SONIA BRAND-FISHER: You know, for a finale to such an amazing season, this definitely fell short for me. The highlights of the final episode of “Downton Abbey” this season were none of the gigantic and lame plot twists, but were the small moments. Bates and Anna’s picnic. Rose grabbing Anna when it was time to dance the reel. Thomas and James at the beginning of what hopefully will be “a beautiful friendship.” Carson carrying baby Sybil. Cora getting choked up talking about revolutionary, modern daughters. Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes sharing a spot of tea and laughing over presumptuous grocers. But throughout the entire episode, it felt like little tiny mounds of conflict were being made over sticks of dynamite that just kept being added to and added to as the episode went on, and one by one they exploded, awkwardly, with some piles still intact for next season.
The Edna and Branson storyline made me angry because it wasn’t very well thought out. Of course it’s too much to ask for a vengeful zombie Sybil to rise from the grave and cause harm to any tart who looks Branson’s way, but this little dalliance was boring and stressful. And of course Branson deserves to be happy (I guess), but whomever rises to that occasion has some enormous shoes to fill, which Branson certainly knows. But to introduce us to that prospect through an underdeveloped and silly character like Edna doesn’t do justice to Branson’s character (who looked thoroughly uncomfortable around Edna, despite his being friendly to her) nor to any understanding of how he might grow as a character. Thank heavens for Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson who swooped in to end whatever was going on there.
Since Sybil’s death, my favorite characters on “Downton Abbey” are moving from upstairs to downstairs, in favor of Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Thomas. I have always loved Carson and Hughes for their banter and personality quirks, but they are truly beginning to emerge as the grandparents of the house, in a way. They have both run Downton for so long and have seen the children of the house grow up. The scene with Carson and the baby, joined by Mrs. Hughes, brought to light a sweeter, gentler nature to their ever-bustling dispositions. Though Carson reminds us there’s no reason to get “sentimental” about this, there is an immense amount of respect that the Granthams have for the dynamic duo of Carson and Hughes, and baby Sybil and Mary’s son will come to know them both in that same manner.
Matthew’s death was a device that most of us knew about before the episode aired, so that Dan Stevens could be free of his contract with “Downton Abbey” and pursue other projects. His death certainly felt like a copout, and read as anticlimactic after Sybil’s death (a plot device that occurred for the same reasons as Stevens’). I loved Matthew, and his level-headed nature and his devotion to Mary, but his death felt so cliched and corny and intentional that it was rather easy to make fun of (2 minutes left, better hope a car comes along on this one-lane dirt road or Dan Stevens won’t get his movie contract– Oh! There we go!). Though this wasn’t the happiest note to leave the season on, and hence should have been more tragic and meaningful, I’m finding myself less than enthusiastic about next season. With Rose coming to Downton (Quick! Bring in another young girl so we can have an easy canvas on which to paint the changing times!), Mary as the mother of this little conveniently timed heir, and Downton’s continuing financial troubles, I’ll be hoping for some more development along the lines of what they did with Thomas, Anna, Bates, Carson, and Edith in the coming season.
HOWARD MEGDAL: There’s a key question left unanswered by those who have explained that the death of Matthew is the only feasible way for Julian Fellowes to have closed the Matthew storyline once Dan Stevens decided to leave, and that is this: is the show able to survive at close to its seasons 1-3 level without him?
Sure, the story of Matthew chasing and catching Mary had ended. But Matthew, as Sonia mentions above, is central to so many aspects of what make Downton great. He is one who bridged from outsider to insider, allowing him to both communicate with people as different as Rose, Branson, editor Michael and Lady Mary. Really, he is at the confluence of personalities, and that has been true in every season. Sybil was a worthy character; Matthew was the crux of it all.
I also take issue with the idea that absent volatile, huge plot points, that somehow Matthew/Mary ceased to be interesting. Quite the contrary: this show is at its best when the characters are having large responses to what are little problems, in the larger scheme of things. Moreover, the idea that Matthew and Mary would be conflict free as they raised a child defies common sense. This was a rich area to mine, and now it is closed off.
If anything, Anna and Bates seem to have reached that dead end. The quiet moments are lovely for them, but they hardly sparkle with the wit present in Mary/Matthew, and neither one appears to be difficult enough to create problems for the other. That’s a dramatic problem.
So without Matthew, what do we have left? Well, there’s Carson, doing Carson things. Lord Grantham needs to be given more story time, with Hugh Bonneville far more capable than his season three arc would suggest. (It’s almost as if Fellowes was too influenced by seeing Bonneville’s bumbling character in 2012.) Thomas is around, while O’Brien might have gone to Scotland, where the downstairs staff seemed like the O-Pee-Chee to Downton’s Topps
But it wouldn’t surprise me if the death of Matthew marked the end of this show as compelling as it has been. It’ll be up to Branson, the last character with the kind of backstory and subtlety to carry a show, to do far more. If he’ll be up to it, let alone be interesting enough for us to ignore how irritating Rose is, remains to be seen. I’ll watch, but I’m not optimistic.
NAVA BRAHE: Well, there we have it: Matthew has been conveniently killed off in the spirit of high drama that occurs on the most commonplace of soap operas. I must admit that it was a huge disappointment for me as well, and I agree with Howard that “Downton Abbey” has likely “jumped the shark” with Dan Stevens’ departure.
My hopes for the next season, for which I believe production is already underway, is that Branson will play a larger role in the family; he seems the logical replacement for Matthew, in terms of keeping Lord Grantham tethered to reality, as opposed to floating away on a cloud of renewed privilege. All the gossip I’ve read so far this week has been about a new love interest for Mary, and which actor will get the chance to woo her. It will piss me off greatly if Julian Fellowes plays the fortune hunter card, and conjures a character who intends to swoop in and seduce her with charm, all while concealing ulterior motives. I am hoping Mary will be smarter than that; after all, she did say she has done her duty to preserve Downton.
One thing the last episode did well, albeit a tad too predictably, was to juxtapose the upstairs/downstairs experience with the servants at the fair, and the events at the highland estate. It was so much more enjoyable to watch the tug-of-war, the games and the drinking (although not the beating Thomas took on Jimmy’s behalf), than the stodgy stalking and fishing.
Despite the unsatisfying end to this season, I am looking forward to the next chapter. There is so little quality television out there that once I invest in something, I can’t help but want more of it. My fear is that the qualities that have made “Downton Abbey” so magical will fade before I am ready to resign myself to giving them up. After all, nothing is made to last forever, much as we wish it could be.