Monday, March 4, 2013



Anna and I just burned through all of season 3 of Downton Abbey. As the season prepared to enter it's final five minutes, Anna and I were leaning back on the couch, marveling at how smoothly they'd wrapped up the season... and then Matthew, who had been as baller as baller could be throughout the entire season, and whose wife had just given birth to their first child, got into a fatal car accident, and WHAT THE HELL, MASTERPIECE THEATER? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

At least, that's what I was yelling at my t.v. during the final minutes of Downton Abbey's last episode for almost an entire year.

It really threw off my groove. I was prepared for a smooth, happy finale a la the greatest finale in the history of television. Everyone had gotten their happy ending: Even Thomas had redeemed himself (as much as could be expected). If the episode had ended even two or three minutes sooner, it would have been freaking amazing.

In short, I am unsatisfied.

I am unsatisfied with how the writers of the show chose to end their season. I am unsatisfied that their long tradition of ultimately rewarding virtue ended in the senseless death of a new father, a faithful husband, and frankly an absolutely baller dude.

I know the arguments: I went through my writing classes at Biola hearing them over and over again. How good stories reflect reality, and how reality is fallen. How a happy ending is a sure sign of naivete, and how a sad ending is a mark of intelligent realism. This sad attitude of cynicism has pervaded modern retellings even of explicitly "escapist" literature (in the Tolkien sense of the word), so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to find it here.

But I was surprised. Up until this point, the world of Downton Abbey had been one of a very "Proverbsy" nature: Good is rewarded, and the traps of the evil are sprung upon the ones who set them. But the end of this season seems to be a surrender to the prevailing "realism" of the age: The cynicism that would end the gospels with the crucifixion, that would rather end the book of Job with our hero waiting for an answer that never comes.

Granted, the point of this post was stronger when I thought that Downton Abbey was only going to be 3 seasons long (I must have gotten it confused with my beloved Sherlock). But to end the season with a shot of blood slowly snaking past the dead, open eyes of a new father, while his wife expectantly awaits his return, rubs me the wrong way.

Because yes, that may be what "real life" is like. But that is not nearly the same as reality. The reality is that the wail of Ecclesiastes has been drowned out by the gloria of the angels. The tomb of Christ marks a mere intermission, where the old scenery of Act 1 is cleared away to make room for Act 2.

Downton Abbey has done a lot of amazing things (in fact, I'm already planning a second post talking about some those things), but in this case, it failed. It settled for reflecting "real life", at the expense of reality. The show may redeem itself in the season to come, but for now, we are left with a shattered estate, a shattered marriage, and a multitude of shattered lives. And I am unsatisfied.


  1. I was also unsatisfied, and at the very least upset with the death of Matthew, but I have to say that Sybil's death hurt me more. I watched them online when they aired in the UK, so all I could do was sit there in stunned silence while the rest of America carried on with their non-British TV schedules.

    However, like you said, Downton was originally supposed to go for 3 seasons, so the actors who didn't sign new contracts had to be written out somehow, like they did with O'Brian. I was thinking how I would have done it, but there's no way Matthew would have LEFT Mary and the new baby. WWII isn't for another decade, so the war hero death is out too. I think the writers did as good a job as could be expected with Matthew. Sybil, on the other hand, did not have to die. There could have been a pardon for Branson and they could have gone back to Ireland to live happily ever after.

    1. For reals. While Sybil was talking to Mary and her mom, I turned to Anna and I said, "She's going to die. She's going to die right now." Unbelievable.

      I would have had Matthew go off to do charity work in Africa: Maybe even a stipulation of the will to keep the money that saved Downton. Not something that has such a huge impact on the tone of the show...

    2. I've actually been thinking more about why Matthew's death was more disturbing to me then Sybil's, and I think I have the answer.

      The ending of something has the power to retro-actively set the tone for everything that preceded it. Hence, C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce talks about how Heaven and Hell will likewise work "retro-actively", in a way, saying that Heaven "works backward" to turn earthly agony into glory (and vice versa).

      The same applies to narratives. Sybil's death can be "redeemed", in a sense, with Tom's happiness and his love for their daughter. SO, too, if Matthew had died earlier in the season. Their remains the possibility of final redemption... but not so with the final shot of the season showing blood snaking past his dead eyes. There is no redemption, and the horrific ending extends its tendrils throughout the entire preceding season, reducing all the previous happiness to merely bittersweet.