Downton Abbey rule number one: If a baby is born, the producers will kill off the best character in the show.
Indeed, fans saw this play out Sunday, Feb. 17 during Downton Abbey’s two-hour season finale, when Edwardian heartthrob Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) died tragically in a car crash, having just parted from his wife and brand new baby boy. And let’s not forget what happened to Lady Sybil, who died of eclampsia immediately after giving birth to a baby daughter. Hopefully, there will be no more childbirths during Season Four, otherwise we’ll be saying goodbye to more and more beloved characters.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: Let me first give a brief overview of the hit UK export that is Downton Abbey. Set in the late Edwardian era on a fictional county estate in Yorkshire, England, Downton Abbey follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. The Crawley household consists of patriarch Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his wife Cora, along with their three daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil. Often popping in for afternoon tea is the Earl’s mother, the Dowager Countess (Professor McGonagall/Maggie Smith), and leading the household staff are Carson, the lovably austere butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the down-to-earth housekeeper. Recent events include Lady Sybil’s death after giving childbirth and the marriage of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, who is a distant relative of the Crawley clan and conveniently the “entail,” or sole inheritor, of the Downton Estate (due to lack of male heirs in the Earl’s immediate family).
Believe it or not, these individuals hardly account for a quarter of the recurring characters that appear on Downton Abbey, especially if the myriad staff members and posh friends of the Crawley family are considered. But perhaps this complexity, this intricate web of characters, all of whom exist and interact within a bounded, hierarchical class structure, is what makes Downton Abbey so compelling to watch. Even more so, following the Great War, the story is set during a time in which the old social order was slowly disintegrating in the wake of a rising capitalist class, making these cross-class exchanges all the more tense. This pivotal transition into modernity is made clearer by the underlying irony that drives the series: The entail, an ancient law designed to ensure property rights for the landed aristocracy, designates Matthew, a bourgeois professional, to be sole inheritor of the Downton estate. In short, the entail betrays the Earl’s family and bequeaths the estate to an unknown member of the middle class.
But let’s get back to the shocking season finale. Other than Dan Stevens’s desire to leave Downton and pursue other projects, what else could Matthew’s death mean? During the season finale, the Earl of Grantham finally came to the realization that Matthew’s practical business skills were better suited for the management of Downton than his own qualifications as a well-bred landlord. In other words, the Earl had finally and officially bestowed the management of his estate upon his son-in-law. What will happen now that the potential savior of Downton Abbey, the harbinger of modernity, Matthew Crawley, is gone?
Well, now that Mary has ensured a male heir for the estate, perhaps Matthew’s death, though utterly tragic, will offer an opportunity for Lady Mary and Lady Edith to finally take control of their birthright, to transcend the directive of the entail and assume a de facto involvement in the running of Downton. After all, the times are a-changing, and what Downton needs is not the traditional landlords for rescue but fresh faces. And if these are to be female faces, then all the better and more refreshing!