In America this episode aired at the end of the third season, but in Britain it was a Christmas special that aired between seasons, and it’s much easier to think of it as a sort of prologue for season four. It’s a year later and the idyllic tone that concluded season two continues here, and with this the show manages to be pleasurable again. Season three was bleak, almost disastrous at times to the point that it significantly damaged the show’s reputation, even if its viewership remained high. Aside from a new maid on the estate, events seem to have gone swimmingly since we last saw the cast and nearly all of the aristocrats are headed off to a holiday with relations in Scotland while the servants are left to do some spring cleaning and, if Carson will let them, even take some time off. For the first 85 minutes of the hour-and-a-half special, anyone who preferred the show’s dive toward the melodramatic would be sorely disappointed, as Downton seemed even lighter and wittier than its first season.
Amongst all the various petty squabbles downstairs, the show focused on a failed love story for Mrs. Patmore where it turns out her suitor is a terrible womanizer, not to mention just plain terrible, and the reconciliation between Thomas and James after the former helps the latter out of being drunkenly robbed. I also appreciated that Daisy and the new kitchen maid were reconciled, and that it happened entirely off-screen during the year off, though there’s some unintentional class commentary here in that they didn’t warrant a full storyline the way even other servants would. The most dramatic plot was a failed romance between the new maid and Tom Branson, which was slightly darker than the rest of the episode but because she was introduced in the same episode she was dismissed, this was minor—not that this means we won’t see her again, since as we’ve seen in the past, Downton has a lot of trouble letting characters move away.
Off in Scotland things were mostly bright, too. Matthew’s investments have saved Downton from going bankrupt the way the Scottish estate Duneagle has, and with Mary he has a baby on the way. There are intimations that Sarah O’Brien may leave Downton to act as maid for the MacClares, but the main story is simply friction within this other family. They mirror the Granthams, with the important change that it’s the mother who’s stodgy rather than the father and that the parents can’t stand each other. By the end of the episode it’s decided that their daughter Rose will stay at Downton, an obvious replacement for Lady Sybil, who used to be the most modernizing member of the family yet left due to the actor’s desire to work on other projects.
Speaking of which, while Downton hints that perhaps Matthew will die in a hunting accident for most of the episode in order to play with viewer expectations (it was well-known that he didn’t plan on staying on for the fourth season), he dies at the very end after Mary’s had her baby. It’s an abrupt, poorly directed end that seemed to have been an homage to silent film, but it just had the effect of distancing the audience from the event. For all the fun we had in most of the episode, once again due to an actor’s wishes the show takes an immediate dark, melodramatic turn.
While it’s much easier to pretend that TV shows and movies are made in a vacuum, the fact is that real-world concerns play as great a role in the creation of these stories as anything else. So when Dan Stevens, the actor who plays Matthew Crawley, announced that he wouldn’t be renewing his contract with Downton Abbey, it was easy to tell that this would have a negative effect on the show. That’s less so because I think Stevens is a great actor—he’s fine, but what we’ve seen has rarely been noteworthy—than because his character was so integral to the show. More than anyone except for Lord Grantham himself, he practically was the show, despite Julian Fellowes’ hopes at making the show’s large supporting cast relevant.
Between the two actors killed off so they could leave the show, death and removal hung over season three as the show was necessarily written around their wishes, and unfortunately it shows. There was a creakiness to both these deaths, a sense that Fellowes agreed to what has to happen but didn’t have a plan for how things were supposed to work afterwards. The entire season felt like he was writing himself out of a hole, yet here he sets up the fourth season with another one. The obviousness of why Rose was added to Downton and the cast emphasized this behind-the-scenes action. “Episode Seven” was almost as much about the creation of the show as it was the events themselves, which aside from the creaking gears getting characters into place for the next season were extremely minor.
I wrote last week that I thought the series should have ended already, and while most of the episode was better than almost anything we saw last season, its end confirmed my suspicions. Fellowes seems keen to continue the show not because he has anything particularly new to say about the period or its increasingly broad characters, but rather, like the soap operas that came before it, the show seems primarily concerned with simply staying on the air. It’s no surprise, given the ratings, but that he’s continuing after this mostly dismal season makes it clear that Downton Abbey will keep going for as long as Fellowes can make it, as we watch more cast members periodically leave when their contracts end.
The show, at least initially, was about modernity coming to even the most entrenched, old-fashioned estates… but it’s done that. Rose may be more aggressively modern than any of the actual Granthams, but it doesn’t feel like there’s too much the show, in its current format, can show us about this. The estate itself has survived through the symbolic takeover by Matthew of the finances, and while Downton has had no problem repeating itself despite its meager number of episodes, that story seems finished. So long as there are masters and servants, there will always be tension, but really that should be a different show. Ideally Fellowes would have recognized this fact, as again, the introduction of Matthew largely began the show. But I fear too much money is at stake, so another season of diminishing returns and fewer original cast members will be back next year, even while the ungainly show drifts into obsolescence like the estate that bears its name.