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'Downton Abbey' Season Finale Recap: 'I Just Can't See a Happy Ending'

Show delivers one of the biggest shocks in TV history - but what will be left standing when the shockwaves disappear?

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley on 'Downton Abbey'
Courtesy of © Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE
February 17, 2013 10:45 PM ET

So. That happened.

Lots of other things happened, too, by the way. They kind of had to, seeing as how this movie-length episode (which originally aired in the U.K. not as the finale but as a traditional Christmas special some time later) had 90 minutes to kill before, uh, killing someone else in its final moments. The shame of it is that a lot of those other things were really fascinating and thoughtful and funny and sweet and sad, and all of them, of course, will be completely and justifiably ignored by everyone because of what happened in that final minute.

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At this point, enough big-ticket dramas have killed off their main characters that it's no longer a trend but rather just another tool in scripted television's storytelling arsenal. That's a wonderful thing if you believe, as I do, that there's no sensation quite as exciting as sitting down at the beginning of an episode of television with no clue whatsoever as to what you'll have seen, or even who will survive, by the time the closing credits roll an hour later. This is why it bugs me to no end when critics and comment-thread wiseguys dismiss viewers' concerns about spoilers: The order and rate at which a show reveals plot information, and the nature of how it's ultimately delivered, is every bit as valid an artistic consideration as shot composition or actor performance. Yes, it's true that shows and films that rise and fall on a single twist are the narrative equivalent of a knock-knock joke; great art can never really be spoiled. But it's no more childish and lame of a viewer to want to go into a show free and clear of information about what happens in it than it is to want to watch Lawrence of Arabia in all its 70mm glory on an enormous screen instead of on an old TV on your kitchen counter, where the fleshtones  are always a little too green no matter how you adjust it. You want to experience art the way that art was intended to be experienced. If you have it within your power to help that happen by way of what you do or don't write online, use that power for good, man.

(I say all this even though this episode was well and truly spoiled for me before I'd seen a single second of the season, not by some unthinking Downton superfan who'd torrented the British broadcasts– everyone I know who watched the show as it aired across the pond was admirably circumspect about the deets, for which I'm truly grateful – but thanks to an unfortunate Google search and PBS's mercenary decision to air the show months after its U.K. broadcast, keeping it off the crowded Fall Sunday schedule and letting it reign pretty much uncontested during the post-Christmas fallow period. Yep, I spoiled the season for myself while fact-checking character names and titles for the very first thing I wrote about the show here. The things I do for you people!)

But the big difference between Downton Abbey and pretty much all the other shows in which characters you'd thought were a permanent part of the landscape died before their time, from Game of Thrones to Boardwalk Empire to The Walking Dead to Breaking Bad (spoiler alert: on those shows, people die), is that those other shows' deaths were up to the writers. Whether they happened as part of a plan in place from the start or emerged from out-of-nowhere inspiration in the writer's room later on, these exits happened because the writers wanted them to. On Downton, Sybil and Matthew died because the actors playing Sybil and Matthew quit.

To paraphrase Daisy from earlier in the season, I never thought I'd feel sorry for an Emmy Award-winning member of the House of Lords, but you have to sympathize with Downton creator and one-man writing staff Julian Fellowes. Presented with the fait accompli of Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens' departures, he had to write Sybil and Matthew off the show somehow. Since he'd done such a tremendous job at tying them to the people they loved – family, spouses, and newborns alike – he really couldn't have them get divorces or move away. His hands were tied – around Sybil and Matthew's necks. 

Fellowes managed to weave Sybil's death into a pregnancy plot that began in Season Two. The remarkably unpleasant death scene itself felt like it should be taking place in Winterfell rather than Yorkshire, but it at least felt like an organic outgrowth of a long-simmering storyline. The death of Matthew Crawley, on the other hand, was a sudden-impact car crash figuratively as well as literally. You could read between the lines of all the lovey-dovey declarations he and Mary made during the season's back half, or you could treat Mary's bad-luck-inviting opening of her eyes during that rapturous kiss the night before their wedding as a curse rather than a character beat, but other than that, this came out of nowhere.

The sudden snipping of Matthew's thread hurt all the more because all season long, any time Matthew was on screen, the focus was on the future. He married Mary and worried about starting a family with her. He rescued Downton Abbey from the fallout of Robert's bad investments, was rewarded with an ownership stake, and worked to overhaul the Downton system so there'd be a future for it at all. He went to bat for the family's remaining rebels, Edith and Tom, and helped cover up the shenanigans of thoroughly modern Cousin Rose. All of this was just an outgrowth of the show's premise from its very first episode: Matthew Crawley is the future of Downton. Now he's its past. No wonder Fellowes delayed the inevitable until the last possible moment: It's as if he couldn't bear to say goodbye to who, and what, the show had been about for three seasons.

How and when Matthew died will cast a long shadow over the show, both in terms of its critical reception – the ugh-it's-just-a-soap crowd just received a huge cache of ammo, no background check required – and how it even functions as a narrative from here on out. The show already had a subtly but noticeably different and darker energy post-Sybil's death; it's tough to imagine what it will feel like now that the anchor of both its main romantic and political dramas is dead. Moreover, we'll have plenty of time to do exactly that, since Matthew's vacant eyes and bloodstained brow are almost the last thing we see before those closing credits role. Fellowes provided neither us nor the characters any time to process the shock within the show – the actual final image is Mary cradling their baby, completely oblivious to what's just happened to her husband and her life – leaving it entirely up to frantic Facebook posts and angry Twitter declarations and contentious recap comment-thread debates to hash out what happened and what it means. It's all anyone's gonna want to talk about. Hell, it's all I've talked about.

Don't let it be.

In thinking about this finale, I wonder if the tragedy that takes place in its final minutes is more instructive than it seems. If you've lead a life untouched by this sort of tragedy, I'm jealous. What I've learned from a life that isn't is that it's a fool's errand to try to make sense of tragedy, since the very nature of tragedy is that no sense can be made. Tragedy is a hole in sense. But if the hole doesn't suck you in, it can force you to pay more attention to where you're stepping around it.

So when I look at the 90 or so minutes of tonight's episode that didn't involve the untimely death of Matthew Crawley, I see the same remarkable and rigorously observed relationship exploration that's made the show a must-watch for me – relationship dynamics you simply don't see on shows where at least half of every couple secretly murders people for a living. In Mrs. Patmore and her sleazy suitor Joss Tufton, I see a man who "loves to be in love" and a woman delighted to give it a try herself, but more than a little relieved to discover she needn't leave the comfort of the life she's made for herself in love's absence after all. In Tom and Edna, I don’t just see a chick thirsty enough to put the girl in the "Mercy" chorus to shame, but two people who improbably find themselves on opposite ends of a class divide, and who jerry-rig a bridge back over it out of any emotional material they can find lying around– grief, pity, pride, shame, a need for affection, a need to be seen as worthy in the eyes of others, even the simple physical attraction one hot person feels for another – without ever really considering if it will be good for either of them to cross it once built.

In Susan and Shrimpy, the unhappy couple with the unfortunate names, I see Downton taking its customary expertise with long-term committed relationships and flipping it on its ear, showing us one in which the work of maintaining that relationship has totally failed, but the relationship itself staggers on like a zombie. (If there's been a simpler, sadder line about a broken marriage on TV recently than Shrimpy's resigned sigh of "We don't like each other," I haven't heard it; if a show's shown a more complex set of emotions than the ones Susan reveals in her final scene with Cora, loving her daughter enough to know that she also hates her daughter and that this is very bad for them both in the long run, I haven't seen it.)

And in Matthew and Mary themselves, I see a couple in love, depicted lovingly – a couple that knows its collective flaws and loves each other for them. "You think me nice," Mary says to Matthew after he uses that four-letter word to describe her, "but nobody else does. What makes you so sure I am?" Matthew reply at first seems like a non sequitur: "Because I've seen you naked, and held you in my arms." Well, yes, having observed what Lady Mary looks like with my own two eyes, I'm pretty sure that if I'd seen her naked and held her in my arms I'd think she was pretty nice, too. "And I know the real you," Matthew adds, completing the thought: Their physical intimacy is a proxy for all the glimpses and details of one another that they alone are able to appreciate.

Funnily enough, in a later conversation Matthew reverses his assessment of her entirely: "You are horrid, when you want to be." "I know," Mary responds, "but you love me, don't you." He does, of course. "Mine is the true Mary," he says in their last conversation. The "real you" he alone sees in their private moments doesn't go away when Mary chooses to be horrid. For Matthew, that's always the true Mary. Now that Matthew's gone, the question for Downton Abbey Season Four is whether the true Mary remains.

Last week: You're Out

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