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Feature — “Downton Abbey”: If Lady Sybil’s Death Didn’t Kill You, You’ll Survive This, Too [Spoiler Alert - Video]

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The makers of Downton Abbey have already moved to console devastated viewers about the “untimely and tragic death” of character Matthew Crawley, after an outpouring of furious complaints about the Christmas special. Viewers complained it was “travasty”, a “tragedy” and an “outrage”, with some saying the ending had “ruined their Christmas”. The makers of the programme yesterday released a statement explaining the decision, reassuring fans the death was the only credible exit for the heir to Downton. [UK Telegraph, December 2012]

WHEN LADY SYBIL died in childbirth, every girl I talked to was in a state of shock, grief and horror at the harshness of “Downton Abbey’s” plot line. Last night’s finale made many “Downton Abbey” watchers come close to a dead faint.

As you may know, British and American audiences are seeing it all play out in different time, but the reactions are mirror images of one another. Slate.com explained earlier this year in an interview with PBS programming boss Beth Hoppe.

Beth Hoppe: This is a question we’re looking at carefully, and it’s a really complicated issue. Where we have Downton now–and have had it for the last two seasons–in January, it’s done incredibly well. It has turned a lot of people into addicts, so we understand people’s feelings, but it gives us an opportunity to promote Downton properly, to not be head-to-head against the fall premiere schedules on the networks. And our version is slightly different, so there are editorial concerns–ITV is a commercial network, so we have to plug up the holes and make our version. We are looking at it for the future, but we don’t want to do anything that will hurt Downton. We have found an audience that still comes to it, even though it is several months later. We think this is the best season yet, and the buzz is amazing. We don’t know that we could build that buzz in the fall. If we see evidence that we’ve hurt the show beyond what we read in the press–if people are abandoning it for any reason–we’ll have to re-evaluate for future seasons.

“Downton Abbey’s” presence perfectly fits as the bookend to Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, one all tied up and corseted in protocol and British stiff upper lip masking of emotions, the other all untied and nakedly exposing every pulsating feeling. Any lip biting in the provocative erotica a precursor to the real thing that makes almost anyone else’s relationship sex life feel pedestrian, while sex on the PBS melodrama is more or less a miracle seen well out of sight and never has a happy ending.

American audiences, TV and book readers, love the two extremes, forever caught between angst and honest sex where pleasure is concerned. That Fifty Shades and Downton were written by Brits is an interesting footnote in an American universe that depicts sexuality with fear, unless you’re watching “Scandal” or perhaps “True Blood.”

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The best thing to do if you haven’t seen the show is to buy the DVD collection, which not only gives to PBS, but also encourages dramatic series like “Downton Abbey.” Though, it’s certain the series isn’t for everyone, especially if exaggerated plot contortions isn’t your thing.

“I think it was harder for the people who had to react to me getting out of the chair,” says Stevens, with a grin. “That was a particularly strange point in the narrative. I think there were some justifiable criticisms of series two and its pace. I think from what I have seen, series three has been a lot stronger. But from the actor’s point of view all the bombs and the mud and everything were great to film and I had a great time.” [UK Telegraph]

But the show should at least be appreciated for the acting alone, because of what plots the actors have to help unfold. Oh, if not for Dame Maggie Smith’s one-liners one wonders where a viewer could deposit emotion the calamities bring out in us all. Dame Maggie’s dialogue frequently requires stopping each episode, rewinding and then reviewing, because there hasn’t been a character played with such brilliance on PBS, let alone American network TV, ever. Dame Maggie regularly delivers people to tears and wails of ear piercing laughter, I have no doubt, because that’s what has often happened at our house.

Watching any melodramatic recurring production also requires viewers to understand that actors have their own paths that go beyond the characters they play, with fame offering the best of them the opportunity all artists dream of experiencing: choice to exploit their artistry through other creative adventures. Of course it would have been easier if both characters Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley would have wanted to stay, but Michelle Dockery, and Dan Stevens, wanted a vibrant artistic life, which inevitably means growing and taking advantage of new opportunities that come when you’re introduced to a worldwide audience and you become a star, with is particularly true with Stevens, who has been playing on Broadway with Jessica Chastain.

So take heart, Downton fans, and get ready for what’s to come, which will include a wild ride into the roaring 20s, as well as Lord Grantham growing up after learning that if he hadn’t taken Matthew’s advice Downton Abbey would be no more.

At least Thomas has made a new friend in Jimmy, both accepting the [ahem] situation, which is a bright light in what ended the third season as a heartbreaker, though nothing compares to the death of Lady Sybil. That was a stark reminder of how dangerous childbirth once was for women, which people today have forgotten.

So long, Matthew. [...and we await to see Dan Stevens in a Hollywood film.  Right, ladies?]

So long, Matthew. [...and we await to see Dan Stevens in a Hollywood film. Right, ladies?]

There will be drama emerging from Matthew’s death, as Dockery’s Mary will have to grapple with widowhood and raising the heir on her own (with the help of a fleet of servants), and his passing opens the door to a future romance for Mary. Season 3 had all of the Crawley girls paired off–Mary and Matthew, Sybil and Branson (Allen Leech), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst)–and the deaths in Season 3 (each due to the actor wishing to depart the series, it should be noted) do allow for the possibility of future romantic entanglements, while Rose allows the show entry to the Bright Young Things era of the 1920s. – ‘Downton Abbey’: Why Last Night’s Season Finale Has Fans Seeing Red

Watch Downton Abbey Season 3, Episode 7 on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

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