As its new season gets begins, Downton Abbey has reached the point of its natural demise. Sadly, it will continue to stagger across our screens in zombie-like confusion for another couple of years, until the clichés which have begun to creep in are all that remain.
Everyone who follows the series knows by now that Matthew is killed in a motor vehicle accident at the end of the 2012 Christmas Special. If you didn’t know that, you should have.
Dan Stevens (Matthew) has been saying for months that he would not continue with the series into Season Four. Since he was alive and well at the end of Season Three, he had to be bumped off in the Christmas Special. The original heir having been killed on the Titanic, another boating accident was out. Spanish Flu carried off Matthew’s fiancée, Lavinia Swire, so sudden illness was out. An unlikely accident on the estate or a shooting mishap were possibilities, but perhaps a bit too clichéd. Look for these later in the series. That left a train accident or a car crash. A train accident is a bit heavy-handed if all that is required is the demise of a single character, so a car crash sufficed.
What else? Well, bother about the succession occupied a considerable part of the first two seasons. That couldn’t be raised again without risk of tedium, so Matthew and Mary have to have a baby before Matthew is disposed of. That is as much as I knew before I watched the 2012 Christmas Special.
Now I know I was right, and feel terribly smug. There is nothing to blame Baron Fellowes for in all this. Once characters have been introduced and plotlines developed, these necessarily impose limits on future stories, if those stories are to have any credibility. You could not have aliens landing in Downton Abbey’s vegetable garden in the middle of Season Four, for example. Less dramatically, you can’t have Cora running off with Carson.
In a chronological series, one in which the flow of time and historical events play a major part, the boundaries within which the story must run become narrower and narrower. This means any such series has a natural end point. Beyond that point, all that is left are events so much out of character that they are unbelievable, or entirely predictable developments like Matthew’s demise. Once this happens, the predictable soon descends into cliché.
With Matthew’s death, Downton Abbey crossed this line. And for this, we are entitled to blame Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey should have ended with the cricket match at the end of Series Three. By continuing, Fellowes allows a masterpiece of British television drama to become what some people said it was from the beginning: EastEnders in dress-up.
Peter Wales is a former Anglican clergyman who now runs an IT consultancy business on Kangaroo Island in South Australia