Note: This review contains some spoilers about the third season of “Downton Abbey.”
For generations, Downton Abbey has been standing proudly on the Grantham estate in the picturesque English countryside, the mansion seemingly untouched by the passage of time. But take a peek inside the windows of the towering abbey, and you’ll see just how much the Crawley family has been impacted by change since we were first introduced to them in season one of the now wildly popular British period drama.
The wealthy Crawleys have had to face dramatic changes in society as they head into the 1920s: from rapidly developing technology, to economic uncertainty, to a shifting social structure. And they’ve also had to face personal tragedies, including some unexpected losses and painful goodbyes.
The third season of “Downton Abbey” finished airing last night on PBS, and to say that it was a shocker would be a little bit of an understatement. The Crawley family members have had their shares of ups and downs throughout the previous seasons, but this year, the show has had some deeply heartbreaking plot twists. The show runners made the risky decision to kill off not one but two of the show’s best-loved main characters, and some fans are feeling angry and betrayed. However, I don’t think this means “Downton Abbey” has “jumped the shark,” and I hope fans still will stick around for season four.
Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) were two of my favorite characters on “Downton Abbey,” and I was very sad when they died, especially since their deaths came in such traumatic ways. And if show runner Julian Fellowes’ decision to kill off both these characters had been an arbitrary one, I would have been much more upset. However, I think Fellowes did the best he could with the circumstances he was given.
When both Stevens and Findlay expressed an interest in leaving the show, Fellowes didn’t really have another option for dealing with their characters. I’m not a fan of recasting a new actor in a role; even if they could have found look-alike actors to replace Stevens and Findlay, it’s tough for fans to develop an emotional connection with different actors than the ones they’re used to. I also don’t think they could have explained Matthew and Sybil’s absences in a different way. They could have sent Sybil and her husband, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), back to Ireland permanently, but that would have meant we wouldn’t be seeing Leech’s character anymore either, and that would have made me sad. I also don’t think Matthew would leave Mary for an extended period of time, even if they’d sent him to America on a business trip or something like that.
I wish Stevens and Findlay would have stuck around for season four, which is rumored to possibly be “Downton Abbey’s” last, but I do understand their desire to pursue other projects. Filming a show like “Downton Abbey” is a huge time commitment. Season three contained a combined nine hours of footage, which is basically like filming six standard-length films in a row. I wish them luck in their future endeavors, though they will be missed at Downton!
So, what do these changes mean for the show? I suspect much of season four will center around Lady Mary and Branson trying to adjust to their new circumstances. Mary is in a unique position, now that she has just given birth to the future Downton heir. She no longer has the pressure to get married and have a baby to continue the Crawley family line, and I’d like to see her take a more active role in managing the Downton estate. I also hope that she will be able to learn to love again, though Dan Stevens’ kind, charming Matthew Crawley will be difficult to replace.
I’m also very curious to see what choices Branson makes in the next season. Allen Leech has done some great character development work this season, and it has been interesting to watch his evolving relationship with the Crawley family. At first Lord Grantham resented the fact his former chauffeur married his daughter, but after Sybil’s death in childbirth, the rift between Branson and the Crawley family has begun to heal. I hope to see a new love interest for Branson in season four, as well, though I’m not sure how they’ll handle it. Will the Crawleys let Branson fall in love with someone from his own class, or will they want him to pursue a girl from an upper-class family? Branson now seems to be caught between the two worlds, and he’ll likely have to make a choice between them next season.
Edith also has grown a lot this season, and I’ve gained a new respect for her character. I want her to have a happy ending, though she seems to be headed for more heartbreak by falling in love with a newspaper editor trapped in a similar dilemma to “Jane Eyre’s” Mr. Rochester.
Some surprising “downstairs” developments in season three have set up more options for drama, as well. One of the most interesting character arcs has been watching the scheming lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien and substitute valet Thomas Barrow slowly turn on each other. Though the two were “friends” and co-conspirators in the previous seasons, in season three they discover their interests no longer align, and they’ve been working to undermine each other all season. However, Thomas may have reached a turning point. Mr. Bates, a servant Thomas formerly treated very badly, and some of the other staff have shown Thomas kindness and compassion, and I think Thomas is genuinely making an effort to treat the other servants better than he used to.
Other characters likely will have to make some major decisions in season four. O’Brien could be campaigning for a new job that would take her overseas, and Daisy still is thinking about William Mason’s father’s offer to take over his farm someday. Will there be a romance between Dr. Richard Clarkson and Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley, and will Anna and Bates remain at Downton if they decide to start a family?
Although the season three finale still makes me feel sad, I am looking forward to season four, and I hope fans don’t give up on the show yet. The show still has a great cast, and it continues to be a lavish, highly-addictive drama with plenty of stories left to tell.
If you’re a fan of “Downton Abbey,” what were your thoughts on season three? Are you excited about season four, or do you wish the show had ended at season three with a happier ending? What plot developments would you like to see in season four?