American fans of Downton Abbey–the popular British import on PBS Masterpiece–were in for a big shock on Sunday evening, February 17, 2013. Settled in for a double episode of the delightful period drama set in early twentieth century England, viewers were lulled into a sense of “all’s right with the world.” The “downstairs” set visits the town fair, a new maid kisses the widower Tom Branson, and the “upstairs” crew has a holiday at a castle in the Scottish Highlands. Mrs. Patmore (the head cook) and Mrs. Isobel Crawley both receive somewhat whimsical marriage proposals. And then, Lady Mary Crawley has her perfect baby boy in the hospital right near the estate. She is positively glowing when her husband Matthew arrives to admire their new (not yet named) son.
Glow Turns to Horror
At this point, the wary viewer begins to worry that things are going awfully well, and this end-of-season episode surely must end with some sort of twist. Never did we suspect, however, that series creator Julian Fellowes would cut so abruptly from a scene of pure joy to a close-up of a bleeding and unmistakably dead Matthew Crawley. The new father has a tragic collision with a truck while motoring along on a country road in his open-topped car, visibly reveling in his great good fortune. At this point, the viewer gasps, cries out, and in my case, covers her eyes to mute the misery. But the car wreck scene is mercifully brief, yielding to a recap of the mother and baby glowing in their sunlit hospital suite. What could be more poignant than the sight of the new mother cradling her baby completely unaware that her husband has just been killed on the short drive between the hospital and the Crawley estate?
What Julian Fellowes Was Thinking
Having not yet fully recovered from the untimely and shocking death of the new mother, Lady Sybil Crawley, viewers were hit with an even more shocking death because the character of Matthew Crawley is so central to the narrative. In an interview published in the February 18, 2013 New York Times, Julian Fellowes revealed that he felt there was no alternative to having Matthew die, since actor Dan Stevens was determined not to return for a fourth season–not even part-time. Fellowes explained: “With members of the family, once they’re not prepared to come back for any episodes at all, then it means death. Because how believable would it be that Matthew never wanted to see the baby, never wanted to see his wife? And was never seen again at the estate that he was the heir to? So we didn’t have any option, really. I was as sorry as everyone else.”
As for the timing of Matthew’s death, Fellowes offered two explanations. In the same interview quoted above, he said that there is rather of a tradition of British soap operas killing off characters in an end-of-season Christmas episode. But his main reason for the timing was that Dan Stevens simply was not willing to return for any filming beyond Season 3. And Fellowes seems to have made his peace with the timing, noting that the action next season will begin six months later, after the funeral and immediate aftermath. It will focus on Lady Mary’s efforts to carry on despite her great loss.
Downton Abbey without Matthew: Series 4
Conveniently, Matthew’s baby son will fill his shoes as the male heir to the Downton estate. That ties up one loose end rather nicely. However, Matthew had been just getting started on his campaign of modernizing and making more businesslike the estate’s operations. It seems implausible that former chauffeur and new estate manager Tom Branson could lead it on his own. He was thriving under Matthew’s friendship and guidance, but will have a difficult time working with Lord Grantham without a buffer.
Matthew’s death leaves a very odd family configuration. Replacing the three marriageable daughters viewers got to know in Series 1 are: one young widow with baby, one young widower with baby, and one never-married young woman whose love life seems utterly star-crossed. How Fellowes will work with this reconfigured dramatis personae is an intriguing mystery that will definitely draw viewers back for that fourth season. So will the acerbic wit of Dame Maggie Smith’s character, the dowager Countess of Grantham. An uninhibited teenaged aristocrat will be coming to live at Downton–Lady Rose MacClare.
In addition, the continuing saga downstairs of Anna and Mr. Bates, the gay under-butler Thomas, Daisy’s unrequited interest in Alfred, and the schemes of evil Miss O’Brien will give us plenty of grist for the mill. By the time Fellowes and company have finished filming, shown the new series in the UK, and then brought it to PBS, we American viewers will be frantic with anticipation. Even without the Mary and Matthew romance, we’ll find enough to keep us glued to the television for another round of memorable Sunday evenings.