There are a few things to discuss before we get to That Thing, mainly how good the Christmas Special (which is what this episode originally aired as in the U.K.) always is. We went somewhere new (Duneagle Castle), had a few opportunities to see everyone let their hair down (the fair, the Gilly Ball), witnessed a few misguided near-romances (Patmore and Mr. Tufton, Isobel and Clarkson, Edna and Branson), and got a major redemptive finish for the Thomas and Jimmy saga. Cutting the last five minutes out would have made for a very satisfying finale, both in its regular season and this Christmas Special, and worth the slog of getting through Season Two. It was gorgeously filmed, emotionally rendered, and even despite a few mistakes (the advent of Edna, the worst of a long line of terrible maids that include Ethel and Jane), it gave us everything we wanted. Until That Thing.
For all of the focus on the Upstairs characters and storylines, I maintain that things Downstairs are usually more interesting. They're not as brightly filmed, and the costuming really can't hold a candle, but the nuances of the relationships, especially between characters like Mrs. Hughes and Carson, as well as Thomas and Jimmy, are far more interesting and varied. While Upstairs things often fall to cliche (Branson and Edna) or become repetitive (like Edith's many failed attempts at love), Downstairs things are lively and fresh and seem drawn out in a better way. The scene where Jimmy approaches Thomas' room, thanks him and is honest with him ("I can't give you what you want") and then ends in a mutual declaration of friendship was made all the more moving thanks to all they had been through over so much time.
The time, of course, is another issue, since things jumped forward a year (flashes to the misfortune of Season Two!). But, I suppose the justification would have to be to give Mary time to have a baby, given what was coming, and also to gain some distance from Sybil's death so that the family could be seen to enjoy themselves without being vulgar. I like that Sybil is not forgotten, though, from pictures to references by her mother, as well as through Branson's tears, because it's all too easy to write a character off and then forget they ever existed.
Which bring us to whatever will happen with Matthew. Let me start off by saying [removes critic's hat] how much I hate Dan Stevens right now. [Replaces hat] The thing about Matthew's death, which was planned from the beginning of the season when Stevens opted out of a contract extension, is that it does open up some new narrative outlets for Mary. Yet ... do we even want that? Some people complained this year that Matthew and Mary, the crux of the series, had grown boring thanks to their marriage, but I think the exact opposite was true. Their flirtation and will-they-won't-they romance was all pretty standard - we knew they would get together, it was just a question of when. Their marriage, though, was uncharted territory. I think that the way it was handled - from Mary having to choose to take her husband's side or her father's to the way they each dealt with the issue of infertility - was mature and engaging.
The problem with Matthew's death is that Matthew tempers Mary. He is the only man for her, forever and ever, Amen. She will probably remarry at some point on the show, but Matthew was truly her heart. She said herself many times in the episode how only Matthew knew the real her, the sweet and vulnerable her, and how "his version" of her was the one she wanted to always exist, not the one where she is a harsh, petulant snob to her sister and to those she finds unworthy of her time. In fact, one of the best things about Mary's character is how unlikable she can be. She's the de facto protagonist, yet she has never really lost that spoiled-brat essence of herself, which makes the moments when she is mature that much more refreshing. Matthew, though, was the catalyst for her better behavior. Without him ...
Anna and Bates will have to hold the torch of true romance from now on I suppose, and Upstairs there will be more mourning, with two people with babies left without their spouses. Perhaps, though, Branson will take up Matthew's position as the fair but reasoned one, the White Knight who, though initially an outsider, still upholds the family's best interests (in the running of the estate, and even in love - telling Michael Gregson "We aren't in a novel by Walter Scott," regarding his declarations for Edith).
It was an incredibly shocking and frustrating way to end what was otherwise a really fantastic season, although narratively it's not obviously what Julian Fellowes wanted, which is the same thing that happened with Sybil. But Jessica Brown-Findlay's desire to leave left less of a mark. There were plenty of fans of her character from the first season (myself high among them), but the way her character was hollowed out through Season Two and cast aside through most of her turn in Season Three was disappointing, to say the least. Sybil had been slowly written off for more than a year now, and her leaving the show does leave a hole, but not one as large as Matthew's. I don't think that Rose will be as palatable a replacement for Sybil as just having Sybil herself there, but at least it allows for more modern aspects to be ushered in next season.
Alas. Matthew will be missed, though it will be interesting to see how the series handles this massive, massive change next year. In the meantime, let's not forget what a great run this year had overall, and that "Downton Abbey," like Downton itself, will find ways to reinvent itself to keep going. Hopefully for the better.
Musings and Miscellanea:
- The Dowager Countess was on fire tonight with her one-liners. Her comments about India as well as her telling Rose about her own "wild" past were fantastic.
- I have absolutely no inclination that anything would happen between Branson and Mary, and I hope it doesn't; it's too strange and too unlikely. Though "Downton Abbey" is really just a dressy soap, that would be too much, even for it.
- It was interesting to compare the staff at Downton with that at Duneagle, and to realize how far things have come. While Downton's staff seems too lax and modern, Duneagle is still trapped, as Cora notes, "in a Victorian idyll."
- I thought that things between O'Brien and Wilkins took a strange turn. I quite honestly believed that they would end up trading mistresses!
- I also thought there was a lot of foreshadowing of death in the episode - not Matthew's at all, but Shrimpy or Susan's suicide (they were both so palpably miserable), or potentially the death of the baby. I would never in a million years have guessed Matthew would be killed off. Shocking and horrifying.
- "Love is like horseback riding, or speaking French. If you don't learn it young it's hard to get the trick of the thing." - Shrimpy
- I liked Shrimpy, who also had some great one-liners, like his "Well, that sounds rather uncomfortable" reply to the quote "His Lordship was born with a rod in one hand and a gun in the other." Also when he told Robert that he was such a good shot "I'll call you when it's time for me to go."
- Cora has the most beautiful dressing gowns.
- Dan Stevens explains why he left the show. What a brat. If the show is good enough for Maggie Smith, it's good enough for you, sir.
- "Meh" to Edith and Gregson. I thought her turning him down and Matthew's soured feelings toward him upon learning the whole truth finally showed some growth for Edith to not be so desperate for a change. Looks like she, like Mary, never really escapes her true nature ...
- Anna and Bates. Back to Season One magic!
- The less said about Edna, the better. Pushy and unfortunate character who added nothing. But it did lead to shirtless Branson, so there is that.
- I choose to believe Isobel was well aware of Doctor Clarkson's intentions, but played the fool so as to diffuse the situation gratefully. Poor Isobel's character has been bandied about so much and so badly I often forget she's on the show. She and Matthew had such little interaction this season, too.
- Mrs. Hughes is always watching! Thank God for Elsie and her knowing everything about everything.
- I'm happy Daisy and Ivy have gotten to be friends.
- Regarding Mrs Patmore - Daisy: "Well, she is a woman, isn't she?" Thomas: "She is ... technically."
- My heart soared at the repaired relationship between Jimmy and Thomas. Their last scene together was so touching.
- Carson and baby Sybbie! Lovely. "There's no need to get sentimental." - Carson.
- Thanks to everyone who read these recaps this season. See you next year! In the meantime, what do you hope happens next season? How are you working through your grief? Or are you happy to see Matthew gone?
- "We do not always get our just desserts." - Violet
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