In the season finale of "Downton Abbey" broadcast Sunday, there were a few surprises as the Crawley family traveled to the Scottish Highlands for a vacation. The season-ending episode will have plenty of people talking both for the additions as well as the one major subtraction from “Downton Abbey.”
The third season of “Downton Abbey” has already seen the loss of Sybil Crawley, and while her husband, Tom Branson, is slowly getting adjusted to life at Downton with their newborn daughter, it seemed the season was going to wind down on a happier note following the tragedy. At the beginning of the episode, set one year after the previous episode and the cricket match, Mary Crawley is eight months pregnant with Matthew’s child and the family is preparing to go on vacation to Scotland to see the Lady Dowager’s niece, Susan, and her husband, the Marquess of Flintshire, as well as their wild-child daughter Rose.
The main conflict of last week’s episode was resolved tidily as Thomas gets promoted while Jimmy becomes first footman and it seems that order has been restored among the servants of Downton as Thomas takes command and seems to work alongside Jimmy and Alfred, although they do give each other distrustful looks. Mary’s voyage is of some concern -- another Crawley woman pregnant in the wake of Sybil’s death -- but she goes to the Highlands with the family.
At the Highlands, the Crawley family is on vacation and the season finale of “Downton Abbey” centers around four major events. Mary Crawley has to cut the trip short to deliver her baby. The servants go to a fair and it seems everyone is in love as Mrs. Patmore has a suitor, as does Isobel (Dr. Clarkson), and Ethel’s relationship with her editor continues as he goes to the Highlands to propose to her. At the end of the trip, Susan lets Rose stay at Downton Abbey with the Crawley family.
Back in Yorkshire, Mary Crawley delivers the baby and, much to the delight of everyone, it’s a boy, which means an heir to the estate. Matthew is elated, but this is where the finale episode of “Downton Abbey” becomes a topic of much conversation.
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The third season of “Downton Abbey” comes to an end with the death of Matthew. After much luck, including many heirs dying before him in the first season and receiving the inheritance in the third season, the end comes for Matthew Crawley after siring an heir. Unfortunately, this decision was forced due to Dan Stevens’ decision to pursue other acting interests, including roles on Broadway. With the actor not wanting to return for the fourth season, another main character exits “Downton Abbey” and season four will begin with the family mourning Matthew while the third season started with the wedding of Mary and Matthew.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Gareth Neame, the show’s producer, said that he and Julian Fellowes, “Downton Abbey” creator and writer, knew ahead of time of Stevens’ decision not to return and were able to plan for Stevens’ exit. For starters, British actors tend to work many different roles and are not tied to longer contracts for a series, unlike their American counterparts, notes Neame. Unlike television actors in America (think of Charlie Sheen or the cast of “Friends” or “Seinfeld”) actors on British television series may not get paid as much, so shorter characters are common, which can also mean unexpected ends for important characters. It is one of the reasons Sybil died as Jessica Brown Findlay has found herself on a new show and several movie roles.
Matthew’s death is not the end as there is room for new developments in the fourth season of “Downton Abbey.” Neame told EW, “We tend to have a different tradition which is why we hire actors for three years and then seek to make a new deal. In this case we weren’t able to retain Dan. But actually already I can say, as we’ve started production this week on the fourth season, that the exit of a character in a show like 'Downton' is actually a very positive thing because it’s how you keep story momentum going and make changes.”
Having Matthew leave, and Mary staying, would not have made sense. There was no other storyline that would have made sense to the audience, so the show’s creators were forced to kill off Matthew in a car crash.
Neame does give some hints for season four of “Downton Abbey.” Expect the focus to be on Mary, not just as she mourns but as she rebuilds and possibly finds a new love. Branson’s development will continue and Rose will act as a foil to the traditional ways of the estate and the family. There is no resolution between the British and the American premiere of the fourth season of “Downton Abbey,” but it’s still too early to tell if PBS may change their policy and air the fourth season at the same time.