He had to die.
There was no other way for Dan Stevens’s Matthew Crawley to leave Downton Abbey other than in a body bag. As the heir to the grand estate and the title, it would have been impossible for sensible, responsible Matthew to shirk his responsibilities and head to America to start a career on the New York stage, or—to borrow from Monarch of the Glen, a Scottish Highlands–set drama that featured Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes as part of its cast—to go climb a mountain somewhere.
No, Matthew Crawley was not only wedded to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) but to the great house itself, and there was no getting around the fact that, in order to accommodate actor Dan Stevens’s desire to leave the show, Matthew had to be killed off in some fashion.
It’s the means in which Matthew was unceremoniously dispatched that I take some umbrage with, however. I raised this point in a vague fashion in my advance review of Season 3 of Downton Abbey back in January, giving the season a glowing recommendation while criticizing the heavy-handed finale.
After a season that was particularly top-heavy with death—the gutting demise of beloved Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay)—and disappointment, Matthew’s death threatens to topple the entire show with its melodramatic weight. And, let’s be honest, the minute that Lady Mary gave birth to a son, ensuring the continuation of the dynasty and a rightful succession (lest we be plunged right back into another entail drama like Season 1), Matthew was a goner. He had served his purpose, ensuring that the Crawley line would continue and that Downton Abbey—which he had absolutely and completely saved by dragging it and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) into the 20th century—would not only remain in the family, but also turn a profit.
Matthew was, in essence, a stud bull. His only purpose was to father a son. With that act completed and Downton saved, what was Matthew’s future importance within the narrative? Other than potential squabbles with Mary, serving again to prove how headstrong she is, where would the drama have come from? His plots were tied up way too neatly for him to survive, in other words.
The rabid fans of Downton Abbey wouldn’t accept another actor playing the dashing and modern Matthew, nor would they have accepted a flimsy excuse for why Matthew had decamped to other climes. But what I found frustrating was how Fellowes orchestrated his demise, having Matthew run off the road by an errant milk truck after joyfully greeting his baby boy for the first time. It was maudlin and too predictable, especially compared with the way in which Sybil had just been sent out of the world a few episodes earlier. Sybil’s death rocked both the audience and the show itself, a brutal reminder of how far medicine and childbirth have come in the last 100 years and also how wealth and privilege don’t always insulate families from loss and harm.
Matthew’s death, on the other hand, was pure melodrama bordering on camp. As he revels in his newfound fatherhood, he’s driving his car—a wedding present to himself which Mary, minutes earlier, mentions being forgiven for scratching in the future—with an almost beatific pleasure. Carefree, ecstatic … and completely unaware that the massive milk truck is bearing down on him at roughly five miles per hour. Naturally, he drives off the road and the audience is treated to the sight of blood trickling down Matthew’s face, lest we think that he could have somehow survived this collision, while Robert gives a portentous monologue about how he’s finally come to value Matthew and (finally) sees him as the family’s savior.
Too little, too late, Robert!
The heavy-handedness of all of those elements detracts from the momentousness of Matthew’s death and how it will affect each member of the Crawley household and their staff. (Penelope Wilton’s Isobel, who strangely shared very few scenes with Matthew this season, was already given a new plotline, a romance with David Robb’s Dr. Clarkson.) It also rings as particularly false, given the odd foreboding that filled the earlier parts of the episode, mentions of packed rifles, a drunken Molesley (Kevin Doyle), and deer stalking in Scotland.
Those of us who have fallen in love with the series … have come to expect more from Downton than spilled milk.
In this case, Chekhov’s Gun still goes off, but it ricochets all over the place within the narrative. Matthew’s death doesn’t take place in Scotland—much of the episode is set at Duneagle rather than at Downton—which makes much of what has been depicted to that point feel forced and somewhat tedious, a long roundabout way of establishing why Lady Rose (Lily James) will be a major player in Season 4. In some ways, I wish that Matthew had died before seeing his son, which would have carried a bit more of the heartbreaking quality Fellowes had been going for. I wish he had gone out of Downton Abbey shot in the Highlands, an ironic twist given how he narrowly escaped a similar fate in Season 2. In fact, I wish it had been handled any way other than how it was.
There will be drama emerging from Matthew’s death, as Dockery’s Mary will have to grapple with widowhood and raising the heir on her own (with the help of a fleet of servants), and his passing opens the door to a future romance for Mary. Season 3 had all of the Crawley girls paired off—Mary and Matthew, Sybil and Branson (Allen Leech), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst)—and the deaths in Season 3 (each due to the actor wishing to depart the series, it should be noted) do allow for the possibility of future romantic entanglements, while Rose allows the show entry to the Bright Young Things era of the 1920s.
But it all feels a little too calculated and more than a little cruel. While a period soap, Downton thrives when it can avoid the mawkish and instead mine unexpected defeats for universality and humanity. Those of us who have fallen in love with the series—even sticking through the uneven second season—have come to expect more from Downton than spilled milk.