Downton Abbey, Season 3

Why Is Downton Abbey So Cruel?
Talking television.
Feb. 17 2013 10:46 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 3

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Joy! Sadness! Is this the cruelest show on television?

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley

Photo courtesy of © Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece

June Thomas: Seth! The final few minutes of that episode were the cruelest in TV history. Just think, the Brits got that on Christmas Night. I bet thousands of Boxing Day breakfasts involved Downton fans weeping salty tears into their morning porridge.

I had managed to stay unspoiled about the details of that last devastating development, though I knew that Dan Stevens wanted to leave the show. But when the episode was entering its final minutes, and we were enjoying that lovely tableau of the new parents and their bonny baby—a son and heir at last—I told myself we’d avoided the worst and that his departure would be effected off-screen or at the beginning of Season 4. But no, the happiest man alive—a man, let’s not forget, who is driven around by a chauffeur 95 percent of the time—found himself in a motor-vehicle accident and now lies dead at the side of the road. I’m particularly wretched at the knowledge that we viewers are the only ones who are aware of this tragic development. Until next January, or whenever Season 4 rolls around, the Crawleys and their faithful retainers will remain in a state of ignorant bliss.

Seth Stevenson: Once again a child arrives just as its parent expires. Matthew had but one chance to say hello to his "dearest little chap." Two Downton babies have been born into sadness.

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I had avoided direct spoilers but was vaguely aware that something like this was coming. I steeled myself the moment I saw Matthew smiling, his hair in full flop in an open roadster. Still, the gushing blood came as a shock.

June, can Downton survive now that it has, in fairly rapid succession, killed off two of its most likable performers? I realize the show is a victim of its own success—spring-boarding the careers of Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay to new heights. But I confess it might be a challenge for me to work up excitement for Season 4 when my favorite characters are all disappearing.

Thomas: I swear, the Crawleys are the Kennedys of Yorkshire.

I think you're right, though. As its storylines have become less credible, the essential goodness and likability of the core cast have become more important. At the end of last season, I wondered if the show would still hold my attention once all the hurdles to Matthew and Mary's getting together were removed. If keeping the show going means more bipolar ups and downs on the scale of Season 3, I fear the end is in sight.

And it's not just Sybil and Matthew who we'll miss. O'Brien revealed herself to be a lover of travel and hot climates, and, freed from loyalty to Miss Wilkins the punch-spiker, it seems that Downton's most cold-hearted villain might be taking her hair-dressing talents to the colonies. As reality TV has taught us, nothing keeps viewers coming back to a show like a truly detestable character.

The arrival of young Rose at Downton will in no way compensate for the loss of all these old favorites.

Stevenson: It’s always been the allure of the cast that’s kept me coming back. And Dan Stevens was in many ways the show's glue. No matter which soapy implausibilities developed around him, he always managed to make Matthew believable, charming, and menschy. No scene was entirely hopeless whenever he was in it. Downton will be hard-pressed to replace him.

What bright spots can we look forward to? Rose will bring youth, and no doubt a spot of mischief, back to the abbey. Edith seems poised for either a heartwarming romance or a spectacular flame-out with her editor. Isobel and Dr. Clarkson might resume their stilted series of misunderstandings. And Branson is surely the most eligible bachelor in Yorkshire. Do you think he'd ever marry Lady Mary, and raise their two star-crossed infants as siblings? Would she even have him? Mary has always been rather kind to Branson. She's also a terrible snob.

Thomas: Well, that's the other thing: Mary was really rather horrible this episode. I cut her some slack on account of her advanced pregnancy—the poor woman was denied the pleasure of Scottish country dancing!—but she was snooty and nasty, and recovered her good temper only when she brought forth the little prince. Now , quite understandably, she’ll be devastated by Matthew’s death. Season 4 will surely see her wandering the halls of Downton Abbey with a sad gray cloud floating above her head.

Stevenson: She skipped the reels, but she's still reeling.

Thomas: Even if Mary were capable of verbal sparring, whom would she zing with? If I were Edith, Matthew's sudden death, following so soon on Lady Sybil's—not to mention all those young men lost in the Great War—would convince me to ignore convention and shack up with Mr. Gregson. When life is so fragile and potentially short, people should seize happiness wherever they can.

Stevenson: Cheers to people seizing happiness. This was one of those episodes when I longed for everybody to shrug off social convention. That maid seemed to make Branson happy, or at least less lonely—I wish they could have had a meaningless yet recuperative fling. I wish Dr. Clarkson hadn't been scared to make a fool of himself—he and Isobel seem suited to each other, don't you think? And I wish poor Shrimpy and his wife could end each other’s misery. Their marriage feels like Matthew's description of his day spent stalking: "crawling through heather with nothing to show for it."

There wasn't nearly enough of the dowager countess for my taste this week (there never is), but she did display a morsel of her patented wisdom when she forgave Rose for being a teenager. Given that Violet once wore leg-of-mutton sleeves, she was in no position to condemn.

Thomas: This episode was rather good at offering positive alternatives to sad marriages like Susan and Shrimpy's. That gap-toothed flirt Jos Tufton wanted Mrs. Patmore for her cooking, but the happiest moment of the night came when Mrs. Hughes clued her in to his faithlessness, thus supplying an excuse to refuse him. Mrs. P is better off where she is. I feel quite sure that Isobel knew exactly what Dr. Clarkson was going to ask her, but she's right that, for the moment at least, they'll be happier as friends. Even Thomas and Jimmy found a (nonsexual) relationship that will work for them.

But your mention of Branson and Edna the predatory maid brought me down again. That storyline was a rerun of a rerun of a rerun. (Just as Mrs. Patmore's courtship by Jos Tufton echoed the proposal Mrs. Hughes received in Season 1.) I really hope Julian Fellowes comes up with some new plot twists over the hiatus, because I am sick to death of the current crop.

Stevenson: There were so many recycled plotlines. A new life is born as another is cruelly taken. Molesley's inadvertently drunk again. Everyone's going to the fair, and deciding to ignore opportunities for romance because they're happier just as they are. Edith and Mary are bickering. Edith is flirting with a vaguely inappropriate fellow. A maid is sniffing around a man upstairs.

I think, at this point, the characters whose fates I'm interested in are Branson and Edith. Branson is starting over—a bachelor with a new career—and I'd like to see what the world has in store for him. Edith might dive into a more urbane, sophisticated lifestyle, with a magazine column to boot. (I liked when Lord Grantham scoffed at a journalistic enterprise employing "amateurs." Gregson doubted the distinction was meaningful. He's so new media! The Arianna of the 1920s.)

Everyone else seems content to ride things out at Downton. And the thought of that is beginning to give me chills. I think I might be ready to flee Yorkshire for new environs. As long as I don’t end up in Scotland. I'll take a pass on wandering through the heather and being awoken by bagpipes.

Thomas: Oh, let's not be too hard on Scotland. The tweeds were divine, as was Shrimpy's enormous Ruth Bader Ginsburg ruffle. And how marvelous to see Robert and Shrimpy don deerstalker hats for a morning’s deer stalking. I'd love to reel with Anna at the Gillies Ball, but British food is bad enough without having a piper circling the table while it's served. I'll gladly swear off bagpipes, but I'm not quite ready to abandon Downton Abbey yet.

Stevenson: Well, I'll miss you when I head off to my colonial posting—"all sweat and jippy tummy"—but no doubt we will meet again one day at Downton. And once there, we shall watch, for hours on end, Carson comforting babies. Easily the most adorable image of the season. I loved his calm tone as he told squalling infant Sybil that it was time for them to "have a little chat."

It's been a pleasure having these little chats with you, June. But now it's time to pack away my white tie and tails. 

Thomas: It's been a treat to have a kindred spirit to discuss the show with, Seth. Don't forget your pencils and your rods.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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