Downton Abbey Season 3: Art Imitating Life

*** HUGE ENORMOUS TERRIFYING SPOILER ALERT!! IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ALL OF SEASON 3 DO NOT READ FURTHER!  I’M NOT KIDDING!  SEASON 3 WILL BE RUINED FOR YOU FOREVER!!**

Okay. Now we can continue.

Downton Abbey has swept across the UK and the US, igniting new fascinations with pageantry, elegant drama, and beaded gowns. But of course it’s the characters who steal our hearts.  Whether you feel more attached to the upstairs or the downstairs crowd, everyone has a favorite, someone they identify with.  And it really begins to feel like a family.

So, naturally, when characters start dropping like flies in Season 3, it’s a trifle upsetting. We’ve had characters leave the show before: three different housemaids have come and gone before season 3 even beings.  And Downton has seen it’s share of death beginning with the loss of Patrick, the heir apparent, to the Titanic, then the exotic Mr Pamuk, and Lady Cora’s unborn child in season 1, on to William, Lavinia, Mr Swire, and Mrs Vera Bates in season 2.  And let’s not forget the threats and uncertainty around Cora’s illness and Bates’ imprisonment.

Yet season 3 is different.  There are two deaths in season 3, yet those two rock the foundations of Downton (and our hearts) more than any of the preceding blows.  In a way, this is understandable as both Sybil and Matthew are not only core cast members, but as part of the Crowley nuclear family their deaths have a further reaching impact on the daily realities of the other characters.

Dan Stevens interview: Why I left Downton AbbeyBut it is the manner of these deaths and how they fit into the larger story that make them truly shocking.  Because they don’t fit into the story.  They don’t belong there at all.  Up to this point, every death, and even losses to other causes, were necessary to the plot–either the general plot of the Crowley family, or of the characters involved.  Patrick had to die for Matthew to come into the picture; Mr. Pamuk had to die to be a plot point for Mary’s story; William had to die so Daisy could grow as a woman; and even poor Laviniia had to die so that Matthew and Mary could be together.  In each case, despite the sadness or shocking nature of the event, the ending is actually am improvement in some way.   That’s what happens in stories.  When an all-powerful, beneficent writer crafts each step, even the tragedies are only a step forward.

But life, unfortunately, is not like art.  Life doesn’t always, in fact rarely, provides the happy conclusions after wild storms that TV writers and novelists are want to provide.  When we face hard times, there aren’t easy answers.  There certainly aren’t any answers to “why” horrible things happen.  The deaths of Sybil and Matthew added nothing to the plot or even the character development of anyone. Oh, Mary and Edith tried to be nicer to each other after the death of Sybil, but not for very long.  By the season 3 finale, pregnant Mary is acting more like the “uppity minx” from the start of season 1.  We haven’t seen the aftermath of Matthew’s untimely demise, but there are no storylines that make his death even remotely logical as a plot device.

So why did Julian Fellows do it, then?  Why expose his audience to such horrors as non-essential, tragic deaths of well beloved characters and risk losing touch with that audience?

It can be said that all art imitates life.  Artists have no experience with anything else, after all.  However, shows like Downton take this concept to another level.  Sometimes life influences art in very real, physical, tangible, unalterable ways.  Such as when an actor or actress decides to move on from one phase of life to another and not renew a contract.  Which is exactly what happened here.  The god of Downton Abbey, that beneficent writer who makes all the happy endings, didn’t write the deaths of Sybil and Matthew.  The spirits behind those characters chose to leave that world behind, and he had no choice but to accommodate them.  The result was tragedy.  Twice.

Many arguments could be made about the deaths being too similar, and also too sudden.  Matthew’s death, in particular, had no build up behind it, nothing to prepare the audiences, and also no resolution–unlike most deaths we’ve experienced in Downton.  So naturally it is felt pretty hard.   But I think the real lesson here is actually a spiritual one.

In many ways our lives can be similar to that of characters on a show, but instead of actors playing a part, we are the actors and the characters simultaneously.  We have more free will than mere characters; we are aware of the writer and of the fact that it is a show.  Our actions are not predestined, though it is arguable that our circumstances may be.   The writer of the show can give us all kinds of good things, but he will also give us trials to help us grow, in the way that many Downton characters grew tremendously during the war.  In many of those trials we will be faced with choices which will affect our futures, such as Sybil’s choice to learn to be a nurse, Tom’s choice to pursue her romantically, and Mary’s choice to tell her story to Carlisle.  But when we turn away from the writer completely, the consequences can be dire.  The one thing he cannot always save us from is ourselves.

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