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.
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.
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.
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.
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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