Masterpiece Theatre’s ‘Downton Abbey’: Why This Season Could Be A Necessary Game-Changer
By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist
Whether we like it or we don’t (we don’t), tonight marks the third season finale of Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey.
As with every season, this year has been an emotional rollercoaster revolving around the estate’s upstairs and downstairs tenants, and it will be hard to say goodbye.
By now, many of you have most likely seen tonight’s closer, which aired as the 2012 Christmas Special in the U.K. If not, then you’ve probably at least heard rumblings about the episode.
But fear not, blissfully ignorant viewers. Although I will allude to a twist taking place tonight, I won’t blatantly spell it out. However, beware of any pieces you may put together as well as the comments section.
Following last year’s mediocre season, Downton Abbey had a lot to prove this go-around: Would it live up to the hype of the first installment or be as disappointing as the second?
Luckily, the third chapter fell somewhere in between the two, as some storylines worked beautifully while others fell flat (if I hear one more conversation about the estate and how it will be managed, I’m going to lose it).
This year, creator and writer Julian Fellowes got back to the basics. Instead of focusing on such big events as World War I or the 1918 flu pandemic, he let the characters take the lead — and the show is all the better for it.
He also seemed to take a page from AMC’s Mad Men, mostly putting signs of the time in the background instead of center stage. Last week’s shock of seeing Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) in a speakeasy-type establishment was a welcome one, showing — instead of telling — the audience that there is a quickly evolving world outside of Downton.
However, the most memorable plot of the season is certainly the death of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Although this was a big event, it was a character-driven one that reverberated throughout the entire estate. Without it, we wouldn’t have witnessed Thomas’ (Rob James-Collier) touching breakdown, the growth of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) or probably the best Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) scenes of the series (this one will win Smith another Emmy).
Sybil was my favorite Downton Abbey character, and I’d rather have her be a part of the series than not. At the same time, because she was so liked by viewers, it made her death all the more shocking and heartbreaking — and it was exactly what the drama needed.
There have been other wonderful moments this season, including Matthew and Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) wedding, but Sybil’s departure brought Downton Abbey back to its season one greatness. It clarified that the show isn’t afraid to take risks and can still pull off dramatic moments without spilling over into melodrama.
Sybil’s death also brought the upper and lower class worlds and the audience together in a way the series hasn’t managed before this year — it was a sadness that transcended time, class and TV screens, which is rare to find and successfully execute.
Despite this, when discussing Sybil’s death to PEOPLE’s Lesley Messer and Stephen M. Silverman, Fellowes “believes that the public is sophisticated enough to know ‘that when Sybil dies or when [another character, whose identity is being concealed] dies, it is because the actor wanted to leave [the series]‘ – rather than anyone’s dying just for the sake of the plot.”
Fellowes adds, “So, however sad it is, and we’re all sad, it isn’t a question of anybody being killed off in that way … They would both be in the series till the end of it, if it was up to us.”
In an interview with Hannah Furness of The Telegraph, Fellowes says, “I’m rather amused by the idea that these plot decisions are taken by producers and writers rather than the actors. In truth, they are taken entirely by the actors.”
Fellowes’ stance on the shocking events of this season and the finale are troubling, and without the actors’ decision to leave, it makes one wonder what this season would’ve been like: Would Fellowes have kept playing it safe, and would season three feel more like season two?
Sure, actors can shape plots, but that doesn’t mean they always should. As a showrunner, risks need to be made, and Fellowes is hopefully sophisticated enough to know that he has ultimate control over what audiences see on the screen.
Fellowes would be wise to take another page from Mad Men‘s book: Characters, like people in life, come and go. If Fellowes hung on to every person that’s entered Downton, it would be too much story to handle — and I don’t think many more people could fit in the yearly cast picture.
Luckily, he has learned to let go of minor characters, such as season one’s Gwen (Rose Leslie) and (seemingly) season two and three’s Ethel (Amy Nuttall). But he shouldn’t be hesitant to axe some of the major players.
Tonight’s twist will be another punch in the gut, and it will likely drive some viewers away. However, it’s pushing Fellowes out of his comfort zone and making for riveting TV.
Let’s just hope that the backlash from the ending won’t make Fellowes stick to the status quo next season. Taking leaps of faith and trusting the audience to follow causes series to stand out from others, and I’d hate for Downton Abbey to get left behind in its tired ways.
Instead, tonight’s departure is a chance for Downton Abbey to refresh and go in a new direction — that was what the 1920s were all about anyway, right?
Are you excited for tonight’s season finale? Let me know in the comments!
Tags: Allen Leech, AMC, Amy Nuttall, Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey, Elizabeth McGovern, Hannah Furness, Jessica Brown Findlay, Julian Fellowes, Laura Carmichael, Lesley Messer, Mad Men, Maggie Smith, Masterpiece Theatre, Michelle Dockery, Rob James-Collier, Rose Leslie, Stephen M. Silverman, The Telegraph