Give the Grim Reaper a hand – he was the MVP of Downton Abbey's third season. When actors Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay decided to depart the BBC series that became PBS's prestige production here in the States, all hell broke loose – particularly when Stevens' pivotal character Matthew Crawley met his demise in a car crash during the final episode's final minute. Could a show like Downton, its appeal based so directly on painting an appealing portrait of a bygone era even while gently portraying its passing, survive the slaughter of two of its youngest, most vivacious and rebellious characters?
We're about to find out. Yes, Downton Abbey's fourth season has already aired in the UK in its entirety, and every plot twist is spoilable with a Google search. But if you're going in cold – and would the Dowager Countess want it any other way? – Season Three left you with some questions that need answers like Bates needs a walking stick.
For starters: Lady Mary and Tom Branson: Will they or won't they? Oh, come on – own it. So what if it's the soapiest possible storyline for a hot young widow/mom and a hot young widower/dad to find love once more with people to whom they're related through marriage? Downton distinguishes it from daytime television with gorgeous cinematography, precise performances and a genuine knack for exploring how long-term, basically happy relationships weather time, change and stress. What other show would you trust to get these two crazy kids together following the sudden, contractually obligated demises of Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil?
The next question is closely related (sorry): Cousin Rose: threat or menace? Remember that season of Saved by the Bell when Jesse Spano and Kelly Kapowski disappeared and suddenly Zack was all up in some Sam and Diane shit with a new girl in a leather jacket? If you do, it's only because it's the kind of thing referenced when a character people like leaves a show because the actor involved gets ambitious and everyone else is saddled with a replacement, and the spotlight is much more firmly on Cousin Rose than on the suitors set to fill Matthew's shoes given that she debuted in the same season that Sybil died. Is that leather-jacket Bayside babe's obscurity the fate that awaits the rambunctious, iconoclastic flapper cousin of the late, lamented Lady Sybil, who died in childbirth when actor Jessica Brown Findlay decided her time on Downton was up? Or will Rose (sorry again) bloom?
From a lady to gentleman: How does Thomas fit in now that he's out? For the longest time, Downton's smirking, sneaking footman was its primary villain, his alliance with the menacing maid O'Brien a real Cobra Commander/Destro duo. But when a relative's career trajectory depended upon it, O'Brien tried to take Thomas down by outing him – and failed, since basically everyone knew already and no one gave a shit. Indeed, Thomas wound up with a better gig after his closeted homosexuality was forcibly outed than he had before. With his partner-turned-enemy off the show, can Downton find a place for Thomas to reach his full potential – he's a natural romantic lead; his occasional villainy only enhances his appeal – while still remaining historically accurate to the restrictions placed on gay men of that time period?
Lord Grantham was surprisingly cool with Thomas's orientation. The next big question involves another potential challenge to Downton's straight/white status quo: How will the show handle its first major character of color? Cousin Rose's jaunt to a jazz club in London marked Downton's first glimpse of a not-white face since Mister Pamuk sexed Lady Mary up in the pilot. When actor Gary Carr steps on screen as Jack Ross, a singer from that same world, he'll be the show's first prominent black character. Will Downton, and its Tory House of Lords member/creator/writer Julian Fellowes, give the character a full-fledged arc or treat him like a very special episode?
The final question is also the biggest: So, uh. . . what is this show about now, anyway? The need for Lady Mary and Branson to find romantic replacements for their dearly departed has largely obscured the fact that Matthew was not just the show's romantic lead, but also its antagonist. If Robert Crawley was the voice of Downton's past, Matthew was the voice of its future. He was its heir, he helped secure its legacy by producing an heir of its own, he was the defender of its rebels like Edith and Sybil and Branson and Rose, he was an advocate for its modernization – he was, in short, the Luke Skywalker to Lord Grantham's exceedingly genteel Lord Vader. Will Branson's Hibernian brusqueness, Lady Mary's cool self-confidence, or some combination thereof provide an adequate replacement for the fallen son(-in-law)? Only time or a Tumblr search will tell.