Matthew’s death.

      • Interesting thought, and you know, I could actually see that being a possibility. It would have been so easy to edit that out at the end if they decided to end the series there. If they had made it more central to the plot, it would have been much harder to do that. Definitely something to ponder!

  3. Hi! I’ve just found your blog, and your musings on the end of season 3 immediately caught my attention 🙂 I remember how frustrated I was with the end of the Christmas episode. Apart from my strong belief that a Christmas episode simply MUST have a happy ending, it was also soooo stupid. I mean, come on, an accident on some minor road, with the speeds they had back then ends with the death? I don’t even think it’s physically possible how things happened. I’ve seen some joking that the next time they need to kill somebody a mammoth will stride into Downton 🙂 Comparing with setting up for Sybil’s death, for example, it’s a complete failure. As a fan, I feel that I am offended 🙂 And I’m not even sure I want to watch season 4 now… We’ll see thought 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by! I completely understand your sentiment; the treatment of Matthew’s death was clunky at best, but I think it would have been handled better if it hadn’t been for all the external factors. I do agree that a Christmas episode should have a happy ending — in a way, I’m glad we Americans didn’t get the episode on Christmas!

  4. Pingback: The Writing Conundrum of Downton Abbey | Many Media Musings

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