Friday, September 27, 2013

Downton Abbey: Seven Reasons We'll Miss Matthew Crawley

We’ve just finished watching the third series of Downton Abbey. We’ve got months to go before we can see the fourth series (just now airing in the UK; not to air in the US till January, and even later for the DVD release we’ll need to wait for) so I figure that gives me plenty of time to muse about characters we’ll miss.

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you no doubt know that actor Dan Stevens, who has played Matthew Crawley for the first three series, decided not to renew his contract for the fourth season. I can only imagine the headache this caused series creator and writer Julian Fellowes, who somehow had to negotiate series 3 knowing what he was going to have to do at the end of it, and how unhappy that was going to make the show’s many fans. If you don’t know precisely what happened at the end of series 3 and you don’t want to be spoiled, read no further. From here out, if you’re still reading, I’ll assume you know or don’t mind knowing.

My goodness, we’re going to miss Matthew. In trying to figure out why I felt so terribly disappointed and saddened by his exit, I realized it wasn’t just that he was a likable character who had been at the heart of the show since the beginning. His character and his character arc were tied up in many things. Here are seven reasons I think we’ll especially miss Matthew Crawley:

1)      The romantic chemistry he shared with Mary.  These two really did have chemistry, but it was more than chemistry that made their love for each other seem so luminous. Matthew brought out the best in Mary. Simply put, he knew how to melt the porcupine prickles around her heart. In series three, after they finally came together and wed (following plenty of ups and downs in the first two series) there was something especially sweet about the ways they realized they were good for each other. More than once, Mary alluded to the fact that Matthew was the only person who truly saw her as a good person, and more than once, Matthew alluded to the fact that it was because he knew her best – helping her gently understand that the person he saw and loved was who Mary really was deep-down. I hope that Mary’s unfolding understanding of herself will continue as she matures through grief and motherhood. I also hope she will remember the laughter and kindness she shared with Matthew and maybe try to share them more with others.

2)      The levity he brought to the table. Sometimes quite literally the table – that all-important gathering place for the aristocratic Crawley clan. Matthew was able to use his outsider status to help them thaw out a bit, but more than that, he had a sprightly way of laughing at himself and others that lightened up the family. A raised eyebrow, a slight smile, a self-deprecating remark – those were Matthew’s usual trademarks. There was one scene in an episode of series 3 that made me laugh aloud, when Matthew, alone with Mary in their room, dropped onto the bed with loud sigh over some bit of charged aristocratic drama that had just unfolded downstairs. Mary was sitting primly before her mirror, touching up her hair, and here’s Matthew flopping onto the bed like a fish, letting out a gusty sigh. It cracked me up.

3)      His partnership with Robert and Tom.  This was just starting to coalesce and I will miss seeing its development. Robert (the Earl of Grantham) has had such a hard time coming to grips with the need to modernize the management of the estate. He had come to a grudging acceptance of the fact that he needed to work with the newer generation and their ideas – his two young sons-in-law. Matthew’s outsider status, as the distant solicitor cousin set to inherit, seemed dwarfed by Tom’s outsider status as Irish nationalist chauffeur who dared to marry the Earl’s youngest daughter, but nevertheless, neither grew up an English aristocrat. That grudging acceptance was turning into real respect for what each young man could bring to the partnership.

Robert’s eye-opening conversation with his Scottish cousin Shrimpy, whom he discovered (in the final episode of series 3) was losing his estate due to mismanagement and a lack of courage regarding modernizing, was interestingly timed. I’m glad we had a chance to hear Robert tell Cora how much he had come to appreciate Matthew’s contributions, but I’m sad he never had a chance to tell Matthew himself. And I’m really curious to know how Robert and Tom will work together without Matthew there to act as the gracious but stubborn buffer between them. Once again, Matthew was really good at seeing the best in people – in his old-fashioned, sometimes stuck-in-his-ways father-in-law, and in his hotheaded, still often uncomfortable-in-this-world brother-in-law. They will miss him sorely. I have some ideas how I would move this scenario forward as a writer, but I have no idea where the writer will actually go.

4)      His long-awaited and newfound joy in fatherhood. Matthew was so excited to become a daddy at long last. He radiated that joy. It is heartbreaking that he only ever saw his child one time, and that he will not be there to see his son grow up.

5)      His close relationship to his mother. Poor Isobel. She tends to get a little overlooked amidst all the flashier characters on the show, but I really love Isobel. And one thing I know for sure is how much Isobel loved and respected her only son. She helped him navigate the unexpected inheritance by moving with him into a world that she isn’t entirely comfortable in herself, and she’s not let that world change who she is at the core, continuing on her outspoken, forthright way. I worry about how Isobel will navigate her own grief over Matthew’s passing…most likely, she will stuff it. Then again, this could be an opportunity for the writers to let her character really grow. Is it possible she might rethink Dr. Clarkson’s almost-proposal? And how will she and Mary relate now that Matthew is gone…how much will Isobel want to be involved in her grandson’s upbringing?

6)      His encouragement of Edith. This one feels tiny in comparison to the others, but I’ll still miss it. Matthew has been a stalwart champion and a real confidante for Edith. (Among other things, I’m pretty sure he was the only member of the family who knows that Edith is in love with a married man with a mad wife in the attic. OK, not the attic, but you get what I mean.) Edith doesn’t get close to many people, but Matthew was someone she really trusted.

7)      The way his presence on the show constantly reminded us of the story’s beginnings. It was the sinking of the Titanic, with the heir on board, that drove Matthew to Downton in the very first episode, and it was his coming that “unsettled” this aristocratic little hamlet from the start. You could say that Matthew dropping into their lives was like a rock thrown into a puddle, and the ripples have been moving out ever since. I’ll miss seeing those ripples continue to expand, and I’ll miss the ways the show might have been able to do some neat “full-circle” kind of writing if he’d stayed with it.

And I could have added an eighth: he can’t come back. I really wonder, did his exit have to be so entirely final? Could they not have talked the actor into the possibility of occasional appearances and worked creatively around the absences? Maybe not, but oh, I wish they’d tried.


Martha said...

Beth, these reasons for missing Matthew are spot on!! I have been so sad ever after watching the last episode of season 3, and could hardly wait for you to see it so that I could benefit from your ability to put feelings and thoughts into writing!

Beth said...

Marthy, I had a feeling you could relate to this list! Matthew really was a wonderful character, and in many ways he felt like the "glue" that held a lot of disparate elements together on this show. It's going to be fascinating (sad, but fascinating) to see them solider on without him.

Erin said...

An excellent tribute to a wonderful character. He really did center the show and add so much to it. It will be very interesting to see how they proceed without him.

I don't envy screenwriters when they have to figure out how to work with these sorts of unintended departures. This was the explanation I read from the executive producer:

“We weren’t really faced with an alternative storyline, because I think audiences would not have accepted Mary and Matthew becoming estranged,” Gareth explains. “It was too big a journey that the audience had been on with this relationship. The idea that he would go off on the journey and she wouldn’t go with him, or the idea that he would leave her or she would leave him, I think that would have been so disappointing and unbelievable to an audience. The only course open to us was that the character had to die.”

I'm trying to decide if I agree with that, but it certainly is an understandable thought.

Beth said...

Erin, I think I saw that quote or one similar to it, and I've been wrestling with it too. On the one hand, I agree that Matthew suddenly disappearing (for any reason he could help) would seem very strange. On the other hand, his responsibilities with the estate being what they are, I could see some plausible reasons for travel that one could come up with...and given the way the show plays with time (and zooms through so much of it!) I think some creativity could be brought to bear on frequent absences. I guess that would have been contingent on Dan Stevens being willing to come back for at least periodic appearances though, and I gather he wasn't.

This was not only final, it was abrupt -- which I think I struggled with even more. I still think the writing on this one could have been handled better, but I'm also still thinking through how I might have approached it. :)