Can 'Downton Abbey' Survive After Another Major Death?
Can 'Downton Abbey' Survive After Another Major Death?
Morgan Glennon
Morgan Glennon
Contributing Writer, BuddyTV
That crashing sound you heard on Sunday was a million teacups being thrown at the television, as viewers no doubt stared agog at their screens after the last few minutes of Downton Abbey's season three finale. In a dark season filled with plenty of death (we still miss you Sybil!) the finale brutally killed off an even bigger fan favorite.

WARNING: SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT! If you haven't seen the finale and you don't want to know who kicked the bucket, stop reading now!

But can Downton Abbey really survive the death of Matthew Crawley? Matthew was one of the main characters of the show, a mainstay since the earliest episodes. Once a middle-class lawyer, Matthew was set to inherit the Downton Abbey estate. A lot of storytelling weight hinged on his acclamation to the idea of becoming an earl and the responsibilities of running a grand estate.

More importantly, however, a big chunk of the show was dedicated to his romance with the Crawley's eldest daughter Lady Mary. When Downton Abbey's second season began exploding in popularity, in both the UK and the US, it was thanks in part to the drama of Matthew and Mary's seemingly star-crossed romance.

By killing off Matthew, the show hasn't just removed a major character-- they've also killed off a major couple and important storytelling vehicle for the show.

For anyone who doesn't know, the backstage drama this season on Downton Abbey might have been even more interesting than what was happening onscreen. The blame for Matthew's untimely demise, for instance,  doesn't fall squarely on the shoulders of creator Julian Fellowes. Actor Dan Stevens decided to depart from Downton Abbey this season, effectively backing the show into a corner regarding how to efficiently write off his character.

Talking to UK's Daily Mail, Fellowes admitted he was loath to lose Matthew. "My thinking was if we had him for another three episodes he could have a foreign posting, but he wasn't prepared to do that."

Still, Fellowes has been quoted in a few articles with the opinion that Matthew's sudden ousting might have been a blessing in disguise. He's mentioned Lady Mary will take a more prominent role next season, as she jumps into the fray over the estate to be inherited by her son.

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More troubling though, he's mentioned Stevens might have done him a favor because, as he told the The Telegraph, "nothing is harder to dramatize than happiness". This attitude isn't new or revolutionary when it comes to television. There are tons of shows on TV that fear that old boogeyman, the Moonlighting curse, and thus try to keep romantic couples apart for as long as possible. But here's the thing: constant misery is no more interesting to watch than blissful happiness.

A surprising fact showrunners seem to constantly forget is that misery is not intrinsically more interesting than happiness. There are plenty of happy (and interesting!) couples dotting the TV landscape, from Friday Night Lights' Eric and Tami Taylor to Parks and Recreations' Leslie and Ben. If you swing the pendulum too far in either direction, the results aren't pretty. Why would you want to invest time and emotion into a show where the outcome is almost assuredly going to end in tears?

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This is especially true for Downton Abbey, which is at its core a sort of high-pedigreed comfort food. Downton Abbey is not Breaking Bad, and it shouldn't be. Are there not enough interesting historical and cultural avenues to explore without keeping characters in a constant state of overwrought drama?

For that matter, misery for miseries' sake does not make for particularly competent television. When shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men or even Parenthood deploy sadness, it's because these emotions are part of an overall narrative theme. Characters don't die on Mad Men, for instance, just to add some spicy drama.

Emotions should have a place and an impact on the story, not be thrown into the blender just to keep viewers from switching the dial. That's what sets apart high quality television meant to engage our brains and our hearts.

Losing Matthew and the main romance the show had established is, even with a sprawling cast, a huge blow. Whether you loved Matthew Crawley or hated him, he was an essential building block for many facets of the show.

But more troubling is Fellowes' attitude towards happily-ever-after. Happiness isn't boring, or at least it shouldn't have to be. Plenty of shows have tackled problems and yet still maintained a reasonably sunny disposition. I'm afraid Fellowes' attitude towards fictional happiness is part of a larger problem with the show's third season overall.

This season it sometimes felt like the Downton Abbey idea-well was running dry. Plotlines were rehashed and characters were introduced and shuffled out seemingly at random. The plot contrivances and soap opera theatrics felt a lot harder to stomach in season three, probably because the show was just more dour. I can accept Matthew magically jumping up from his wheelchair or fake Canadian cousin Patrick, but convenient piles of Lavinia-money and the return of Ethel suddenly became a much tougher pill to swallow.

Can Downton Abbey survive without Matthew? It won't be the same show, but it will go on. The rest of the cast is talented, including the divine Maggie Smith. Giving Michelle Dockery's Lady Mary an actual storyline next season will certainly help.

But the paper thin storylines throughout most of season three, combined with Fellowes belief that happiness can't be interesting, doesn't inspire a lot of hope.

What do you think? Do you think Downton Abbey can survive without Matthew? Were you angry at his death? Will you be watching next season? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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(Image Courtesy of PBS)