Downton Abbey Recap: Unjust Deserts

Photo: Giles Keyte/Carnival Films
Downton Abbey
Episode Title
Parts Nine and Ten
Editor’s Rating

We knew this was going to happen. If we hadn’t already seen this moment, then we’d either read about it, or heard about it from a loose-lipped Downton fan, or speculated that it might occur once we learned who might be leaving Downton Abbey at the end of this season. Still, that didn’t stop our jaws from dropping with a chin-shattering thud during the final moments of Sunday’s finale, when

Matthew Crawley — love of Lady Mary’s life, repeated savior of Downton, giddy new father, oh, our dear, dear Matthew! — drove straight into the path of an oncoming truck that had nowhere to go on that sunny country road but right into Matthew’s roadster. As soon as the first hint of that speeding lorry appeared with less than two minutes of episode running time remaining, one could practically hear every PBS viewer in America shout, “Swerve, Matthew! SWERVE!” But it was no use. Within seconds, there it was: that awful, impossible-to-unsee final shot of Matthew, his crystalline eyes now vacant instead of shimmery, his ear overflowing with blood, his body lifeless among the leaves, all while his wife, not far away, held new life in her arms (a son — they finally had a baby, and a male heir to boot) while blissfully, ignorantly believing her beloved would be beside her again. If Sybil’s death elicited audible sobs and sniffles, this one had nearly the opposite effect. For a few moments, as those closing credits soberly crawled by, all that could be mustered was stunned silence.

Matthew, the Crawley most likely to embrace progress and anticipate events well before they occurred, was wiped out in a modern automobile, by something he didn’t see coming. If that doesn’t prove Downton’s oft-repeated point about how uncertain the future is, nothing does. God, it just sucked, sucked because Matthew was such a good man, beloved by his fictional family as well as the very real family of Downton Abbey fans. Plus, we only got to enjoy the fact that he and Mary were finally expecting a child for one measly, 90-minute episode before the new-parent, “I just swallowed a box of fireworks” joy got totally snuffed out.

And speaking of parenthood, can I just say: dear GOD, can’t anyone on this show get pregnant, give birth, and emerge from the experience unscathed? Lady Cora had a miscarriage and lost her baby (Her ladyship’s soap: Never forget); Sybil got eclampsia and died, leaving her little girl without a mother; and now this wee Crawley must make his way in the world with no dad. And I’m not even going to mention Ethel since she’s technically not a Crawley, though her terrible mothering situation certainly proves my point about the Downton Abbey Child Conception Curse.

As the Dowager Countess said, we don’t always get our just deserts. I get that. But really, would a spoonful of Splenda in the baby-making department be so much to ask?

Still, as tough and maddening as it was to endure, Matthew’s death was effective from a high-drama point of view. That ending was certainly the most gasp-inducing Downton Abbey closer of the series so far. It also certainly hangs us smack on the edge of a cliff as we wonder how Mary will survive this loss, as well as how Downton will go on without Matthew steering the ship and providing a much-needed buffer between Robert and Tom Branson, inside whom some semblance of a revolutionary surely still lurks. (Oh, and we also wonder: Without Sybil or Matthew, will we still care as much about any of this?)

It’s also a narrative turn that creator Julian Fellowes had to take since he clearly didn’t know what to do with Matthew and Mary when they weren’t fighting their obvious attraction to each other, arguing about money or struggling to start a family. At this point, Fellowes and the Downton writers either could have let them be smug marrieds for the remainder of the show’s run, or they could screw up everything for them. The fact that Stevens decided to depart post-season three only crystallized that choice, something Fellowes noted when he recently told the Telegraph: “Nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness.”

Indeed, happiness — and its habit of slipping away before we can even close our fists to grasp it — was a running theme throughout this episode, one set a year after the action of the previous episode and that sent half our ensemble to bagpipe-filled Scotland to visit Shrimpy (who really exists and, for the record, isn’t actually shrimpy!), his wife Susan and their jazz club-frequenting daughter Rose. They reside at Duneagle, otherwise known as Bizarro Downton, where the staff eats before work instead of after and, as we ultimately learned, Shrimpy is forced to surrender his estate rather than find salvation in the form of a son-in-law’s surprise-inheritance. As for the other half of our Downton gang, they all stayed home and got super-excited about going to a fair.

Among the excited fair-goers, surprisingly, were Dr. Clarkson and Isobel, who started to get a bit cozy in this episode — cozy enough for the good doctor to consider proposing to Isobel until she cluelessly dismissed the idea of ever getting married again. This plot development emerged from somewhere slightly left of left field considering that Clarkson never previously expressed interest in Isobel and actually got pretty irritated by her micromanaging ways on previous occasions. Yet somehow it made total sense for the two of them — both medically inclined, both strong-willed yet soft-spoken, both often taken for granted — to find a kindred spirit in the other. Let’s hope this possible partnership gets a second chance in season four, when Isobel will undoubtedly need an arm around her shoulder as she copes with the death of her only son.

Cousin Isobel wasn’t the only one entertaining thoughts of an engagement. Mrs. Patmore found herself being courted by Joss Tufton, the flirty new shop-owner from Thirsk who is, basically, the long-lost, ass-grabby cousin of Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter. For a brief moment, the attentions of Tufton turned our favorite smart-alecky dumpling-maker into a giddy young lass prone to buying girlish pink frocks and daydreaming about strolling by the Ferris wheel with a stick of feathery cotton candy in one hand and Tufton’s sweaty palm in the other. But after Mrs. Hughes spotted Tufton at the fair fondling the parts of any lady he could find as well as, and I quote, “chewing the mouth off some poor woman,” she gently told Mrs. Patmore that, well, this guy might not be as enamored of her as she thought.

At first the cook seemed genuinely heartbroken, which made me want to cry while simultaneously yelling at Daisy because, Jesus, if Patmore’s this upset, someone’s got to pick up the yelling-at-Daisy slack. But then she removed her hands from her face and bluntly announced: “I’ve never been so relieved in all my life.” At which point I rose from my sofa and started a slow clap for Mrs. Effing PATMORE, ladies and gentlemen, a woman who, as portrayed by Lesley Nicol, has been consistently brilliant all season long, ever since she asked Daisy in episode one if she’d swallowed a dictionary. You know what, Mrs. Patmore? You actually do look like a frolicker, in the most delightful, non-slutty way possible. AND I LOVE YOU FOR IT.

Now then, where were we? Ah, yes. People not getting exactly what they deserve. Yeah, poor Edith officially-officially found love with Michael the newspaper editor, who basically loitered outside Duneagle until the Crawleys let him in and allowed him to try to get in the family’s good graces. But when Michael declared his Edith devotion to Matthew — oh man, remember when he was still alive? — he suggested that Michael gracefully dump Edith since Michael couldn’t possibly marry her, due to his already having a mentally ill wife. Edith, however, valiantly refused to be dumped twice in the same season and expressed a desire to pursue the romance regardless of the circumstances. It’s unclear whether this is happy news. But I’ll go with happy since Edith seems to realize that she’d better embrace love while she can because it can disappear faster than a codger can dash away from an altar.

Meanwhile, Tom — the only “upstairs” member of the family who didn’t venture to Duneagle — fought off the advances of Edna, the hot new maid who made it her life’s mission to seduce the widower in an effort to prove that his soul is still with the help even though his body resides with the privileged. That effort didn’t succeed, and it only made Tom cry about Sybil, which made all of our hearts hurt. It also got Edna fired, which is fine. Contrary to my assertion last week that Rose is the most random character in recent Downton Abbey memory, it turns out that, nope, it’s Edna. (Rose, by the way, will be residing at Downton again once her parents leave the glens of Scotland for India. Clearly with Sybil gone and Tom in subdued mode, the place will need some sort of rebellious, devil-may-care figure to prompt Lord Grantham eye-rolls during those endless dinners.)

But tears and terminations weren’t the only items on the agenda in this week’s Downton Abbey. There were some moments of genuine joy, like the sight of a giggly Anna dancing at the Gillies Ball while beaming at her besotted Bates; or of drunken Molesley pirouetting at the same ball while yipping like a chihuahua; or of Thomas and Hot Jimmy becoming newspaper-reading chums after Thomas voluntarily got his butt whooped on Jimmy’s behalf (Thomas, so help me, your love for this man continues to convince me you actually have become kind and decent); or of O’Brien realizing that at Bizarro Downton, there is actually a second O’Brien. Her name is Wilkins and she also has no sense of humor and a severe hairdo and no qualms about seeking clandestine vengeance. The only problem with Wilkins is that, as similar as she is to O’Brien, she’s still not O’Brien, which means she can fiendishly spike as many drinks as she likes and she still won’t win. Because O’Brien always wins … unless someone mentions some stuff about soap. Then, she’s kinda screwed.

As enjoyable as much of this was, however, surely none of it warmed the hearts of the Downton faithful as much as this: the image of Carson holding a baby. Seriously, when he picked up little Sybil Junior and cooed, “What’s the matter with you? Let’s have a little chat about it,” did you not want to wrap your arms around that conservative old prisspot and just snuggle? Oh, it was hard not to want that.

And it’s hard not to think about how heartbroken Carson will be when the news of Matthew’s death and Mary’s loss reaches his ears. Despite the uplifting sight of tuxedoed butlers cradling infants, Downton Abbey ultimately drops us off at the end of season three in a bleak spot, just as it seemed to be leading us to a hopeful place, one where Robert realized the degree to which Matthew saved Robert from himself. I can’t say I’m surprised, really. After three seasons, this show has told us — directly, via the Dowager Countess, and also metaphorically, over and over again — that people rarely get those so-called just deserts, regardless of their wealth and status. According to the Downton credo, all one can do in the face of such harsh reality is be as British as possible about the whole thing, to bear the pain with dignity and grace and a refusal to use the word prostitute in polite company.

But per Lord Grantham’s monologue in which he wondered “what I’ve done to deserve” what turned out to be a fleeting sense of satisfaction, this episode also emphasized the importance of reflecting on life’s blessings, to realize how good you’ve got it in the exact moment when you’ve got it good.

As soon as the collision happened, many viewers may have flashed back to one of the last things Mary said to her husband, just after he told her how much he adores her: “I’ll remind you of that next time I scratch the car.” Personally, I flashed back to something Matthew said to Mary two episodes ago: “I will love you until the last breath leaves my body.”

Matthew knew then that he had already gotten his just deserts. And as far as loving his Lady Mary until that last breath left him … well, there’s no doubt about this: the man kept his word.

And those, I’m afraid, are my final words about Downton Abbey season three.