The season finale of Downton Abbey originally aired as the Christmas special in the UK. A time for families to gather round the telly with a nice cup of hot cocoa or egg nog, or whatever the Brits’ drink of choice is on Christmas night. Ready to watch a nice warm and fuzzy Christmas episode of Downton, hopefully with an equally warm and fuzzy ending as last year’s finale. And then THAT happened. If I had been the above-mentioned UK viewer watching this on Christmas night, sipping my hot cocoa, the cup and its contents would have been flung at the TV screen.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I knew THAT was coming because it was almost impossible to not see an internet article about a certain major character leaving the series. Unfortunate because it tainted the entire episode for me, but fortunate in that I knew not to have anything in my hands that might be thrown when THAT happened.
So, without further ado, let’s recap this episode. Afterwards I’ll give a review of this season and my thoughts on THAT.
Warning: Major Spoilers for the season finale of Downton Abbey Season 3 ahead!
It’s one year since the last episode took place, with the lovely cricket match and Lord Grantham’s finally allowing Matthew to implement his big ideas for the estate. The family is packing up to visit Cousin Shrimpy (Lord Flintshire, who apparently received his unfortunate nickname as part of a nursery game) and his wife Susan and daughter Rose at their Scottish estate. Apparently this is an annual outing for the Crawley family, even though we’ve never seen or heard mention of it before. But as Bates explains, they did not go during the war years, and Sybil’s death prevented the excursion the previous year. Mary is now eight months pregnant, and despite the advice that she should stay home and rest, she insists on going, because it isn’t 1850 anymore, after all.
O’Brien, Bates, Anna, and Molesley accompany the group (as valets and ladies’ maids often traveled with the family), leaving the rest of the servants to tend to Downton, and Tom (who wasn’t invited) while they are away.
Thus began the back-and-forth between picturesque Scotland and things “back home” at Downton that were at times tiresome. A lot of new characters were introduced this episode that I didn’t give a fig about and were merely used as plot devices to help the main characters come to a better understanding about themselves (namely Tom Branson and Lord Robert). To avoid further whiplash, I am going to recap the “downstairs at Downton” story first.
The downstairs staff hope that with the family away, they might be allowed a break, but Carson is having none of that. There’s silver to polish, after all. But Mrs. Hughes, softy that she is, convinces Carson to allow them time off to go to the fair, IF they get their work done.
Meanwhile new maid Edna is disturbing the delicate upstairs-downstairs balance by making her opinions known about Tom’s transformation from chauffeur to estate agent and family member. She basically starts to stalk Tom, sneaking out and meeting him at the local pub when she overhears he’ll be there, and constantly asking him questions about feeling left out and not fitting in. Which causes poor Tom to have a bit of an identity crisis (more on that later).
But Edna’s not the only one who is playing fast and loose. A Mr. Tufton is introduced, a food supplier who takes a shining to Mrs. Patmore’s cooking. He’s an unabashed flirt and Mrs. Patmore falls for his charms like one of Daisy’s early attempts at making a souffle. And speaking of Daisy–whatever happened to the story line regarding Mr. Mason and the farm? That was mentioned and forgotten. And what about that love polygon? It seems to have ended for this episode at least, though there is still visible tension between Thomas and Jimmy.
It’s Mr. Tufton who gives the downstairs the notion to attend the fair. Mrs. Patmore suggests they should all go, though Carson stays behind so his bossy presence doesn’t spoil the fun. Of course Edna gets Tom to go, even asking him to drive (ugh–I don’t like this girl).
But they aren’t the only ones going to the fair. Dr. Clarkson invites Mrs. Crawley to go with him, after mentioning that he remembers she was a doctor’s wife. And for some reason he suddenly decides he’s attracted to her and perhaps wants to marry her…? I can’t say this came completely out of left field, but it was odd, and I had always thought that if either of them were interested, it was Isobel, not Dr. Clarkson. Go figure.
The downstairs crew (plus Branson, no Tom, no, Branson–see, now I’m confused) arrive at the fair, and it soon becomes clear to Mrs. Hughes that Mr. Tufton may have led Mrs. Patmore to the wrong conclusion. He gooses a girl working in his food supply stall, has ladies feel his bicep, and then she actually sees him kissing a few girls.
Meanwhile the men enter into a tug of war contest, suggested by Jimmy, who appears to be out to make some money. They win thanks to the last minute addition of Mr. Tufton and Jimmy walks away with a wad of cash which he quickly begins waving around to anyone and everyone while getting drunk at the same time.
Elsewhere Daisy and Lily are exploring the fair together. Putting their boy issues aside, they’ve grown to be friends since we last saw them. It’s nice to see Daisy with someone her own age (rather than Mrs. Patmore) who can help her lighten up a little bit. Alfred spends most of his time at the food supplier stalls and mentions to Mrs. Hughes that what he should be doing is cooking. My hope? One day he’ll wake up and notice Daisy, they’ll marry and live on Mr. Mason’s farm, and sell the food they make from the ingredients they grow.
Two nearly-simultaneous almost-proposals take place over at the refreshment area. Mr. Tufton continues to compliment Mrs. Patmore’s cooking and thinks that taking orders from a husband would be better than taking them from a family one works for. And just as Dr. Clarkson asks Isobel if she ever considered remarrying, Isobel very tactfully says that she likes her life the way it is and prevents him from making a fool of himself.
Jimmy is still stumbling around like a drunken fool, and for some reason decides to go into the shadows under a bridge so two thugs could threaten him. Thomas, who was apparently following Jimmy, distracts the aforementioned thugs so Jimmy can get away, taking the beating and mugging intended for him. After they return to Downton, Jimmy pays Thomas a visit and asks him why he was following him. Thomas explains that he was looking out for him, and knew he had too much to drink. Jimmy tells him he can never give him what he wants, which Thomas understands, but would like to be friends. Jimmy agrees. Something tells me Jimmy may become Thomas’s new scheming buddy for the next season.
Now that they’re back home, Mrs. Hughes dishes out some observations she’s made over the course of the week. First it’s with Mrs. Patmore, where she drops the bad news that Mr. Tufton has a wandering eye. Much to her relief, Mrs. Patmore caught wind that he might only like her for her cooking, and is happy to hear she has an excuse to send him packing.
Next she talks to Tom about the Edna situation. But not before Edna barges into his room, kisses him, and invites him to meet at the pub the following day (hussy much?). And she then proceeds to try to disobey an order to get the rooms ready for Lady Mary by telling Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson that she promised to meet Tom Branson for lunch (the impertinence!). Mrs. Hughes goes to tell Tom they are going to let Edna go. She speaks frankly, telling him that he let Edna make him ashamed of his new life, that he’s done very well for himself, and Lady Sybil would be so proud of him. Which prompts poor Tom to begin crying, stating that he just can’t bear to be without her. To which Mrs. Hughes replies, “You must bear it. And one day I hope, and so would she, that one day you’ll find someone to bear it with you. But until then be your own master and call your own tune.” Well said Mrs. Hughes, well said.
Now, we journey to the Highlands…
When the Crawleys arrive at the Scottish estate (cue the sweeping Scottish themed music we heard every time we switched back to this part of the story) we once again meet bubbly Rose, whose rebellious spirit serves the purpose of reminding Cora of her dearly departed Sybil. We are introduced to Rose’s parents, and their unhappiness with one another is on display for all to see, which may help explain some of Rose’s behavior.
Edith’s editor, the married Mr. Michael Gregson, travels to Scotland and calls on her at the estate, with hopes of getting to know the family better so that he might get them on his side. Because he’s in love with Edith, and he’s still pursuing her, despite her reservations that he’s a married man.
His arrival brings out Mary’s snark factor, and Edith calls her out on it, wondering why she always has to be so cruel. This brings Mary to question why Matthew finds her so nice, when nobody else does–a running theme between the Matthew & Mary scenes this episode. Matthew assures her he knows who she really is, and I do think that Mary shows a certain vulnerability towards him that she doesn’t allow herself with anyone else.
Back to Edith’s latest love interest. Michael takes his case to Matthew, who says that while he understands his desire to have a life, he can’t consent to his making Edith his mistress. He promises not to mention his secret to anyone, but suggests that he say his goodbyes to Edith at the Gillies ball.
Onto a more successful couple, this episode featured more adorable Anna and Bates scenes. It’s as if the whole jail sentence thing never happened. I find the two actors really play well off each other, and some of my favorite scenes from this episode were between them (the picnic, and especially Anna learning how to do a reel to impress her man, who she learns has Scottish blood).
There’s also a random side story involving O’Brien and Lady Flintshire’s lady’s maid. I guess we had to continue the tradition of including random ladies maids in the Christmas specials/season finales who try to stir up trouble (remember Lady Rosamund’s maid from last year?). This year the jealous lady’s maid tries to make O’Brien drunk, but being the suspicious sort, she quickly recognizes her drink has been spiked. But that doesn’t stop her from letting Molesley drink it, which leads to some much needed hilarity during the ball.
Robert finally learns why Shrimpy and his wife are so unhappy. Besides the fact they “just don’t like each other” (Shrimpy’s words), he has managed to let his estate in Scotland languish and all the money is gone and the place will have to be sold. He’s basically in the same position Robert would have been in if he had not let Matthew take the reins of the estate. So at last Robert realizes what a stubborn idiot he’s been and just how much he could have lost had he not listened to his family and finally gone along with their idea for modernizing the estate.
Edith comes to her own realization during the ball (apparently reeling causes people to have revelations?). After hearing that Matthew disapproves of any sort of relationship between she and Michael, Edith decides that she will see him again after all. Oh, Edith, you just never want your love life to be straightforward and simple, do you?
Mary, who has made multiple mentions of being jostled around on all the various Highlands excursions, decides she just can’t resist dancing a reel, one of her favorite pastimes (which we only learn about this episode). Afterwards she decides it might be best for her to go home, but she insists Matthew stay so as not to alarm anyone and break up the party (oh Mary, even pregnant you’re as pragmatic as ever). She and Anna head home on the train and as soon as they arrive at the station Mary informs her she needs to go straight to the hospital.
Before leaving, Lady Flintshire asks Cora if she and Robert would let Rose stay at Downton while she and Shrimpy try to sort out their future. Shrimpy wants his daughter to know what it’s like to be in a loving home, and Cora is more than happy to help. Which means it looks like we’ll be seeing more of Rose (replacement Sybil?) in the future of the show.
Back at the hospital, Isobel has arrived to be with Mary while Anna returns to Downton to get clothes for Mary and to order Matthew’s car be brought to the station so he can drive straight to the hospital when he gets there. Mary needs Matthew, telling her mother-in-law she feels only “half herself” without him (can I just mention–Mary goes through labor just as I thought she would, very stoically).
Mary gives birth to a baby boy, thus securing the line of succession. Matthew arrives and is bursting with pride (really, he says he feels like he’s swallowed a box of fireworks). He tells Mary he knows she will be a wonderful mother, because he knows what a wonderful woman she is, and how he falls more in love with her everyday. She says she’ll remind him of that the next time she puts a scratch on the car. One of the best Matthew and Mary scenes yet. Everything seems to be perfect in their little world at that moment.
And so, as Matthew races home to share the good news with the family, Robert reflects on how strange life is, how uncertain everything seemed at one point, and how now he has two healthy heirs and a thriving estate, and he wonders what he’s done to deserve it. To which Lady Violet responds, “I agree, but we don’t always get our just deserts.”
And then the unimaginable happens. Matthew, who just moments before was grinning from ear to ear, is dead, killed in a car accident. The scene cuts away to Mary, still holding their baby, still smiling with contentment. And then the episode ends.
Up until the finale of the show, I really did enjoy season 3 of Downton Abbey. It was a bit slow to start, but the last few episodes were really well done, almost up to season 1 standards. I liked how the focus returned to the family dynamics upstairs, and I thought that the stories downstairs (aside from the love polygon) were thoughtfully played out. But the finale bothered me on a number of levels. I hated how overly-dramatic they made Matthew’s death. Not the death itself, but the scenes and lines being said around it. It was as if I could see Julian Fellowes, script in hand, trying to figure out the absolute worst place he could possibly insert the image of Matthew lying lifeless underneath his car and said “Yes, it should go right here, right after Mary says that Matthew needs to wait his turn to see the baby, but little does she know, he’ll never see the baby again, because he’s dead.” I mean, come on. The only thing worse would be if he had been racing to the hospital and died on the way there and never got to see the baby. Instead of making me cry (like with Lady Sybil’s death), it made me irritated, because I could see how hard Fellowes worked to fit in images of Matthew at the places he thought would most likely make us cry. I think he would have been better served to have just showed the result of the accident, rather than trying to work it in around scenes of the happy family, blissfully ignorant of what had happened. (Update: since writing this I watched the finale a second time, and darn if I didn’t tear up–but it still makes me irritated!)
But here’s the real reason the finale bothered me so much. I know I read somewhere that Julian Fellowes originally had a three-season arc in mind for Downton Abbey. And we saw that arc play out–we saw the estate in all its glory before the war, we saw how the war had a major impact on the country and on estates like Downton, and we saw how the post-war world forced many such estates to be broken down and sold off, and that the old way of doing things had to change in order for those estates to have any chance of survival. Matthew represented that change, that new order. Robert represented the old. That last episode (the one before the finale) demonstrated this so clearly, and was done so well, and I will again state that it seemed the perfect stopping point for the show.
My fear is that now that the original story arc is over, Fellowes is going to scramble to come up with new conflicts and major arcs, and they are going to be ridiculous and not well thought out. And I’m also concerned that more of the major characters we have come to really take an interest in (like Sybil and Matthew) are going to leave the show, and less interesting characters (like Rose) are going to come in to try and take their place. I’m just concerned the future of the series might be in trouble, especially now that Matthew is gone. I’ll admit it–I’m a huge Matthew & Mary fan girl, and without their love story, the show is not going to hold the same level of interest for me. If the story had finished at the end of the third season, Matthew would not have been killed off (the actors had three-year contracts, and Dan Stevens chose not to renew his, thus forcing Fellowes to write him out).
But, that’s just my opinion on this. Of course, I’ll still be interested to see what happens next season. How will Matthew’s death impact the lives of Mary and her family? Will Tom ever be able to move on, and will he still feel he fits in without Matthew there to support him? And what will Edith’s future hold, now that she’s going down the slippery slope of entering into an affair with a married man? Will Daisy ever get her man and take Mr. Mason up on the farm offer? And will Anna and Bates’s love story continue to be so rosy?
All right, yes, even with the concerns for how the show will move forward, I’ll still watch.
What did you think of the season finale? And do you feel that the show should have ended with the third season, as originally intended? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
And for those of you wanting to hear Dan Stevens talk about leaving the show, The Telegraph has an excellent interview with him which you can read here.