Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season Finale – A Journey to the Highlands
Whether a UK viewer, or an international viewer watching via DVD or pirated means, I don’t know many people who didn’t know that Dan Stevens was leaving Downton Abbey. It’s a byproduct of the internet age, where it’s nearly impossible to keep a lid on anything of any sort of magnitude. For many viewers who didn’t want to be spoiled, but who inevitably stumbled onto the news one way or another, the only mystery remaining was in the method of his exit. Would Matthew Crawley be killed off? Would he be shipped off to the States on an overseas project for the estate? Would he and Mary divorce? When the news first broke that Stevens would be leaving, I have to admit that I never truly entertained the notion that he would die, if only because I couldn’t imagine how the show could ever realistically function without him, or at least without the possibility of being able to bring him back somewhere down the line. Downton Abbey is a show that traffics in delayed gratification. We’d waited as long for Matthew and Mary to actually get together as we did for Bates to be mercifully set free, so it seemed inconceivable to me that we’d have the story of the Crawley romance come to such a tragic, catastrophic end, if only because it’ll color how audiences view the show, going forward. There’s a very significant gap now that Matthew is dead, and unlike Sybil, who was always on the fringe of the narrative, it will be nearly impossible not to think of Matthew any time we see any of the Crawley clan.
Julian Fellowes has gone on record stating that he didn’t think there was any other way to write Matthew out and maintain the integrity of the show. While I don’t know that I agree with that, I wouldn’t go as far as some fans in speculating about Fellowes’ motives: a very vocal contingent feels that Fellowes killed off Matthew as a spiteful response to Stevens’ unwillingness to stay, even at a limited capacity. I don’t buy that theory, not only because of how vocal Fellowes has been about wishing he and Stevens could have come to some sort of compromise, but because I don’t believe that Fellowes would gut his audience over a personal squabble with an actor. Because, make no mistake, next to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), Matthew is the heart of Downton Abbey. I know there are many people who’d disagree with me there. Maybe they’d offer up Mary (Michelle Dockery) as the true heart of the series, or perhaps others would argue that there is no heart of Downton, that it’s an ensemble piece in which no single individual is greater than the sum of its parts. But I would still argue that Matthew has been the most vibrant of the Crawleys, the one upon whom the audience could pin their hopes for the entirety of Downton Abbey.
And now he’s dead.
And not moments after Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) gave birth to the child that would succeed him as heir to the Earldom of Grantham. 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. The Scotland scenes are beautifully shot, and Duneagle Castle is a majestic, palatial estate that inspires awe even from Robert (Hugh Bonneville). But for as gorgeous as these scenes are, at least half of the episode is a total slog. The episode veers from plotline to plotline without any sense of cohesion, to the degree that nothing gets the chance to feel important. Edith (Laura Carmichael) has trouble deciding whether or not she’ll allow herself to succumb to the flirtations of her married editor, Gregson (Charles Edwards), from whom Matthew ardently defends her, looking to save the family from scandal. Then there’s Lady Rose (Lily James), who suffers from the depression of a largely pointless existence. Meanwhile, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) develops a flirtation with a villager who’s only into her for her cooking. Not to be outdone, Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) develops an attraction to Isobel (Penelope Wilton), stopping just short of proposing to her before Isobel politely shoots him down by reiterating what a great friend he is to her. These individual arcs all have their own interests, although they feel frustratingly insubstantial. One of the few plotlines that feels worth the time is wrapped up by the end of the two-hour special.
Edna (MyAnna Buring) is Downton’s new, young, social-climbing maid, and she has her sights set on Branson (Allen Leech). She’s a thoroughly obnoxious character, guilt-tripping Branson into enduring her constant flirtations by suggesting that he’s forgotten where he’s come from, now that he’s all high and mighty in the Crawley clan. Branson doesn’t encourage her pursuits, really, but as Hughes (Phyllis Logan) reminds him, he didn’t discourage her either. Edna kisses a stunned Branson, asking him to meet her for lunch the next day, but that date never comes to fruition, as Edna ends up getting herself fired for refusing an order from Carson because it would interfere with her date with our favorite Irish widower. Hughes recognizes that Edna has been badgering Tom and making him feel low about his up-jumped status within the family, and she takes a moment to tell him that he doesn’t need to feel ashamed about his new place in life, adding that he’s done a tremendous job that would have made Sybil proud. Tom breaks down, and talks about how he still can’t bear to be without Sybil. Hughes comforts him by telling him that there will come a time when he’ll be able to get back on his feet, and perhaps even find someone to share his life with. It’s one of the best scenes in the entire two-hour episode, as Allen Leech has really grown into the role of Branson, and there remains a certain residual sympathy from Sybil’s death that hasn’t diminished in the weeks since she passed away. Just the look on his face after Hughes tells him that Sybil would have been proud is more than enough heartbreak to witness for one episode, never mind the heartbreak still to come. The entire arc is magnificently done.
Unfortunately, there’s a less successful arc detailing the crumbling marriage between Hugh “Shrimpie” MacClare (Peter Egan), the lord of Duneagle Castle, and the Dowager Countess’ niece, Susan (Phoebe Nicholls). Susan is a bit of a pill, constantly being the wet blanket to everyone’s fun, but she’s easy to sympathize with, at times, due to the nature of her loveless marriage and the idea that no one really thinks all that much of her, even her children. But the real point of connection between this plotline and the rest of the episode is in how it illustrates the good sense of Matthew’s decision to modernize Downton, as Shrimpie stands to lose Duneagle Castle due to his refusal to get with the times. This reconciles Robert, in his own mind, with what Matthew has been trying to do with the estate, to save the family from ruin. It’s a nice sentiment and all, but I felt that storyline was perfectly settled last week, so this all felt pretty unnecessary. That said, it’s still better than the go-nowhere subplot, depicting the rivalry between O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Susan’s maid, in which the only interesting development is watching Molesley (Kevin Doyle) drunkenly dance his ass off at the Duneagle ball after drinking a spiked punch meant for O’Brien. That alone is enough to salvage the hit-or-miss subplot that surrounds it.
Yet, much as when Lady Sybil passed away, it’s hard to give half a damn about any of this, in retrospect, given those heartbreaking final moments. Much of the episode followed Mary’s pregnancy, a storyline enveloped by Matthew’s starry-eyed proclamations of his undying love for Mary. That probably should have been the first cue that things weren’t going to end well, and the episode plays on the recent memory of Sybil’s death-in-childbirth to imbue Mary’s pregnancy with a sense of foreboding. Yet the birth passes without incident, as Mary is taken to the hospital upon returning early to Downton from Scotland. Yet it’s the scene that follows, in which she and Matthew beam with the joy of new parenthood, that stands as one of the most beautiful moments in the entire series. I often forget just how well-made this show is, on a purely aesthetic level. Indeed, the scene with Matthew, Mary, and the newborn baby boy has a strangely dream-like quality, reminiscent of how dreams so often are: ethereal, yet palpable. Really highlighting what makes the filmmaking so effective is in the relative dreamscape qualities of the post-birth scene and the horror of what follows. Matthew drives happily down the road, the wind in his hair, and hardly a care in the world. This is intercut with Robert, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and the Dowager Countess discussing the future of Downton. It’s almost as if the characters are discussing the series itself at this point, particularly when The Dowager Countess suggests that no one ever truly gets their just desserts – at which point we see the aftermath of Matthew’s car being run off the road. Matthew, the heir to the Earldom of Grantham, lies dead beneath his car, blood oozing from his ear and across his lifeless blue eyes. The moment feels devastatingly, heartrendingly 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 not merely noble in name, but in comportment. Matthew was both resourceful and intelligent, yet even-tempered and fair; equal parts kind and loving, witty and warm. Matthew was not simply the 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 is going to work 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.
Perhaps Matthew’s death is the reason why the preceding 115 minutes are so utterly devoid of stakes, to lull us into a false sense of security before lowering the boom. Because while 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, none of it really matters all that much in the grand scheme of things. The only really substantive development is Thomas (Rob James-Collier) interceding when Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers) is being harassed by a couple ruffians at the county fair. Thomas takes the beating of a lifetime, and as Jimmy checks in on him later to see how he’s mending, the two men have a heartfelt discussion in which Jimmy tells Thomas he can never give him what he wants, at which point Thomas says that he understands, adding that he simply wants to be friends with Jimmy. Jimmy smiles and says he can manage that, and Thomas hands Jimmy the newspaper so that he can demonstrate his friendship by reading to him. It’s a warm, wonderful little scene that shows that not everything about the Thomas arc has to be weighted down by the excesses of soap operatics. The story can simply conclude with a scene between two adults, working through their issues like adults should. These are the kinds of developments that illustrate just how good the show can still be, even without the anchoring presence of Dan Stevens, as the series still has the vibrant, illuminating business in the servants quarters at Downton. There is still a show here, even without the flaxen-haired heir.
This finale is an episode that irrevocably changes the series, as I can easily imagine a lot of viewers will be done with the show. It has nothing to do with the show’s quality, but instead with the feeling that the show can no longer be trusted not to break the viewer’s heart arbitrarily. Whether that’s a valid reason to stop watching a show (never minding if it’s even a valid assessment of what the show is doing) is not for me to say. But I do feel that the weight of this shocker will be too insurmountable for some viewers to return to the show. That said, 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 whether or not Matthew really was the anchor for this series. I would argue he was, easily, the most likable of 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 season 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, 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 that an entire constellation has been snuffed out.
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