"Ready for dinner"
All together now, let’s get this out of the way:
That feels marginally better. Marginally.
Sweet, floppy-haired Matthew is dead by the side of the road. Maybe in a few months this will fill me with sadness, for now I feel nothing but outrage. They killed Matthew? So soon after Sybil? Matthew has been a dull, eager drip for weeks and weeks and weeks and the actor who plays him, Dan Stevens, wanted out of his contract, but still. This is like killing Mr. Darcy. And why would you ever kill Mr. Darcy?! It solidifies for me the sense that “Downton Abbey” doesn’t know or care why I like to watch it: Needless to say, not for the tragedy.
Matthew and Mary have been underserved all season— so much so that when rationalizing Matthew’s death I thought, “Well, at least next season Lady Mary will have something to do other than being such a super-bitch to Edith” — and that speaks to how badly “Downton Abbey” continues to be plotted. Last season, with all the crazy nonsense twist and turns (the amnesiac heir, Matthew’s temporarily broken back/penis), this was more obvious. This season, with its return to austerity and common sense, there have been fewer abjectly outlandish plot points, but there’s still a slapdash approach to character arc.
Matthew and Mary have had nothing interesting to do since they got married in the very first episode of the season. Julian Fellowes basically stopped writing for his two main characters. In doing so, he has made “Downton” the best existing example of the “Moonlighting” curse, the specious TV theory that posits that when a will-they-won’t-they couple finally gets together, they automatically get boring. Series from “The Office” to “Bones” have ably demonstrated that this doesn’t have to be so, that clever writers can continue to provide coupled couples strong material. “Downton” hasn’t: The way things were going, had Matthew lived, I would have expected his and Mary’s biggest story next season to have been about baby clothes.
This problem doesn’t just extend to Matthew and Mary: Anna and Bates have been given far more screen time, but to no meaningful end. Since Bate got out of the clink, they just smile and kiss and like each other. Admittedly, I would have been ecstatic to see Mary and Matthew smile and kiss and like each other, to have Mary learn to reel and go on a picnic (I was less thrilled about Anna and Bates doing all this because I find them so unbearably cloying), but these aren’t developments with any dramatic tension at all. When it comes to romance, it’s as if “Downton” has hewed so closely to the Jane Austen model, it is totally helpless to imagine what might satisfyingly happen after Austen left off, after the wedding. So it muddles around and kills people, more from cluelessness than realism.
Matthew’s death crystallizes this season’s essence: the unhappy ending. The tragedies are two — Sybil’s and Matthew’s deaths — but it’s the other quiet, soul-crushing disappointments, which aren’t even meant to be seen as such, that have really set the tone. One character after another has quietly, docilely accepted their lot in life: a heartbroken Tom has made himself a part of the establishment; Thomas happily accepts the crumbs of friendship instead of romance; Daisy won’t move on her job offer or unrequited crush on Alfred (at least she and Ivy have made peace: girl-on-girl hate really never did seem Daisy’s style); Mrs. Patmore’s relieved that no one really loves her. Last season, Edith was the unluckiest of the Crawley girls, the only one who hadn’t found love. Now, one of her sisters is dead, the other is widowed, and Edith is the luckiest of all — because she gets to be the mistress of a nice man with an insane wife.
Because this is Downton — aristocratic till the end — all these developments are presented as good news: What more could these folks expect than something majorly compromised? Isn’t it sweet that Jimmy, the cowardly pretty boy who is half the man Thomas ever was, acquiesces to read the paper with him, only after Thomas takes a brutal beating on his behalf? Isn’t it impressive how Tom has found a station in life where he is betwixt and between, respected but not so respected that one of his in-laws thinks twice about describing him as “housebroken, more or less.” And thank goodness that Tufton guy was a scheming flirt, because Mrs. Patmore didn’t want him anyway! And, phew, now Edith has a man of her own, and if he’s not quite Austen-ian, at least he’s good and Bronte-esque: Jane Eyre got her happy ending eventually.
Taken exclusively on its own terms — as just one episode of “Downton Abbey” — this Christmas Special was nicely done. I love it when the servants go on excursions. Who doesn’t like a game of tug of war? All those stags were shot beautifully, even if very much like in “The Queen.” Mosley is a superb drunk dancer. “It’s bad enough parenting your child when you like each other,” is a great Dowager line. And it was reassuring to see Mary get called out by Edith and Matthew on her bad behavior: She really can be horrid. But after all the doldrums of this season, Matthew’s death was like gilding a rotting lily.
The last Christmas Special, in which Matthew and Mary got engaged in the final scene, was a kind of magic trick: so happy, so sweet, so well executed, it made me forget all the absurd plot points that had come before. This Christmas Special is that magic trick but in reverse, so sad and brutal in its final scene it puts into relief how dogged and depressing this season has been all along. We’ll see how I feel in another nine months when the show returns, but for now, I think this just might be the last episode of “Downton Abbey” I will ever care very much about.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.