By now you know (and so we feel no threat of being the spoil-sport), Matthew has died. We didn’t know the actor was leaving the show (we don’t follow that kind of behind-the-scenes stuff, except we would probably hear about it if Isis got ringworm or something), so his death came as a surprise–at least as much of a surprise as an ending so clearly predicted within the episode can be. And that, actually, has us more disappointed than the sudden dimming of his pretty blue eyes. Mostly, it is the fact that Downton has the appearance of a great show, a fresh spin on old Upstairs Downstairs. Indeed it is a lush thing–all due praise to the gorgeous stuff in it and the super cast–and the script has its moments. But overall Julian Fellowes just keeps dropping the ball (or would “buggers up the wicket” be more apropos?).
The opening moments of the very first Downton Abbey completely captivated us with the promise of a rich portrayal of a fascinating period in which people embraced change or fought it kicking and screaming. The skillful camera work panning along the telegraph wires carelessly strung through a quaint Yorkshire town instantly set up a riveting premise, pitching innovation against tradition. And indeed much of the show is built on watching an old world–when it can no longer staunchly resist it–be swept away or modified by the new one, either through the horror of war or the glitz of jazz. At least, that’s where the show hits its high points. It falls to its lows when it forgets what it’s about, or takes an easy out.
Two cases in point: a pair of narratives from season three flirted with tackling issues that were crazy-edgy a hundred years ago–and remain unresolved. They concern two characters who do not fit the rigid expectations of Downton’s musty high society: the gay butler Thomas and unmarried Edith. The scene in which Carson–the very vessel of civility–addresses Thomas in grotesquely uncivilized terms was shocking; it was also honest. But rather than address the terms under which a gay man would be kept in the service of an ultra-conservative household (or, more likely, thrown out) was totally side-stepped by the increasingly awful Lord Grantham’s ability to turn a blind eye to Thomas’ sexuality in his selfish interest of winning a cricket match. And then Edith, who just cannot get a guy, has the opportunity to invent herself as a professional writer. Yet rather than dig into the difficulties that women had (and have) establishing their credibility in competitive fields, or engaging in the literary possibilities sparked by the friction between her story (the to-the-manor-bred lady entering the gritty world of work) and the parallel-but-in-reverse experience of Tom Branson (gritty bloke rising into society through marriage), Edith’s job became just a backdrop for another sure-to-be-doomed romance. The show’s treatment of these characters might have been something new and different, more deeply real in a historical sense, and richly rewarding as a mirror to contemporary times. Instead, Fellowes resorted to time-worn tropes.
He resorted to this same formulaic dullness approach when cast issues required that he get rid of Matthew, or rather, get rid of the actor that plays Matthew. ”Sudden Fatal Accident” must rank second only to “It Was Amnesia” on the list of overused and stupid ways to resolve a plot problem. Matthew’s accident was made all the worse for being so predictable: there was just too much happy flowing around; something had to happen to bring balance back to the Yin and Yang rules of TV writing; also, at least a few characters delivered some wooden lines that made it clear: Matthew will be alone in a car. What could possibly happen next?
Well we’ll tell you what could have happened, to make the episode (and season) end no less cheaply. Matthew could have been the victim of:
1. a freak fly-fishing accident at Duneagle
2. tea time (death by clotted cream–surely it wouldn’t have been the first instance)
3. getting caught up in an under-the-bridge fist fight without Thomas to rescue him
4. the box of fireworks that he is revealed to have actually swallowed
5. drowning in his and Mary’s teen dream love poetry
6. trampling under Molesley’s drunken reel
7. cousin Rose (you know she’s toxic)
8. doesn’t really matter what, but you can always blame Daisy for it
9. peasant uprising in response to “modernization efforts”
10. lethal dose of the Dowager Countess’ stink eye
Here’s another idea: get another Matthew! Going out on a limb here, but we bet you can’t swing a biscuit tin very far in London’s West End without hitting a handsome actor ready to step into Dan Stevens’ coattails. seriously, Lord Fellowes: we embraced a second Dumbledore, we could have gotten used to a new Matthew, too.
Sadly, ’tis water under the bridge, and now we have just to wait for Season Four, which will be, no doubt, The Season Of Massive But Elegant Regrets, since everyone is going to have a reason to blame themselves for Matthew’s death. Perturbed as we are, we’ll tune in, expecting too much clunky storytelling, but delighting in those parts of the show that glow: confabs between Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore, the Dowager throwing shade left and right, Carson doing anything (but more with the baby, please!). And maybe, just maybe, the show will find its center–or, at least, the delicious center we think is lurking there–and the writing will live up to the costume design and scene setting. Then it might get back on track with the train that chugged along in the first episode. Otherwise, Fellowes’ scripts might instead become far too analogous to another mechanical wonder from that first episode, and sink the whole ship.