Contains spoilers from first sentence.
Downton Abbey’s 2012 Christmas offering bordered on the bizarre, subjecting 7.3 million viewers to clumsily introduced (and swiftly departing) romances, unmotivated Bitchy-Maid-Wars and, of course, the ‘unexpected’ bumping-off of its central character – Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).
The overwhelming characteristic of this festively feature-length turkey was the linger. So. Much. Lingering. The lingering smiles which new maid Edna hurls towards Tom Branson number precisely 762, with further lingering scowls/looks of intense mistrust between ‘Shrimpy’ and Wife, as well as O’Brien and Doppelganger, not to mention the longing looks (lengthily documented, of course) to which Thomas subjects Jimmy. After nearly every line comes an unnecessarily lengthy shot of the actor’s face, in which they are apparently expected to express the sentiment of lines past and plotlines future, in some form of facial charades game.
Of course the climax of this episode is the car-crash (if you can pull the single car-crash from the surrounding car-crash which forms the rest of the episode. It’s like Inception. But with car-crashes.). The one none of us saw coming… Unless you’ve read any of this year’s interviews with Dan Stevens. Or any of the speculation over his reappearance in Series 4. In which case you were sat through the entire thing waiting for him to walk into the path of gunfire, fast-moving vehicles or a rogue and/or enraged stag. There was a moment in which the birth of his son inexplicably made Matthew feel like he’d ‘swallowed a box of fireworks’, where I thought they might have gotten really inventive.
The really surprising thing about the car-crash was its complete silence. We didn’t see a crash. We didn’t even hear one. We hear piano and violins. We see a leafy drive. We see a lucky escape for Dan Stevens. We see a spate of Facebook statuses railing against ITV’s lack of festive spirit.
The real measure of the absurdity of Matthew Crawley’s ‘sudden’ death is the fact that ITV felt the need to release an explanation for it: the plot failed so entirely that the production company actually needed to release a statement to explain the real-life reasons behind its decisions: Dan Stevens decided not to renew his contract.
In many ways (all ways?), the demise of Matthew Crawley can be seen as a mercy-killing, palpably on the cards since he was forced, by some extraordinary (and medically dubious) plotting, to miraculously leap out of his wheelchair last year. And this episode presented all of the reasons that an actor would choose to run for the (Highland) hills rather than renew a contract: dialogue more wooden than Bates’ leg and plotting less plausible than Matthew’s increasingly-yellow highlights (Compare series 1 to series 3. Mysterious.), not to mention ratings decreasing by nearly 1 million viewers since last year’s Christmas special.
Even this episode’s lingering (yes, more lingering) shots of historical trains and a whole new National Trust property didn’t prevent it from inviting its audience to ask, after 3 series, “Is this the end of Downton Abbey, the pinnacle of period porn?”