‘Downton Abbey’ Heartbreak in Shocking Season 3 Finale

by | February 18, 2013 at 8:04 AM | Downton Abbey, Recap, XFINITY Streampix

Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens in "Downton Abbey" (Courtesy of © Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE)

[**Spoiler Alert**: Do not read if you don't want to know the outcome of Sunday's Season 3 finale of "Downton Abbey."] “We don’t always get our just desserts,” says Violet to her elated family as they gather in Downton’s library to celebrate all their good fortune in the final minutes of last night’s episode. The dark days are behind them – the estate is saved and Mary has just given birth to the heir Robert has long hoped for. All is right with the world.

But it’s not.

Matthew, who minutes before stood in his wife’s hospital room holding his newborn son exclaiming he felt as if he “swallowed a box of fireworks,” is dead.

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Minutes before the shocking final scene, Mary and Matthew cooed over their baby son in the hospital and seemingly tied all the loose ends of the entire series together. “We’ve done our duty – Downton is safe,” says Mary to Matthew, letting viewers collectively exhale a sigh of relief safe in knowing that this season, which gave us the harrowing and shocking death of Sybil, was going to end on a happy note.

And then this. What other show kills off two of its most popular characters and survives? While creator Julian Fellowes is hoping to replace Sybil’s niche as “the young, head strong one” with Lady Rose next season and may succeed on some level, Matthew, the Crawley heir apparent seems at this moment, irreplaceable. His character, a symbol of Britain’s rising middle class in the 1920s, was the central figure in the series’ sprawling storylines. Will his death drive fans away in droves?

In order to keep the show alive, Fellowes will have to go off in entirely new directions shifting the emphasis to other characters which, if this episode is any indication, is going to be a bit of a struggle. At least at first to a large segment of “Downton Abbey” fans.

After this episode, which aired on Christmas Day of all days in the UK, viewers were outraged that their favorite television character met such an unexpected end while television critics there crowed the show had jumped the shark. Some even posed the question: Is it time for Downton to bow out gracefully?

My answer: absolutely not!

Some critics sniped about the way in which Matthew was killed off and accused Fellowes of  “sloppy writing,” arguing that an old war wound or some complication would have made for a more believable exit. I disagree. Life is random and so much of what happens in real life is unexplainable and out of the blue. That’s what happened to Matthew. A man who survived war, who wound up walking again after being told he would not beat the odds until fate stepped in. Isn’t that what happens to the people in our lives? Plus, I don’t know at what stage of his writing Fellowes learned actor Dan Stevens wasn’t coming back but there seemed to be an awful lot of foreshadowing with that car. It even played a central role in the gorgeous trailer for season three. (Go back and watch it and you’ll see what I mean.)

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That’s what made it so devastatingly sad. The randomness coming on the heels of such a blissful moment was unbearably tragic – and felt truer to me than anything else would have.

Fellowes has said he had “no option” but to kill off Matthew after Stevens decided not to sign on for a fourth series. In an interview a few days after the show aired in Britain with The Telegraph, Fellowes explained that he tried his best to persuade Stevens to stay to no avail and if he’d wanted to return for a few episodes next season he would have arranged for the character to go off some “foreign post.” But, reasoned Fellowes, “For Matthew and Mary to then separate and Matthew never set eyes on his son again would not be believable either. So we didn’t really have any option. By him dying, their love can remain in tact.”

Fellowes also told the paper there was no ill will between him and Stevens adding that he is often amused by the notion viewers have that shows’ writers determine the fate of characters pointing out that “In truth, they are taken entirely by the actors.”

So there you have it. Don’t blame Fellowes for the most shocking and unexpected season finale in years. Having had his beloved roadster run off the road on his way back to the estate, Matthew Crawley wound up dead in a ditch beside his overturned car his eyes open staring blankly up at the sky, blood running down his face because Dan Stevens has heard the siren’s call of Hollywood.

It’s hard to imagine what will happen to Michelle Dockery’s Mary without Matthew to soften her protective shell. (Remember the ghastly Sir Richard Carlisle?) I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that Fellowes is going to mine the best obvious (to me at least) potential storyline and there’s going to be something of tortured attraction between Mary and Tom next season. I see the seeds of it already and both of them are going to need each other more than ever. And let’s face it, that’s one story that will pull in the viewers in droves. It will be, to borrow my favorite British enthusiasm, “Brilliant!” Tom Branson/Allen Leech will now have to fill the role vacated Matthew Crawley/Dan Stevens and — don’t shoot the messenger Matthew/Dan enthusiasts – I think he is more than up to the job.

If you still want to find out what else happened in the finale, here’s my recap:

It’s one year later from the previous episode and the household, once again fully staffed, is busy getting ready for the family’s yearly trip to the Scottish highlands. Anna has packed the diamond stars and one diamond tiara (“I’d rather be safe than sorry”), Alfred and Jimmy are loading the luggage on to the wagonette. “Under butler” Thomas (that’s Mr. Barrow to you) is doing his best Carson imitation as he hurries along the hall boys. The new maid Edna sneaks a look at Tom as he passes in the hallway.

The Crawleys go to visit Cousin Shrimpy, the unfortunately nicknamed lord of the manner, his wretchedly miserable wife, Susan, and – wait for it – daughter Lady Rose who live at Duneagle Castle which makes Downton look like a mcmansion. “It’s the high spot on his lordship’s calendar,” explains Bates to Ivy noting that the family didn’t go last year after Sybil’s death (there are plenty of mentions of Sybil indicating that no one has yet recovered from her death) or during the war – in other words, this trip has been entirely fabricated as a new storytelling device. The visit, which occupied much of the episode, was a jarring departure and for the most part made it seem as if the Downton cast had wandered on to the set of another picture (it was, I admit, very cinematic). I said this last week on the occasion of Matthew, Edith and Lady Rosamund’s visit to the Blue Dragon nightclub, the house itself is an important character in the show and when the principle players are removed from it, they are diminished and the show stalls. We are not amused, Mr. Fellowes. We don’t mind a trip to the village or London now and then but enough of this voyaging into other worlds.

“Darling this isn’t 1850 – no one expects me to hide indoors until the baby is born,” says Mary to Matthew when he expresses concern that his eight month pregnant wife is in too delicate a condition to make the journey. The family sets off for the journey with Bates, Anna, O’Brien and Moseley in tow leaving Tom (who has been charged with looking after Isis) and baby Sybil home with the rest of the servants.

Carson and Mrs. Hughes disappoint the staff by telling them that the every piece of silver and every room is to be gone over while the family is away. Edna, the upstart maid, speculates on what Sybil could have seen in Tom and then flirts with him when she finds him alone in the dining room.

Upon arriving at Duneagle, Robert, Cora and the rest of the group find the upstairs and downstairs residents of the castle to be perfectly miserable. Shrimpy and his wife constantly bicker, Rose spends much of her time pitting both parents against each other and the dour faced servants serve as a reminder to the Downton staff how lucky there are to work anywhere but there. And then there’s the 8 am wake-up call courtesy of the bagpipes.

Shrimpy confides to Robert that his marriage is irretrievably broken (“We don’t like each other”) and that he’s accepted a post in India because, unlike Robert, he failed to keep up with the changing times and all the money is gone. “Will you take Rose?” asks Violet later that night after dinner. Not likely, says Shrimpy. How convenient.

Edith gets a call from her editor that he’ll be in the neighborhood (how convenient yet again) and he’d like to stop by. He also just happened to have packed his white tie and tails and stalking clothes so he’ll fit right in with the Crawley men. Mary calls him out on it before his arrival but Cora shoots her down as sounding ‘snobbish’ which always makes me laugh. “I was simply questioning his motives for being in the highlands,” says Mary when Matthew walks in on the catfight. See Mary was right, Sybil’s death changed pretty much nothing between them. When Gregson arrives for dinner that night, Matthew observes to Mary: “What a disappointment. He looks perfectly normal.” It turns out that Gregson is lobbying for the Crawley’s approval. “I thought if they liked me, they’d find it easier to be on my side,” he tells Edith admitting that he is in love with her. “I just can’t see a happy ending,” she says. Nor I can.

Later that night, Matthew tells Mary he’s talking Edith’s editor out stalking and warns of her of judging him before she gets to know him. “That’s the hallmark of our parents generation and I forbid it.” Just be your nice self, he says. “I’ve seen you naked and held you in my arms. I know the real you,” says Matthew caressing Mary’s growing tummy.

Back at home, Tom gets it from all sides while holding down the fort at Downton. Isobel invites him to dinner and condescendingly commends him – in the nicest possible way — for making the transition from revolutionary chauffeur to family member/estate manager “superbly” but warns him, “Don’t be too eager to please. You have a position and can speak to whoever you’d like …” Then maid-turned-stalker Edna follows him to the Grantham Arms where he’s gone to escape the uneasiness he feels having his former fellow servants cater to him. Edna baits him into joining the staff for dinner one night while the family is away. Back at the house Edna presses the case and ask him, “Are you ashamed of who you are or who you were? Is that why you won’t eat your dinner with us?” When he does venture downstairs for dinner Carson is not amused and Mrs. Hughes can tell it was Edna who put the idea in tom’s head in the first place.

To fill in the blanks on what’s been happening between Thomas, Jimmy and Alfred, there is a scene in the house with the two footmen where Alfred tells Jimmy to “take it easy on Mr. Barrow .. I don’t mean crawl all over him ..” to which Jimmy replies, “Who rung the police in the first place?” Alfred then offers; “Funny thing about Mr. Barrow is that he won’t hear a bad word about you.” The ever clueless Jimmy says, “Why what have I done?”

The staff takes off to the town fair with Tom as their driver. Carson, who feigns displeasure, stays behind so that the servants can actually enjoy themselves. Edna uses the time to flirt with Tom. Ivy and Daisy, now pals, play games and Jimmy gets the gang to take on opponents for a game of tug of war. They win and when a member of the losing team finds Jimmy in a tunnel with his winnings and starts to rough him up, Thomas takes the punches for him. Jimmy runs and gets Isobel and Dr.Clarkson who happened to have been were on date at the fair (Clarkson, fortified by whiskey was in the midst of trying to propose when he’s interrupted by the frantic footman!)

Back in the highlands, while out fishing Gregson reveals his situation about his institutionalized wife and his feelings for Edith to Matthew who is none to pleased in hearing that his unlucky in love sister in law has once again chosen a clunker. Matthew tells him that while he and likely Robert would understand his desire to make a new life for himself, he can’t expect them to allow him to involve Edith in his messy situation. “Not when all you have to offer is a job as your mistress,” says Matthew. “I’m offering my love,” whines Gregson. Suddenly I don’t like him as much as I did.

I loved Matthew’s reply: “You’ve been misled by our surroundings. We’re not in a novel by Walter Scott. I can’t imagine you’d think I’d allow Edith to slide into a life of scandal without lifting a finger to stop it.” He tells him to say his goodbyes to Edith tonight after the ball. “You owe her that.”

The night of the Gilles Ball finally arrives. Shrimpy and his wife have a blow out interrupted by Robert, who finds out that his cousin has lost all his money because he didn’t modernize the way Robert did. “What are we going to do about Rose?” Shrimpy asks Robert. I think I have an idea. Upstairs in the ballroom, Anna surprises Bates by reeling. “Isn’t she marvelous?” asks Mary. “Yes, she is marvelous.” Cue Anna and Bates’ love theme. Across the floor, Gregson tries to say goodbye to Edith and she tells him resolutely, “This is not our last evening.” Uh oh. Next season should prove very interesting for Edith.

Mary, who had been warned not to dance at the ball but does anyway, goes into premature labor. She goes back to Downton with Anna and insists Matthew stay behind so as not to break up the party. Reluctantly, Matthew agrees. When the news reaches Downton Mrs Hughes instructs Edna to make up her room. “Must I?” the impertinent maid (who managed to steal a kiss from Tom by bursting into his room to tell him the family is returning) asks and then tells Mrs. Hughes and Carson she has plans to meet “Tom Branson” for lunch. She has to go, says Carson. Yes, she does.

Susan goes to Cora and tells her that she knows that Shrimpy has asked Robert to take in Rose while the couple goes to India. Cora tells her she won’t do it unless Susan agrees. “I can’t bring her out from Bombay,” says Susan who concedes it’s probably for the best. The two mothers, who both now share the bond of losing daughters, promise to keep each other’s best interest in their heart.

In one of my favorite scenes from the episode, Mrs. Hughes, who has watched Tom be manipulated by Edna, can hold her tongue no longer and tell him that the maid has been sacked. “It didn’t encourage her,” says Tom. “Maybe,” says the housekeeper. “But if I may say, you didn’t discourage her either.” Then she asks Tom if she may speak “as I would have in the old days.” She tells him that he let Edna make him ashamed of his new life. “You’ve done well and Lady Sybil would be so proud,” she says as tears well in his eyes and in mine. “I can’t bear to be without her,” he says as he breaks down. “You must bear it,” she tells him. “One day I hope and so would she you’ll find someone to bear it with you. Until them be your own master and call your own journey.”

Mary gets off the train at Downton and asks to be driven straight to the hospital. “Get a message to Mr. Crawley straight away,” she says.

While the rest of the house prepares for the return of the family. Mrs. Hughes shows Edna the door. “What have I done? I’m as good as Mr. Branson,” she whines. “There are rules to this way of life, Edna,” says the wise and weary housekeeper. “And if you’re not prepared to live by them then it’s not the right life for you.” Buh-bye.

As Robert and Cora prepare to depart the haunted castle, Robert kisses his wife’s hand and tells her, “I can’t wait to get home.” After seeing the ghost of Christmas yet to come in his cousin, he admits that he now accepts that Downton is going to survive because of “Matthew’s vision.” He goes on: “You knew how lucky we were in Matthew and now I give thanks for him. Most of all, I give thanks for my wife.” As well you should, Lord G.

Shrimpy, of all people, delivers the most memorable line of the episode when he tells Cora he wants Rose to go and live with them to so she’ll know know what it is to be pat of a loving family. “Love is like riding or speaking French, if you don’t learn it young it’s hard to get the trick of it later.”

Back at the house, Carson, frantic with worry over Mary, is reassured everything will be okay by Anna who is on her way to the hospital. She tells him to get Matthew’s car brought to the station so that can drive himself to the hospital when he gets back and then he can come drive back to Downton with the news when he’s ready.

Jimmy visits a badly beaten Thomas and sees the results of his cowardice when he ran off to leave him in the hands of the fairground thugs. Rob James-Collier is fabulous in this scene showing his surprise delight at Jimmy’s concerns. “Were you following me?” asks Jimmy.

“I like to keep an eye out,” says Thomas with a shy smile. “I could see you’d had a bit to drink. Yes, I did follow you.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

Jimmy tells him, “I could never give you what you want.” I finally like this character as Ed Speleers shows how completely flummoxed the young footman is by this situation.

Thomas tells him, “I’d like it if we could be friends.”

“Right you are, Mr. Barrow . If that’s all I think I could manage that.” It will be interesting to see where this goes. I don’t think it’s the end of it.

And finally, the denouement.

Matthew arrives at the hospital. “Can you this hot and dusty traveler come in?” he says from the doorway. Upon meeting his son for the first time Matthew is beside himself with happiness, “My dearest little chap, I wonder if he has any idea how much joy he brings with him.” The scene is everything fans have waited three seasons to see. When Matthew tells Mary, who is gazing at her son with wonderment, that she’s “such a wonderful woman” she tells him, “I hope I’m able to be your Mary Crawley for all eternity — not Edith’s version or anyone else’s.” He tells her, “You’ll be my Mary always because mine is the true Mary.” I was crying before I even knew what was going to happen. Believe me, watch this episode a few times and you’ll cry more every time you watch this scene. I promise you.

Mary then tells her husband to remember how in love he is at this moment the next time she scratches the car. Mary tells him to go get the rest of the family but first, she says, “I think I’ve earned a decent kiss.”

And she gets one. A kiss before dying.

As Matthew lies dead on the road, the scene switches back to mother and child with Mary blissfully unaware that the happiest day of her life will forever be remembered as the saddest one, too.

And so we must wait a year to find out what happens next. The time frame for the next series will determine what the season is about. Will we see the family in the throes of grief and shock over Matthew’s death? That seems rather duplicative of this season. Will Tom have become Matthew 2.0? Will Edith be in the throes of a secret forbidden affair? How far into the future will they then go? The show has already spanned 11 years and no one looks a day older. As much gnashing of teeth there’s been over season three, I, for one, can not wait for season four. This one has been everything we could have wanted – and more, much more. Well played, Lord Fellowes. Well played, sir.