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Downton Abbey – Christmas Special 2012 – Recap and Review – A Journey to the Highlands

Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Christmas Special 2012 – A Journey to the Highlands

Well, the rumors turned out to be true. I always had a hard time believing them, given how often rumors like these persist on shows as popular as this, yet even as it seemed the rumors might come to pass, I held fast to the notion that it was simply more silly showbiz conjecture with no grounding in reality. Maybe I was more invested in the character of Matthew Crawley than I had thought. In fact, there’s no doubt about it – I absolutely was far more invested in the presumptive heir to the Earldom of Grantham than I ever realized.

Much had been made of the conjecture that Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley, would be leaving Downton Abbey at some point between tonight’s Christmas special and the first half of series four. I’m not sure I ever really believed the rumors, as they’ve dated all the way back to series two. However, even when I had been considering their validity, if only for the sake of journalistic thoroughness, I never actually thought he’d die – if only because I couldn’t imagine how in the world the show could ever realistically function without him. I’d argue that, next to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), Matthew is the heart of the show. There’s plenty going on downstairs in the servants’ quarters to give the show character, but really, Matthew has been the most vibrant of the Crawleys, the one upon whom the audience could comfortably pin their hopes for the entire fleet of Downton residents.

And now he’s dead.

Credit: ITV

Credit: ITV

And not moments after Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) gave birth to the child that would supplant him as heir to the entire Downton kit-and-caboodle. Indeed, as the special begins in September of 1921, roughly a year from where we last left the Crawley clan, the family (sans most of the servant staff) is traveling to Scotland to visit Lady Rose (Lily James) and her parents. In that great way that Downton tends to be, the episode is deceptively breezy, light on any serious tension, yet thick with frivolities, from Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) difficulties in deciding whether or not she’ll become the mistress of her married editor, Gregson (Charles Edwards), while Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) develops a flirtation with a villager who’s only into her for her cooking. In fact, there was much to do about romance in this year’s special, as Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton) gets closer with Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), and a new maid with social-climbing ambitions enters the picture, with her sights set on Branson (Allen Leech).

Yet, much as when Lady Sybil died earlier in series three, it’s hard to give anything resembling a damn about any of this, given those heartbreaking final moments. Much of the episode followed Mary’s pregnancy, and the oft-unspoken concern that she could go the way of her sister, taken in a sudden fit of eclampsia. This fear imbues the episode with that aforementioned, previously absent sense of dread, as there’s the feeling that something bad will happen in the midst of all this revelry and joyful preparation, but we’re just not sure exactly what. Mary’s childbirth is beautifully-rendered, and I feel it’s often forgotten just how well-made this show is, from a purely aesthetic, filmmaking perspective. The birthing sequence had a strangely dream-like quality, reminiscent of how dreams so often are: ethereal, yet terrifyingly real. The Dowager Countess expresses concern towards the end, suggesting that things never really go the way we want them to, and given the ugly business with Lady Sybil, it’d be easy to see why Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Eizabeth McGovern) might be terrified. Imagine pinning all the hopes of Downton on the oft-neglected middle child? And I say that as someone who loves Lady Edith.

Credit: ITV

Credit: ITV

Really highlighting what makes the filmmaking so effective is in the relative dreamscape qualities of the birth scene and the horror of what follows. In a fit of jovial, new-parent haste, Matthew hops behind the wheel of his car and speeds away, and modern sensibilities engendered a certain fear in me at this point, as a car accident is probably the most contemporary way anyone could ever die on a show where its most dramatic deaths have been from eclampsia and Spanish influenza, respectively. But I had really been hoping that was just a red herring on the show’s part, a bit of artful misdirection to get us nervous, only to then amplify the joy when, ultimately, nothing comes of our fear. But that’s not the case. Not at all. And the show will forever be worse off for it.

Dan Stevens mentioned in an interview that he left Downton Abbey in order to explore new things, that this decision had been in the works since before series three started filming. If this is truly the case, the show not only deserves kudos for keeping the shocker as well-concealed as it did, but also for making it still feel devastatingly, heart-rendingly sudden and unfair. Matthew represented much of what made Downton Abbey, both the setting and the series, such a place of hope and modernity. More so than Lady Mary, he stood as a symbol for a burgeoning age, one that eschewed the traditions of Robert’s more conservative sensibilities. But more than that, Matthew was a man that represented the best of what this sort of society could create: a nobleman who was both resourceful and intelligent, yet even-tempered and fair; equal parts kind and loving, witty and warm. Matthew was not simply a harbinger of a better life for Downton and its denizens, but also the hope for its enduring future. I still have no idea whatsoever how this show could function without him. For the first time since I began watching the series, I’m genuinely wondering what the point even is. And I never felt that way about Matthew until I realized the gaping void his absence would leave behind.

Credit: ITV

Credit: ITV

If I have a complaint about how well this entire 90-minute spectacle was put together, it’s in how utterly devoid of stakes many of the plots felt, prior to Matthew’s tragic demise. It’s nice to see Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) continue to be a cute married couple, and it’s even sweeter to see Carson (Jim Carter) briefly playing pop-pop to Baby Sybil, yet the episode is still filled with brief drop-ins on storylines from series three that I’m not certain needed much more in the way of elaboration, such as when Thomas (Rob James-Collier) intercedes when Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers) is being harassed by a couple ruffians at the county fair. It’s all well-and-good, for the moment, yet it all feels strangely hollow, even before Matthew’s death. Maybe this is just a technique to lower audience expectations for the episode’s trajectory, but it still feels like a strange direction to take for a Christmas special (although the same could have been said for last year’s “Bates in Jail” Christmas arc). Ultimately, though the episode is remarkably effective in the gut-punch of its finale, it’s somewhat undermined by mirroring too closely the exit of Lady Sybil, as Mary is now, like Branson, a single parent out of tragic circumstance, and neither incident is very far removed from the other.

Credit: ITV

Credit: ITV

Yet for all my hemming-and-hawing about Matthew, the question remains: was this ever really his show? It’s one thing to grow fond of a character, and still another thing to miss him when he’s gone, but for the sheer level of devastation this is going to leave in its wake, I really have to wonder if maybe Matthew was an anchor for this series. I would argue he was, easily, the most likable among the Crawley clan, and though the series is an ensemble piece, with no top-billed lead, much of the show’s plot was catalyzed by Matthew’s existence as the presumptive heir of Downton Abbey. Yes, he has a son now who can fulfill that role (and given how cavalier the show is about time, the child could practically be an adult by the time series four premieres), yet will he ever be anything but a pale imitation of his father? I’m genuinely worried about how this show will function without Stevens. I don’t necessarily feel the show has to end, and I would be sore to see it go if series four was to be its last, but I feel like the sense of warmth and joy that so often accompanies this show (even, or especially, in its more salacious moments) is now irretrievably lost. It’s not enough to say that a light has gone out in Downton, but an entire constellation.

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12 comments
JohnBreithaupt
JohnBreithaupt

We Yanks just got the bad news about Matthew -- you Brits did a good job keeping the secret from us for the past six weeks.  At any rate, Matthew's death seemed not to arise out of the story or Matthew's character.  It seemed to be only what it was -- a way for Dan Stevens to get off the show.  That said, something can be made of this.  James Agee's book, "A Death in the Family", begins with the death of the father of a young family in a similar traffic accident (at about the same time in history).  What follows is a moving exploration of his family's grief -- Agee succeeded in making poetry out of something that is commonplace in this sad world. So, whether Matthew's death spoils the series remains to be seem -- it could make it.  Whatever happens, please keep the secret until we get to see it ourselves.

yolsim
yolsim

I was completely devastated when \matthew died.  How on earth could they kill off the most popular character.  WE ARE ALL SO SAD.  I am not sure that I want to watch DA anymore, although I probably will because it is the greatest show I have seen in ages. The characters are all amazing - at least we still have Mary!!!

JacksonMayhew
JacksonMayhew

So much fuss!


Yes, Matthew was a great character, and I will miss him.  But I am far from declaring that the sky is falling, and I am not going to stop watching because I don't approve.  People need to chill.


I found this storyline wholly believable, and found no problem with this event occurring so close to the time of Lady Sybil's demise.  If anything, it almost makes sense.  The Crawley's get to caught up in what shall become of the house, that they sometimes forget they should be thinking of what will become of the family.  They prioritize the house and the lifestyle over the family.

This opens the door to a season 4 where we hopefully get to see the family start to think more about how the family must endure and less about how the house must endure.

I'm excited for season 4.

mharms
mharms

Great review, but this had me scratching my head. .  "In his haste to get to Mary, Matthew hops behind the wheel of his car and speeds away..."  Matthew had just been WITH Mary and the baby in the hospital and I thought was leaving whilst beaming and bursting with joy. I was very unhappy with this ending.

Carrie Sue
Carrie Sue

VERY UPSET!  Why couldn't they just write Matthew off the show?  Like he had to go to New York City to make investments over seas to bolster the Downton Estate.  It is also upsetting to read that Dan Stevens hated the storyline of him in the wheelchair suddenly standing up, that he decided that he was leaving then and there!  And that was in the middle of Season 2!  Sounds like he couldn't stand the dinner scenes either, that take 2-3 days to film. Geez!  I don't think American camera crews take that long.  I won't be watching widow Mary hooking up with widow Branson in Season 4.  The scene of Matthew's crushed body and bleeding head and ears was so horrific.  

Mali4eva1998
Mali4eva1998

AARRRGGHH! oh well, Matthew will always live on in my heart <3. I don't believe a character can ever truly be disposed of, though, even if they are written off in the canon. Sorta like what dumbledore said. As long as people are loyal to his memory, Matthew Crawley will live on

ArchieSue
ArchieSue

OMG!!!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I haven't had a chance to watch the special yet and now I know I'm going to be sad watching it.  Your writing is superb Nick!  I can't believe they let Matthew go.  So basically anyone at Downton can die off  at anytime.  WHY MATTHEW THOUGH???? So Matthew's only purpose was to bring more wealth to Downton and then they kill him off. That's just WRONG! Why couldn't he just get into a car accident somewhere and wake up with amnesia and go missing or  something.  That way they could bring him back later on when he wants to come back.  lols    :) 

I'm going  to miss him so much. He was the glue of the show and he brought the idea of change for Downton.  Oh well, now it's going to suck without Matthew I think?  :(  RIP  Matthew Crawley....

NickRoman1
NickRoman1 moderator

@mharms You're absolutely right!

In MY haste, I misspoke, meaning to say "In his haste to get BACK to Mary", since he was headed back to the hospital (where the family was headed, at the time, IIRC). 

I was kind of scrambled by how upset the episode made me, surprisingly enough. I wonder if this twist will end up ruining Downton for some people.

NickRoman1
NickRoman1 moderator

@ArchieSue My thing is that I don't actually feel like he HAD to die. There are other ways to write-off a character. Hell, send him off to America on a business venture, making occasional references to his progress. At least then, the door isn't shut.

But I guess they wanted a sense of finality to things. And I suppose they also wanted to leave open the possibility of introducing a new love into Mary's life, which couldn't realistically have happened, and still have been believable, had Matthew remained alive.

Ah well, ashes to ashes, and all that. But the fact remains that this sucks out loud.

EDIT: Oh, and thank you for the kind words about the review! You truly are a sweet one. Happy holidays to you! Hope they're better for you than they've been for the Crawleys.

ArchieSue
ArchieSue

@NickRoman1 @mharms Wait I thought he was headed to Downton after seeing Mary at the hospital to let the family know what was going on?  Anyhow it sucks that Matthew is gone. I'm still pissed about it. lols   At least he got to hold his baby and  kiss Mary one last time. :(  

mharms
mharms

@ArchieSue @NickRoman1 @mharms That's what I thought too, but it really wasn't clear, and I think it could have been interpreted either way. I thought he was simply elated and over-the-moon after seeing his baby, and driving back to Downton to "freshen-up". Hadn't he come to the hospital, in haste, directly from the hunting fields?

NickRoman1
NickRoman1 moderator

@ArchieSue @NickRoman1 @mharms Was he? So much of what happened immediately got twisted for me. I'm going to have to go back and watch it again. I was power-watching Downton, the Doctor Who X-Mas special, and the Call the Midwife special in one three-hour bloc. And all this, without egg nog!