Like a lot of its more recent viewers, I was originally skeptical of the Downton Abbey phenomenon, somewhat grudgingly agreed to watch it with my wife, and got completely hooked by the end of the first episode. The show is a really excellent example of both historical fiction and character drama. Some have complained that Downton is something of a glorified soap opera, but of course that’s true of any drama, especially an episodic TV drama – the line between Shakespeare and the soaps is often one of degree, not kind. I was particularly sucked in by the World War I storylines that dominated the second season.
That said, I think the show will face a serious problem as it enters its fourth season.
NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL THREE SEASONS
Dramas do need to kill off characters now and then, and as you know if you watched through the end of the third season, Downton Abbey upped the ante dramatically this season by not only killing off younger sister Sybil in childbirth but then – in a particularly melodramatic sequence – killing Matthew Crawley in a car accident driving home from seeing his first-born son for the first time at the hospital.
The show’s writers had no real choice but to get rid of Matthew, given that actor Dan Stevens wanted off the show (a decision he only half-explains in interviews), and the manner of his death felt a little like the writers were making it deliberately soap-operatic in a snit.
The smaller problem for the show is that Matthew’s death leaves the younger generation of the family depleted – only two of the sisters now remain, plus Sybil’s widower Branson, requiring the show to add a theatrically flighty new female cousin who seems designed to blunder into trouble in screamingly obvious fashion. The larger problem is that the show’s narrative lens is now broken, probably beyond repair. The world of Downton Abbey is a world quite different from our own, and while parts of that world are glamorous and attractive, the whole idea of an idle aristocracy supported by – and supporting – a tirelessly laboring servant class is quite literally un-American and in many ways ridiculous to the modern eye. Particularly at the show’s start, there were very few characters who were both sympathetic and worthy of the viewer’s respect. But crucially, we were given a bridge into the world of Downton by two outsiders who had to work their way into the two levels (upstairs and downstairs) of the household – Matthew, the practicing lawyer with middle class tastes and work ethic who often found the place as silly as the average viewer did, and Mr. Bates, the wounded Boer War veteran who had to surmount opposition among the servants to secure his position as valet and who, alone on the staff at the time, knew a world outside “service.”
Many of the other characters have become more sympathetic and three-dimensional since the opening; Matthew had become more thoroughly assimilated, while the other servants got out in the world more, with two of them going to the trenches. Mr. Bates’ term of imprisonment for a crime he kinda sorta didn’t commit (but believably could have) made it necessary to change the way the downstairs part of the show unfolded.
But the show’s basic perspective on the family at the center remained: Matthew’s modern, professional-class sensibilities bridged the gap between the world of the Crawleys and the world of the viewers, who got to see them through his eyes. Branson (at his best a prickly, impulsive and Utopian character), as the remaining outsider, is no substitute for Matthew; the show has never really written episodes from his point of view, and it would be late to start now. That means that the sisters don’t just need new love interests; the show, in effect, needs a new protagonist. That’s generally easier said than done. I have to think the narrative problems caused by Matthew’s departure will doom the show to extinction at the end of the fourth season, already an unusually long run by the standards of this kind of British TV. Which is a shame; the third season wasn’t as good as the first two, but the show did not, previously, feel as if it was ready to run its course.
Then again, the aristocracy didn’t see it coming either.